Interesting times

Last week’s vicious attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, an unarmed policewoman responding to a traffic accident and a kosher supermarket have reignited the debate about freedom of speech around the world, and perhaps most intensely here in France. The hashtag #jesuischarlie, taken up by millions and sometimes turned into #noussommestouscharlie, morphed from being a sympathetic identification with the murdered editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo to a defiant expression of the right to free speech. The analysis and discussion surrounding the issue has been intense and unrelenting. Every intelligent French talk show (and there are a few) and many news broadcasts have tried to make sense not only of how and why the terrorists carried out their murderous rampage, but what the long-term effects will be for France. In the aftermath, a crackdown on those who have expressed their agreement with the terrorists’ actions has resulted in at least fifty arrests, and one unfortunate Facebook poster has been swiftly sentenced to four years in prison.

I pasted a #jesuischarlie poster on my car window. In the hours and days after the slaughter, it seemed like the best way to share my horror and sadness, to declare that I identified with the mood of despair and defiance that took over the country. The media were full of it, and those who were indifferent to the fate of the seventeen victims or of the opinion that what Charlie Hebdo put on its covers was in poor taste didn’t get much airtime.

Charlie Hebdo has become the world’s darling. An initial print run of the first edition to appear after the killings was fifty times its usual number. A second printing has nearly doubled that. It sold out in minutes all over France, and was distributed in countries who had never previously heard of it. The cover features a turbaned, bearded individual who we are supposed to understand is Mohammed, a tear leaking from one eye, holding a Je suis Charlie sign, with the words “All is forgiven” above his head and is brilliant in its defiance without being gratuitously vulgar in the way that I think many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were.

It isn’t easy to say that you thought some of the work of Charlie’s cartoonists tasteless and offensive without edging dangerously close to an kind of unspoken ‘it’s not like there weren’t warning signs, so why did they…?’ Nobody other than an Islamist terrorist would believe that their caricatures of a the Prophet deserved an execution. But I have to wonder what the point is of mockery for the sake of it, which is how I see as the sole motivation behind some of the cartoons published in CH over the years. (Disclosure: I was vaguely aware of the magazine’s existence, but had never bought it. Since then I’ve looked at a lot of their cartoons online).

There’s been some criticism in the French press of the way American and British media have avoided showing Charlie Hebdo’s illustrations, with faintly sneering disapprobation of their perceived cowardice. A British news announcer, blindsided during an interview with a French journalist who briefly held up the cover of the latest Charlie issue before the camera cut away, immediately apologised to viewers who might have been offended by what they had just seen. This incident was probably widely reported everywhere, with some of the same sarcastic glee expressed by the French.

I’ve gone back and forth on this whole thing in discussion with my husband, mostly, and my French-born daughter, who initially declared herself to be Charlie, then disengaged. Depending on who I’m reading or listening to, I might agree that freedom of speech should be absolute, other than in specific cases such as uttering threats or slander. The next day, I’m leaning away, to a point of view more like, ‘yeah, but let’s just treat each other more respectfully, and see relentless mockery for what it is in the playground – bullying.’ I don’t pretend to have an intellectual or historical perspective on satire, and am more inclined to see it in the same utterly subjective way I and countless others view art: I know good stuff when I see it.

I’ve learned that France law already restricts free speech to a degree that would be unthinkable in the US, and there’s a risk that restrictions will be broadened. According to a law professor in Poitiers who was quoted in this article, a hypocrisy exists in how aggressively legislation addresses anti-Semitic speech, but is not necessarily as protective of verbal assault on other religions. It was interesting to find out, however, that Brigitte Bardot has been found guilty no less than five times for her remarks about Muslims. (She has yet to pay her fines).

