I am not Charlie. For more than a decade I have written satire for a living and for pleasure, but in those few instances where I was presented with a genuinely dangerous target, I backed down.
I am not willing to die for an idea. I’m not even sure that I admire those who are. I prefer ideas that are spread by teachers rather than martyrs.
Even this overstates my proximity to Charlie because in South Africa we don’t generally kill for ideas any more. For cellphones, certainly, and for sexual difference; sometimes just for shits and giggles; but not for public iconoclasm or dissent. In fact, there are only a few dozen people in South Africa who could claim any kind of legitimate and meaningful kinship with the victims of the Paris massacre: a few auditors, a handful of investigative journalists – people determined to unearth the iniquity of individuals, organisations or governments that can and do assassinate mid-level irritants.
I understand the urge of those living outside France to declare “Je suis Charlie”. It feels like an act of solidarity with Enlightenment values and modernity. And yet, for South Africans at least, those emotions quickly become a tangle of contradictions. How meaningful is that solidarity for South Africans who had never heard of Charlie Hebdo or whose most provocative public statement had been about whether to salt the meat before or after it goes on the braai? How do we boldly support absolute freedom of expression after demanding that Jon Qwelane, Steve Hofmeyr and David Bullard be gagged? How can we claim to stand alongside a fiercely secular state when our own state is led by a man who keeps calling on Jesus to return?
The contradictions are understandable, though, because I suspect that most of us are terribly confused. There is too much news from too many places about too many crazy people. And there is too much anger. Everywhere I turn, angry talking heads demand that I prove my righteousness by being angry, and then get angrier that I’m not angry enough or angry about different things. Confusion, fretting and wrathful, reigns.
Are we even sure why we’re outraged? Certainly it feels as if something outrageous happened: 17 people died. But if body count is the measure of public outrage then the Paris killing would have been dwarfed by the 1200 Chinese people killed on the same day by air pollution. Do the deaths need to be violent for us to react?
Forty South Africans were murdered on the day Charlie Hebdo was attacked, and not one of us declared #JeSuisAfriqueDuSud. So, is Muslim fundamentalism the trigger? No. If it was, the appalling slaughter of 2000 in Nigeria would have made Paris a mere footnote.
Of course, there are reasons for this wild and disorienting skewing of focus. It is not news that the Western press places a higher value on Western lives, nor is it overly cynical to suggest that the kidnapped Nigerian girls have fallen off our screens because they are Nigerian and not American or French. Another reason is shock, which comes down to our expectations. We expect terrorists with assault rifles in a corrupt state with failing institutions and haemorrhaging frontiers. We do not expect them in Paris. This is not Eurocentric Afro-pessimism: the Nairobi mall shooting was also deeply shocking because we don’t expect medieval murder in modern cities.
For me, though, our collective response to Charlie Hebdo and Baga is best illustrated by how most people react to domestic violence. A man walks into his neighbour’s home and punches the woman of the house in the face. The entire street is outraged, the man is arrested, the woman is given support. But a man who punches his own wife in the face, in their home? Most of the neighbours close their curtains, shake their heads and mutter, “The poor woman, but what can we do?” A few angry commentators demanded to know why the Baga massacre had been “forgotten”. Nobody forgot it. Nobody could. But, like neighbours hearing the screams from next door, we just didn’t respond. We don’t understand Nigeria’s relationship with Boko Haram. It’s their business. Best to wait and see.
I believe that the fundamental trigger of collective outrage is not body count or ideology or even the barbarism of the methods used. Rather, I believe that it all comes down to whether the perpetrator did it to his family or to his neighbours. The world is full of Stalinists and Maoists – there are even some in our own leadership – but where are the Hitlerists? Why openly support two mass murderers but reject a third? The answer is simple. Stalin and Mao may have killed four times as many people as Hitler did, but Hitler committed history’s unforgivable sin: he killed the neighbours. And still it goes on. When Israel killed 2 000 Palestinians in Gaza last year the world’s cities were flooded with angry protesters – Je suis Gaza! – and yet as the body count in Syria nudged towards 200000 those same protests went silent. When outsiders kill it is a holocaust and war crime. When the country kills itself, well, you see, it’s complicated.
Perhaps we are outraged about Charlie Hebdo because it felt like an attack from the outside. The killers were French, but in a strictly secular country their militant religion seems alien. Perhaps we are simply outraged because we are primed to react in a certain way to certain crimes. I’m quickly reaching a point where I don’t know what I’m feeling or why. Perhaps that’s why so many people lunged for #JeSuisCharlie: believing that you’re Charlie is easier than not having a clue who you really are. All I know for sure is: I’m not Charlie. I’m just not brave enough.
First published in The Times and TimesLive