By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
[UPDATE: It seems that my post is being interpreted by some as a criticism of the Charlie Hebdo collaborators. Nothing could be further from the truth; I align myself completely with their Enlightenment ideals -- so I'm intolerant too! -- and in fact deem humor to be a powerful tool to further these ideals. Moreover, perhaps it is worth stressing the obvious: their 'intolerance' does not in any way justify their barbaric execution. It is not *in any way* on a par with the intolerance of those who did not tolerate their humor and thus went on to kill them.]
I grew up in a thoroughly secular household (my father was a communist; I never had any kind of religious education). However, I did get a fair amount of exposure to religion through my grandmothers: my maternal grandmother was a practicing protestant, and my paternal grandmother was a practicing catholic. In my twenties, for a number of reasons, I became more and more drawn to Catholicism, or at least to a particular interpretation of Catholicism (with what can be described as a ‘buffet’ attitude: help yourself only to what seems appetizing to you). This led to me getting baptized, getting married in the Catholic church, and wearing a cross around my neck. (I have since then distanced myself from Catholicism, in particular since I became a mother. It became clear to me that I could not give my daughters a catholic ‘buffet’ upbringing, and that they would end up internalizing all the dogmas of this religion that I find deeply problematic.)
At the same time, upon moving to the Netherlands in the late 90s, I had been confronted with the difficult relations between this country and its large population of immigrants and their descendants sharing a Muslim background, broadly speaking. At first, it all made no sense to me, coming from a country of immigrants (Brazil) where the very concept of being a ‘second-generation immigrant’ is quite strange. Then, many years ago (something like 13 years ago, I reckon) one day in the train, I somehow started a conversation with a young man who appeared to be of Arabic descent. I don’t quite recall how the conversation started, but one thing I remember very clearly: he said to me that it made him happy to see me wearing the catholic cross around my neck. According to him, the problem with the Netherlands is the people who have no religion – no so much people who (like me at the time) had a religion different from his own.* This observation has stayed with me since.
Anyway, this long autobiographical prologue is meant to set the stage for some observations on the recent tragic events in Paris. As has been remarked by many commentators (see here, for example), the kind of humor practiced by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists must be understood in the context of a long tradition of French political satire which is resolutely left-wing, secular, and atheist. Its origins go back at least to the 18th century; it was an integral part of the Enlightenment movement championed by people like Voltaire, who used humor to provoke social change. In particular in the context of totalitarian regimes, satire becomes an invaluable weapon.
As I see it, Charlie Hebdo embodies the humorous, satirical face of the Enlightenment, in particular (but not exclusively) in their fierce critique of religion and religious views. Now, at its core, the Enlightenment is not a tolerant movement: its ideals may be described as corresponding to “the ambition of shaping individual and social development on the basis of better and more reliable knowledge than the tangled, confused, half-articulate but deeply rooted conceptual systems inherited from our ancestors” (Carus 2007, p. 1). (It was actually when reading Carus’ book on Carnap’s notion of explication as Enlightenment that I realized how much of an Enlightenment person I am myself. Naturally, there is also a huge literature of critique of the Enlightenment, pointing out in particular its inherent contradictions.)
Indeed, the Enlightenment seeks to replace the confused conceptual systems inherited from our ancestors, a worldview in which religious beliefs typically occupy pride of place, with a scientifically informed, secular worldview. And so, the Enlightenment’s original commitment to freedom of thought and expression (against political and religious totalitarianism in the 18th century) is necessarily one-sided: manifestations that reaffirm the power of the ancestral conceptual systems are not tolerated, or at the very least will be openly and vigorously criticized – as done by Charlie Hebdo.
So at heart, the cultural clash underlying this tragedy (as well as many other tragic episodes) is arguably the one opposing secular worldviews inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment (which will often manifest themselves in intolerant ways), and religious worldviews that feel increasingly crushed in certain contexts – such as the French République, where some religious symbols are publicly banned, while others (e.g. the cross I used to wear on my neck) are tolerated (Eric Schliesser has offered similar considerations). It seems to me to be somewhat misguided to present the clash as opposing tolerance and freedom of speech and thought (purportedly represented by Charlie Hebdo) to an intolerant, backward, religious worldview. Charlie Hebdo is resolutely intolerant of everything it considers incompatible with its own secular, atheist worldview. (If you read Portuguese, see here for a brilliant interview with cartoonist Laerte. One of the highlights: "Every joke is ideological, there is no such thing as a joke that is just a joke.")
Let me conclude by stating again that I am also a tenacious Enlightenment fan, deeply committed to secularism and to the power of scientific knowledge to change and improve people’s lives. All I am suggesting here is that, despite how it has been selling itself for centuries, the Enlightenment is not a particularly tolerant doctrine; those of us committed to its ideals should bite the bullet and recognize it as one of its less attractive faces. That conversation with the young man in the train many years ago, when I still wore a Christian cross on my neck, is possibly what most clearly made me realize this (though certainly not at the time).
*A caveat must be made regarding the very strained relationship between Jews and Muslims, which again manifested itself in the events of this week.