American media seems to generally stay away from skewering religions, as do the Canadians. There are probably all kinds of exceptions, of course, but I can’t think of a North American equivalent. The culture of Canadian humour, if you could even paint it with a remotely broad brush, tends to avoid vulgarity. Disrespect is a basic function of satire, but is acceptable when it serves a justifiable purpose, which is often to provoke critical thinking. But gratuitous disrespect, especially when aimed at a particular group, whether religion-based or not, isn’t a particularly Canadian way to raise to laugh.

Religion, as pointed out by a commenter to the article cited above, isn’t just a set of beliefs. It is often central to identity and culture, and thus doubly immune to so-called rational discourse with those who don’t share common ground. You can’t legislate people into not taking offense, although you could perhaps educate them into understanding that opinions expressed by anyone about anything at all are simply a reflection of the speaker’s beliefs, culture, education. Not to forget that such expression has the potential to expose the speaker to disagreement, ostracism. loss of employment, relationships etc if her audience extends beyond to groups with dissimilar views. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, there were enough nodding heads to warrant continued publication.

I don’t have answers, and I don’t think anybody does. The constraints on free speech that characterise European legislation exist, in large part, because of Europe’s particular history. Decades ago, long before France banned the niqab and wearing of headscarves as a sign of adherence to Islam, Belgium outlawed the wearing of any symbols that would indicate membership in a religious or political group. This well-intentioned but imperfect response to the forcing of Jews to wear the Star of David is viewed by some, in its French version, as an assault on individual liberty of expression. In a perfect world, all humans would be taught, both through the lens of their religion and a cultural code of conduct, that we are all entitled to believe what we want and obligated to respect that others have the same right.

History both drives and illuminates the present. This week I was surprised to learn, while watching a news report on French TV, that depictions of the prophet Mohammed were not considered blasphemous until the Middle Ages. His likeness is found in ancient editions of the Koran, which forbids only depictions of God, thereby discouraging idolatry. But over the centuries, Islamic scholars have extended this to include the prophets, of which Mohammed is believed by Muslims to have been the last – and the truest – to have been sent by God.

The debate about freedom of expression will go on for a long time. Forever, if we’re lucky. What I hope to remember, as a guiding principle, is that the right to say what I think – and with it, the right to give offense – will always be met by an equal right to disagree – or take offense – and that I should be prepared to accept that there may be consequences – well short of facing down a Kalashnikov – in terms of my relationships with others. The only dictum from my religious education that I believe has absolute validity is the Golden Rule, or if you prefer, the ethic of reciprocity. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

Not as good as it gets….but whatever.

I’m grumpy.

What I actually am is frustrated.  For the last four or more years I have done very little writing, and it’s taken a toll on my esteem, both self and in the eyes of those who thought I was a writer.  Having argued with myself daily about the merits vs. futility of writing in a public space, I arrive at the same inconclusive point every time: there is no particular benefit to letting others in on what I think/do/believe/struggle with, except to me, in that I get to relieve the word-pressure build-up in my head.  Not writing is especially a problem when you’re not a talker either, and when you do try to say something intelligent, you can’t find your words.  I blame this partially on living in a French environment, and now understand how people can lose their native language.  Panicsville.

I am a perfectionist about very little in my life.  My current knitting project looks like a dog’s breakfast but I’ll wear it anyway, if it ever gets finished.  The house gets a lick and a polish every couple of weeks, but I am incapable of maintaining order in the long-term, or even in the medium short-term.  The vacuum hasn’t been upstairs in months, and won’t be until and if somebody comes to stay or we get ready to rent out the house again.  But when it comes to writing, there’s nothing I won’t do to make sure that it’s as good as I can make it.  I edit obsessively – constantly re-reading, re-arranging, substituting and deleting until my brain is exhausted, or I’m sick of the thing.  I know that even if I think I’ve arrived at perfection, there’d always be something to change to make it better.  Unsurprisingly, this has the effect of making me want to do anything but write.

