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A couple of weeks have passed since the Paris Charlie Hebdo shootings, and we can perhaps now begin to reflect on the events in more deliberate fashion.

I am grateful to a couple of authors, notably Teju Cole and Adam Gopnik, both writing for The New Yorker, for pointing to some problematic aspects of the ‘Je suis Charlie’ mobilization that match my own reflections, therefore, I will start by summarizing their comments prior to adding my own. My own comments will be structured in two parts: from the perspective of critical theory and that of psychoanalysis.

The moral argument – on its head

Teju Cole, writing on January 9, 2015, notes that even though “it is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullying racist agenda, it is necessary to try”. Charlie Hebdo was perhaps eager to offend everyone, yet “in recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations, and its numerous anti-Islam images have been inventively perverse, featuring hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, variations on the theme of sodomy, and mockery of the victims of a massacre.”

This does not mean we should not condemn the killings and mourn the victims. Yet, “just because one condemns their brutal murders, doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology”.

Perhaps more significantly:

“The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world … We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others”

Adam Gopnik, writing January 12, 2015 points to the absurdity of “turning its murdered cartoonists into pawns in a game of another kind of public piety”. Turning them into martyrs risks to betray their memory because:

“Wolinski, Cabu, Honoré: like soccer players in Brazil, each was known in France by a single name. A small irreverent smile comes to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France last week, for these anarchist mischief-makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the current President, François Hollande. The cartoonists didn’t just mock those men’s politics; they regularly amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances.”

The critical theoretical argument

The speed with which the ‘Je suis Charlie’ movement formed was remarkable. Within days it was possible to organize a huge demonstration attracting more than 50 high-level government representatives from around the world and three million marchers – and that despite the highest terror warning!

Officially, the march was constructed as an act of defiance in the face of terrorism and a proclamation of the intention to uphold liberal democratic values such as freedom (of opinion), secularism and multiculturalism. At a deeper level, the event was characterized by Islamo-phobia, also among Muslims, hence also the readiness of the extreme right-wing to join its ranks. The exclusion from the march of Marie Le Pen of the Front National was a rather pathetic attempt to hide the affinities between the two discourses.

In brief: within days …

  • a journal that excels in being politically incorrect becomes a brand for political correctness;
  • a demonstration organized in the name of freedom of opinion is embarrassed by the endorsements it attracts and ends up issuing bans;
  • a series of anti-terror measures with serious implications for civil rights are back on the agenda and legitimized.

These oddities should at least make us pause and think. In like manner, the one blatant similarity between terrorists and anti-terrorists: namely, their passion for media sensationalism.

This, I contend, is at the core of contemporary socio-political conflict. Terror is the modern war and this because of two reasons: first, the conflict is asymmetric; second, it is about social representations, hence identity, whereby the fixation on sensationalism in media (rather than, say, differentiated reporting and in-depth analysis) points to the workings of rather essential identification processes employing basic conceptions of good and bad.

From this perspective, the swift homogeneous alignment of the majority of the ‘free media’ around the world with the ‘Je suis Charlie’ movement, and their willingness to adopt a one-dimensional dramatic depiction of events is the real reason why we should be concerned about our freedom of opinion. Once our critical reasoning is impaired, we won’t even know when we stop being free – and long before that we would have stopped having an opinion!

The psychoanalytic argument

Those familiar with psychoanalytic theories will recognize a number of psychoanalytically-informed ideas in the above exposition: paying attention to both the conscious and unconscious sides of any particular narrative; looking for strange reversals that suggest the operation of so-called reaction-formations; exploring commonalities and differences between victims and perpetrators in order to clarify the mechanisms of aggression; attending to the construction of essential categories of good and bad; not least, focusing on the dynamics of group interactions and what these imply for individual strivings for knowing.

But I will focus on one specific aspect of the Paris events, namely, Islamo-phobia. Already the choice of the term ‘phobia’ to refer to this collective form of discrimination shows that it is felt to relate to basic instincts active in the human psyche.

When dealing with phobias, psychoanalytic technique recommends taking a closer look at the object of anxiety. In his seminal analysis of ‘Little Hans’, Sigmund Freud (1909) warned against taking the apparent or named object of fear as its real cause. This is because our mental apparatus likes to work with displacement, especially under the influence of violent affects.

What then is the real object of fear behind Islamo-phobia?

The Paris attacks, motivated by caricatures that were experienced as offensive, provide a clue. Caricatures often work by way of devaluation of authority, whereby the objects targeted will usually represent mainstream authority figures within a society. This, however, does not apply to the Prophet caricatures of Charlie Hebdo considering that the latter’s audience was mainly secular Christian or secular Jewish.

In other words, the satire of Charlie Hebdo was based on the devaluation of Another’s religion. This raises the question as to why ‘we’, secular Christians and Jews, should find pleasure in making fun of our neighbor’s (or cousin’s) Gods (or wives). Indeed, this is the question many Muslims around the world are presently asking.

A possible answer is that ‘we’ actually regret not having any own authority figures to devalue, for instance by making fun of them, which, in reverse, is equivalent to saying we lament having no authority figures to value. According to Freud (1939 in Moses and Monotheism) a similar logic underpinned anti-Semitism.

It is thus perhaps no surprise that the ‘Je suis Charlie’ movement ended up uniting left and right, the middle as well as the extremes. Apparently the yearning for authority in our societies – and not only in Muslim countries – is currently quite widespread.

About that we ought to reflect.