I Don't Know Charlie Hebdo

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I’d be shocked if you haven’t heard, but there was a recent terrorist attack on a French magazine called Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons of Mohammed.  Twelve dead, including the editor and four cartoonists.  I think the only word that comes close to summing it up is “terrible.”
I had not heard of Charlie Hebdo before this attack.
Fortunately, social media has my back.
Over the last two days, Twitter has provided me with a mini-education on what Charlie Hebdo was, the long tradition of purposefully offensive French satire, a smattering of cartoons, and past controversies.  This is better than Wikipedia, in many ways – Wikipedia summarizes a thing in an essay style designed to be as dry as dusty encyclopedias, whereas Twitter links me to shining jewels of editorials, reducing things to the pithiest of quotes.  I’ve read probably a good novelette’s worth of information on Charlie Hebdo since the murders.
Yet this education is incomplete.
The thing I find lacking in all of these talks on Charlie Hebdo is, well, Charlie Hebdo.  I could be thought to be well-read on the topic – but the truth is, for all the furor, I still have zero idea what the inside of the magazine looks like. I’ve seen a few covers, which appeared to be pretty amateurish to me, and some translated cartoons, but…
I have not experienced the source material in any meaningful way.  Only a radiating circle of reactions to it.
Which happens a lot in social media.  I sure know a lot about Justin Bieber and what a jerk he is and how his fans are crazy, but I couldn’t pick a Justin Bieber tune out of a Spotify lineup.  I’d read tomes’ worth of Twilight’s regrettable gender politics and shoddy writing long before I finally sighed and picked the damn book up to see for myself.  The Michael Brown shooting gave me voluminous essays explaining to me Just What Happened During The Shooting before I gave in and read the coroner’s report for myself.
In social media, the story becomes its own narrative, often divorced from the core material.  Yet we wind up considering ourselves experts on a topic we’re still, in some vital way, unfamiliar with.
Interestingly, I wound up envying my friend Billy Moreno on Ferguson, because he took some time off and went down to Ferguson to participate in the protests.  Now, Billy, he has a good take on what happened down there.  He got off his couch and got some direct experience – and admittedly it’s just a sliver of real life, but that’s all any of us get, really.
Yet even a tourist’s direct take is better than a Twitter overview, to my mind.
I’m not saying the hundred essays I read on “What it’s like to live in Ferguson” were useless – some education is always better than none – but I remain excruciatingly aware that any image I take away from social media is lacking some essential truth.  It’s a flurry of opinions, many from people I usually agree with, but I can no more get a full idea of what it’s like to live in Ferguson than I can fully get what it’s like to live as a black man by reading essays.
It’s good to use those essays as a bridge to understand things, mind you.  I’m a better person for having read black fathers’ takes on the talks they have to have with their sons, and imagining me having to say that to my kids, and feeling that burn of the ol’ empathy muscle flexing and flexing hard.
But it’s also good to recognize that “reading someone’s take on an experience” is not the same as “knowing that experience.”  Just because I read about that black father doesn’t mean that I get what it’s like to be him, now.  Just because I read about Ferguson doesn’t mean that I know what’s happening down there.  Just because I’ve read tons of fan reactions to Twilight doesn’t mean that I know what reading the book is like.
There’s still that gap.
And so I come to Charlie Hebdo with a student’s ignorance.  They were engineered to be offensive.  They served a long-set function in a foreign society I don’t understand that well.  Nobody should have murdered them, of course – but when I look at, say, their cover presenting the Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare mothers, I have to acknowledge that this cover was presented in a context, and despite reading much of the hubbub surrounding that cover, I am largely unaware of that context.
And maybe this is just my take on things, but I frequently feel like people are force-educating themselves on daily topics so they can have opinions – hey, Charlie Hebdo just got shot, how do I feel about that?  I need to be a part of this social media story, to have something meaningful to contribute, and so I gotta start finding what I think Charlie Hebdo was so I can be relevant.  It’s the old op-ed columnist trick, where you wake up and have twelve inches of column to fill, and you’d better fill it with something.  Let’s start asking Interesting Questions!  Was Charlie Hebdo too offensive?  Should people be defending them?  Hey, can we find all the worst moments of Charlie Hebdo to kickstart a discussion on my watch? Can we find the finest moments when they spoke truth to power?
People sometimes get accused of “seeking offense.”  I don’t think people seek offense.  But I do think that social media encourages people to seek a story that they can attach themselves to, to determine super-quickly whether they are For this new stage of events or Against it – and thus they carbo-load on other people’s interpretations of these events so they can stake out a position.  So they can be seen to be participating.
As for me, though, I kind of think that social media discourages a very important skill: the ability to Not Know.  Do I think that Justin Bieber’s a spoiled twat?  I honestly don’t know.  Never met the dude.  All I get on Twitter from friends who delight in watching snotty teens go down is a constant stream of his worst hits, and I refuse to assume that this is accurate.
What I hear about him sounds bad, I agree.  I’m willing to go so far as to say that he looks like an entitled jerk who’s going to run into trouble when he runs out of fans.  Just like it was entirely fair of me to say “I haven’t read Twilight, but a lot of my friends think it’s pro-stalkery pap, and so I have no interest in reading it.”  (Even if I eventually did.)
But when I speak of Justin Bieber, or Charlie Hebdo, or Ferguson, or any breaking story, I also acknowledge my own ignorance.  I don’t know them.  I haven’t been there, myself.  I am being educated second-hand, by takes on people’s takes – and it’s not merely okay, but actively healthy, for me to say, “I don’t have to have an opinion on this.”
What I see on Twitter isn’t necessarily the truth.  It’s just a collected amalgamation of the opinions of people my friends agree with. And while I trust my friends, they can fuck up, and I can fuck up, and so the least I can do is keep my ignorance on the topic firmly in mind.
Until someone starts writing about pudgy white male depressives.  Then I’m an expert.

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