The violent attacks by terrorists in Paris have prompted grief and dismay around the world. In the US, they are seen as an assault on both freedom of expression and a sister democracy, and have surfaced painful memories of September 11th. As a frequent traveler to France with colleagues there, I have deep sympathy for its loss, and admiration for its resiliency.
The terrorists’ primary targets were writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, a non-conformist Parisian weekly that uses satire to lampoon French institutions, politics and culture. By most accounts, the publication is an equal opportunity satirist; it comments on most everyone’s religion. Its provocative characterizations of Allah ignited a violent response, with 2011 fire bombings of the newspaper’s editorial offices and several days ago, murder.
Satire has a long tradition as a form of social criticism. It can be used to point out society’s deficiencies in ways that make them absurd and entertaining, thus widening the audience for persuasion. At its best, satire spurs individuals and institutions into improvement. At its worst, it ridicules and alienates, particularly those who otherwise feel marginalized or disrespected.
Media reports about the two terrorist brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings share disconcerting parallels to the two U.S. brothers involved with the Boston Marathon bombing. Feelings of social alienation and radical religious passion know no national boundaries.
No American can fully appreciate France’s anguish at this time. And the intent of this blog post is not to infringe on it. Rather, with solidarity, incidents like these raise basic questions for all democracies, including the United States.
Should we regulate free speech when it demeans others? Freedom of opinion and expression are core values and deserve protecting. Yet US schools have drawn some sharp (and productive) lines for kids around taunting and bullying; perhaps adults need to re-consider the lines we draw for our own behavior towards others.
And in any case, social and economic marginalization – not the boundaries of satire – is the core issue, isn’t it? I believe so.
Marginalization and alienation in different forms exist in all societies. (Think Ferguson.) In the US, the nonprofit community can play a key role in addressing their root causes. And paradoxically, while a domestic issue, those US nonprofits operating in the international realm – addressing issues of intercultural understanding between countries – seem able to make a special contribution.
City neighborhoods can be their own enclaves with their own separate (and sometimes counter-productive) cultures and identities. Intercultural programs recast especially for domestic use, like HI USA Exchange Neighborhoods, can help to break down destructive siloes and stereotypes that may otherwise promote isolation and alienation. While obviously there is no single answer (marginalization and alienation are simply too complex), they must be considered as part of any comprehensive US response to our own home grown challenges.
Now is the moment for the world to share our compassion with France, to learn all we can from each other, and to wisely apply the lessons in our own countries and cultures.
Nous sommes en pensée avec la France!