A Week On, ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Has Become a Symbol of Everything and Nothing

A week ago, 12 people were murdered in cold blood at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In the seven days since, the magazine has become a symbol of… well, of what, exactly? It all depends on how you look at it. If you’re of a liberal persuasion, Charlie Hebdo became a symbol of the liberal values you hold so dear. If you’re on the right, it became a symbol for some self-serving rhetoric about free speech. If you’re far left, it became a symbol of racism and oppression. If you’re Glenn Beck, it became a symbol of how Islam is an inherently violent religion, or some such nonsense. If you’re a hardliner in Pakistan, it’s a symbol of Western contempt for Islam. If you’re Richard Dawkins, it probably became a symbol of the awfulness of religion in general. And so on.

The thing is, of course, that Charlie Hebdo was none of those things. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was all of those things, and more. As artist, journalist, and general Flavorwire heroine Molly Crabapple noted when we spoke to her last week about the massacre, “Charlie Hebdo was a viciously mocking, leftist magazine, whose editorial staff were elderly men using tactics that had aged very badly. But no artist — fuck it, no human — should be reduced to the worst cover ever run by their publication, any more than any New York Times journalist should be reduced to the glue-huffing rants of Thomas Friedman. But social media decontextualizes. Charlie Hebdo published some racist imagery. It was never just that, and its artists were never just that either.”

She’s right — Charlie Hebdo was, and perhaps will continue to be, a messy, scruffy publication that reflected the varying political agendas and senses of humor of its contributors. Sometimes it published racist imagery. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it was thoroughly obnoxious. Sometimes it was funny. I wrote last week about the need to attempt to understand the nature of both the magazine itself and the society in which it operated, before taking to your Facebook to make a sweeping statement about free speech and how Tu Es Charlie.

And, indeed, perhaps the most important point Crabapple makes is the one about social media. The 24-hour news cycle has never been a great place for nuanced commentary, of course — the days are long gone when news was filtered and curated and burnished into carefully presentable two-minute journalistic nuggets for the half-hour evening bulletin. In many ways, this is a welcome development — the days when the broadcast networks were the gatekeepers of news are gone, and are largely unlamented. But equally, the always-on nature of cable news has meant that the constant desire for content has led to a presentation of news as a constant stream of simple anecdotes, dressed up for maximum impact and shorn of analysis or nuance. This is a process that’s only been hastened and exacerbated by social media, where complex situations are reduced to sharable headlines (the more attention-grabbing, the better) and pithy 140-character summations.

The result is that the details and context of news are often lost — conflicts become questions of black and white, rather than shades of gray, and events are presented without any sense of why they might have happened. And when complex real-life situations become simple binaries of us and them, good and evil, they become incredibly easy to exploit for political gain.

If you’re academically minded, you’d probably call this process semioticization — the reduction of three-dimensional entities to one-dimensional signifiers. Our own Elisabeth Donnelly discussed something similar this morning in relation to Joan Didion, and the phenomenon whereby a 50-year career is reduced to a pair of big sunglasses and a pointer to a certain type of female ’70s cool. The problems with this are manifold and obvious — it’s reductive, and simplistic, and unfair to its subjects. But most importantly, it’s open to exploitation.

Let’s take another example, that of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban and subsequently evacuated to the UK for treatment. Today she’s probably the most famous teenager on the planet, presented again and again as a symbol of how the virtues of democracy/liberalism/literacy/free speech/feminism (circle one or more) will triumph over the evils of religious fundamentalism and patriarchal oppression. She received the Nobel Peace Prize and has spoken eloquently at the UN, which subsequently branded her birthday (July 12) as “Malala Day.”

When you stop and think about it, though, you realize that most Americans don’t know much about this girl beyond the fact that she was shot in the head by the Taliban and then paraded in front of the world’s media as a symbol of the triumph of Western values. What’s she like? How does she feel about the way her image has been adopted as a symbol by everyone from UNICEF to Change.org? What does she do in her spare time? How is she handling life in England, half a world and a cultural chasm away from Pakistan? Does she miss home? Does she like cats or dogs? Which member of One Direction does she like best? It’s not like there’s no information available about her — there’s no shortage of Malala profiles, after all. It’s more that the public as a whole doesn’t see her as anything more than a symbol of the Taliban being bad and everyone who opposes it (i.e., “us”) being good.

To be clear: I’m not being cynical or suggesting that it’s wrong to view her story as a sort of generalized allegory for the resilience of the human spirit in the face of barbaric, determined repression — her courage and strength are hugely admirable and inspiring, and hopefully there’s a special circle of hell awaiting the people who want to argue that her shooting was a CIA setup, or that she’s somehow an agent of the West against Islam. But that’s also an example of how a binary can be flipped, depending on how it’s presented and who’s presenting it. Semiotics is, after all, about binaries, and if an event is presented as an us-vs.-them opposition, then all that’s left to determine is who’s us and who’s them. (This, again, has been going on for years — think about how Saddam Hussein was portrayed in the US in the 1980s, back when he was a useful bulwark against the theocracy in Iran.)

We’d all benefit from a better understanding of the world around us, and a good place to start is to stop thinking about politics as a question of good and evil. Clearly there are people who seem to be flat-out evil, and others who seem to go out of their way to do good. But they’re still people, like you and me. They have their virtues and their vices. Even the most iconic figures have their flip-sides: people say that Hitler was nice to dogs, and Gandhi may or may not have had weird sexual proclivities. That doesn’t change their place in history, but understanding them, and everyone else, as people — flawed, imperfect, capable of good and evil — is the first step to understanding history better.

So it goes with the present: subscribe to the view of the world as a series of simple binaries, and you make yourself fodder for whichever demagogue can exploit those views most effectively. If you want to avoid that trap, try understanding the world as a series of interactions between people — in all their bewildering, complicated humanity. Understand that nothing is ever black and white. Waving flags has never helped anyone.