These past few weeks have been quite interesting—and disturbing—if like me you spend much time thinking about the social and cultural significance of humor. Since my dissertation project examines comical rhetorical maneuvers as central to cultural—and by implication political—struggles, the debate over the recent murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris has helped solidify my growing conviction that humor was and still is a crucial arena of conflict. In some sense the notion that comical shafts can inflict substantial damage, be it in the service of a progressive or reactionary cause, is quite banal. Memories of adolescence could probably conjure in all of us embarrassing moments in which we employed humor in a hurtful manner or painful memories of rebuke by our peers. Both edgy satire and racist caricatures have long served political purposes, and authoritarian regimes have always punished those who employed humor with subversive intents.
However, people for whom humor is a livelihood and a vocation often prefer to understate humor’s less sanguine uses, adamantly professing their conviction that humor is ultimately a force for good in the world. And indeed, humorists seem to share a camaraderie along this fundamental notion and back one another with, a for them convenient, zeal regarding the inherently positive nature of humor.
To be sure, some comics, demonstrating more intellectual reflection and honesty, have complicated the role of humor. Art Spiegelman, for instance, in a piece written in the wake of the Danish cartoons against Muhammad in 2006, suggested that we distinguish between humor that “afflicts the afflicted,” and humor that “speaks truth to power.” He used the same analytical framework in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo Massacre as well, arguing that we should regard Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons more as an “adolescent” knee-jerk response to authority, than as a case of afflicting the afflicted. Citing Charlie Hebdo’s legacy of leftist activism, he distinguished the lefty French paper from the right wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that had posted the cartoons of Muhammad in 2006.
If we accept Spiegelman’s distinction, the question regarding humor boils down to whether it makes a positive intervention in the world or a negative one. The problem of making that call in the case at hand is that westerners, subscribing to an ideology of progress, human rights, and the enlightenment, are not in a particularly favorable position from which to consider this question with much objectivity. And the French, whose national ethos is so deeply entwined with the enlightenment, are perhaps positioned worse than anyone else in the west to make that analysis.
As historians, however, I would like to think that we have a bit of an edge. Accustomed as we are to unpacking the significance of cultural artifacts in different historical contexts, historians I hope could bring their skills to interrogate the cultural impact of humor. For while history does not repeat itself, it certainly rhymes in curious and suggestive ways that we can highlight. Given recent discussions regarding the role of historians in the public sphere, at the very least, I think we should take it upon ourselves to demonstrate how anchoring any question of social strife and oppression in history sheds new light on the matter.
Let us take for instance an easy example for most Americans: the case of minstrelsy in American history. Here we have a genre of popular humor that emerged in the 1830s—and some might argue is still with us today in veiled forms—which has undoubtedly ‘afflicted the afflicted.’ It has functioned over many years as a crucible of whiteness, offering, particularly white men, a cultural space in which to constitute and celebrate their whiteness on the back of African Americans.
Though undoubtedly it is hard to draw parallels between the case of minstrelsy and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, we might feel a bit differently if we locate the cartoons within the long history of western, and more specifically, French colonialism, which lingers in various forms to this day. I am no specialist in French colonialism, so will not venture further, but as an American historian I can certainly point out a time, just several decades ago, when most Americans, if faced with it, would have failed to condemn minstrelsy. This is certainly not to say that it would be—for me as a Jewish person, for example—appropriate or even understandable to go off on a killing spree of say Neo Nazi cartoonists. Nor is it to say that comparing enactments of minstrel shows or imaginary Neo Nazi cartoonists to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and their audience is compelling or fair, but it would certainly complicate the picture.
However one might feel regarding this specific question—whether Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were “afflicting the afflicted” or not—we certainly cannot condone massacres. What it does mean, however, is that we as historians should urge viewing this tragic event for what it was. Like most tragedies in history, it was a case of many misguided decisions committed by many people over generations in the name of flawed ideological convictions—not just of those who took arms against French journalists in the name of their religion. I suspect that if we dig deeper we will find what historians usually find—that these murderers were products of a deeply disturbed society. We will also find a country, much like our own, riven by racism and hatred, that has not done nearly enough to scrutinize how their enthusiasm for western ideals has gone hand in glove with colonialism and its marred legacy.
Casting the massacre in this light certainly does not mean that we should place the blame for this act at the doorstep of the Charlie Hebdo journalists or the French people. Nor should we blame Muslims, Arabs, Islam, or any easily defined group of people. The question should not revolve around blame, but about how to move forward in a way that will put all the people in France and those implicated by French policies on a better footing.
What to me seems clear is that investing more in efforts to teach core ‘French values,’ as so many in France have called for, might be almost as wrongheaded as teaching American work ethic and family values to fix poverty in the US. French people alongside many sympathizers around the world have made it evident that the lives of white journalists committed to ‘French values’ matter to them. Now, much like here in the US, it is time to make it clear that brown and black lives matter just as much, particularly when they do not subscribe wholesale to the quite flawed normative values of the white majority.