By Louisiane Ferlier. I grew up with the drawings of Charb, Wolinski and Cabu. Their fearless provocations have always seemed to me a necessary expression of the fertility of French culture.
The day after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French Society for British Studies circulated a simple message of condolence. A member of the society replied that this thread was off-topic since the mailing list is dedicated to the exchange of information concerning research on English language and English history in France.
A series of outraged messages ensued: surely it is our mission as researchers and educators to defend, pen in hand, freedom of expression? Surely, if we teach our students how to read, understand and appreciate Milton or Rushdie, we must speak in favour of what the latter described later that day as “fearless disrespect”?
These reactions (including the first one) are all signs that the French academic community is mourning. Allow me, in my own way, to simply explain what the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo represent for a French academic.
At about 12 years old, I was given a copy of a cartoon book entitled Dis Maman, y’a pas de dames dans l’histoire? (Mum, aren’t there any ladies in history?) It was authored by Maryse Wolinski and the cartoons were drawn by Georges Wolinski.
Georges Wolinski died on Wednesday in the attack at Charlie Hebdo.
Dis Maman, y’a pas de dames dans l’histoire? was the story of the Wolinski kid asking her mum and dad about the role of women in French history, surprised by the lack of heroines in her history textbooks (Joan of Arc excepted).
Needless to say, I identified with the little girl. The Wolinskis’ “fearless disrespect” for a history written by white men celebrating white men was an inspiration for me.
Unlikely as it may have seemed then, I, a French woman who grew up in Seine St Denis, am now an historian, specialising in the circulation of Quaker thought, a pacifist religious denomination that considered women’s voice as equal to men’s.
Today, as I type these lines, the French radio surreally emits words such as “Al Qaida in Yemen”, “radicals”, “launch-rockets”, “homage”.
I grew up with the irreverent drawings of Charb, Wolinski and Cabu, with the sound of Bernard Maris’s analyses. Their sometimes tasteless, but always fearless, provocations have always seemed to me a necessary expression born of the fertility of French culture.
They questioned everything: what history is, what people believe in, what and how one should circulate their ideas, and today, their absurd death is the proof that people too often die for their ideas.
But the cultural mourning will take time. As academics, I feel we must take this time and we should not confuse this moment of necessary emotional reaction with one of rational analysis.
Let me say, though, that I feel that, to best defend our academic culture of free speech, we must reflect on its absolute absence in French prisons. [Suspect Chérif Kouachi, 32, was imprisoned for 18 months for his role in a network sending volunteers to fight alongside al-Qaida militants in Iraq between 2003 and 2005.]
From what we know at this time of the suspects, it seems clear indeed that the loss of the irreverent men of Charlie Hebdo is not simply an assault on our intellectual traditions in the name of a completely distorted and misunderstood faith, it is the proof that the inability to express oneself can lead to violence, in any religious or political context.
Perhaps this is another ideal that I share with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists: I believe that if we let pens and pencils come into prisons rather than ignorance and intolerance, we can make a difference. More...