But inside, I’m at it all the time.  My head fills up with unexpressed – and lo, unexplored – observations and bits and pieces of ideas, but with no exposure to the light, they dry up and and fall off like the fronds of the bathroom plant.  (The thing was at the brink of expiry before I realised it was direct radiation, not water, that it lacked).

So I’m going to try again, and hope that I can just have some fun writing, without the nutty obsessiveness.  To grease the wheels, get some practice.  Stephen King, whose memoir on writing and life a kind friend gave me, hammers in two imperatives for writers: read lots, and write often.  I’ve tried the Artist’s Way stream-of-consciousness stuff, sitting at the breakfast table among the crumbs, teeth unbrushed, scribbling laboriously in my yellow notebook, but I don’t like writing by hand and those Cartesian gridlines discourage creative thought.  You can’t get ordinary lined scribblers here in France, although the Italians are more accommodating.

Here goes.

This was a big weekend for France.  Nearly four million people came into the streets all over the country, in remembrance of the Seventeen – the staff of Charlie Hebdo, three police officers, a maintenance man and the four  hostages of a kosher supermarket – whose lives were taken by fanatics intent on silencing freedom of expression.    Yesterday we joined about three thousand others to march through a village a few kilometres away, many holding up signs with the three words now familiar to the entire world.    99% of the marchers were European, or at least so I assumed by their faces, this despite the significant number of local residents of North African origin, often called Maghrebans.  Two young men in cycling gear who might have been part of that community watched from the sidelines, but neither of us acted on our common thought to invite them in.  When we later watched the video footage from Paris, I wished we could have been there. I’m curious to know how it would feel to part of such a massive demonstration, driven, in the main, by empathy.  There’s no point lamenting the past, and the world as it used to be, but there are times when I don’t want any reminders of how deranged things have become, and opt for cute cat videos instead of the news.

In other news, I’m putting my money where my mouth was.  Despite making numerous public proclamations about the  benefits of yoga, and how it’s the single best thing you can do for yourself ( apart from eating well and being generally useful), I hadn’t regularly seen the inside of a yoga studio for about ten years.  Last week I started up again, and it was a chastening experience – while I can still touch my toes, my knees refuse to submit to a child’s pose, and age has not improved my ability to stand on one leg.  I notice, however, that I am way more patient with the whole breathing-and-philosophy aspect that I was at 40, so maturity does have its benefits.  Turning sixty has been a surprisingly uncomfortable experience, and if this will help me regain my fast-receding youth, I’m all for it.

My mother railed against getting older.  She used to stand at the mirror, flicking her nascent jowls with her fingers, grimacing at what she saw as a sagging face.  She was only about forty then, and I didn’t get what she was on about.  She looked fine to me.  When I got to forty I blitzed past the marker, proud to feel as strong and lithe and bendable as I had been at twenty.  Well, maybe not quite – I stopped doing backbends during my first pregnancy and never went back.  Fifty was pretty OK, too – I laughed in its face.  But this last one got me.  I’ve got less time in front than I have behind, and I’m beginning to see what older people, especially women, meant when they said they’d become invisible.  I spend a lot of time thinking about my mother, and how she never saw herself as others did (‘I don’t want to hang around all those people – they’re old!!’) and my dad, who walked for miles every day until emphysema stopped him, and from there it was all downhill.  I’m not ready to accept that I’m not a kid anymore.  I’m not ready for those looks, those tones of voice, those presumptions that because my laugh lines are permanent and my hair is white (white-blonde?  Please?) that I’ll be a little slower to take things in, that I’ll be a little out of touch with what’s going on, that maybe I shouldn’t move the piano all by myself.

I could go on.  But there’s a risk that the small excitement (at writing) that has replaced my earlier bad mood and frustration will transform into something less positive if I get too serious, thinking too hard about the point I want to make.  Time to put this to bed, and to catch up on Downton Abbey Season 5, months after the rest of the world.

Thanks for listening.  Thanks especially to Susie and Jocelyn, who continued to encourage long past the time any normal person would have given up.