February • Volume 43 • Issue 2

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Reflections from a Sociologist on the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

Erik Olin Wright, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In the second week of January 2015, I traveled to Paris to give a lecture at a research institute and participate in a meeting of the scientific council of the International Panel on Social Progress, a new organization roughly modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its goal is to produce a massive report on the global status of progress on the many dimensions of social justice by 2017. The council consists of social scientists from around the world, including many economists as well as some sociologists. I had anticipated a typical, interesting academic trip; it turned out to be much more intense than I imagined.

I arrived in Paris the day after two masked gunmen armed with assault rifles forced their way into the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and killed 12 people. “What terrible events,” I wrote in my travel journal. I had heard of Charlie Hebdo, but had not been aware of its place in France as a real political-cultural institution: biting, irreverent satire, criticism through mockery. Some of the senior editors who were murdered were icons in the world of intellectuals in Paris. France, more than almost any other place I know of, reveres its serious intellectuals. In addition to being a terrible loss, the political ramifications are also unsettling. In France right-wing forces have been gaining strength around hyper-nationalist ideologies, and one of the ideological anchors of this political current is Islamophobia intertwined with racism. These killings, and the subsequent hostage situation that occurred while I was in Paris, are likely to intensify this.

Solidarity March

Sunday, January 11 was the day of the manifestation in solidarity over the killings at Charlie Hebdo. A crowd of over a million was expected. All public transport in Paris was free that day because of the need for people to get to the solidarity rally. The march began at the Place de la Republique at 3:00 p.m. and was to go from there to Nation. After visiting the strange and fantastic Fondation Louis Vuitton Gehrybuilding in the Bois de Bologne, I took the metro from l’Étoile towards Nation.

L’Étoile was at the beginning of the line, so there weren’t very many people in the station, but by the third station the train was packed and by the fifth it was packed like the Tokyo subway at rush hour—literally impossible to squeeze in a single additional person. Each station we came to was also more and more packed with people, until by central Paris the platforms were filled to capacity. This of course is not surprising: how do you move over a million people to the Place de La Republique without having utterly packed metro cars? Almost everyone got off at the Belleville station, perhaps a kilometer from la Republique, so I did as well. I had no idea where to go, but it wasn’t a problem as I flowed with the crowd. There were thousands of people streaming down side streets to Republique. Soon the streets were filled completely from side to side. As we approached Republique, all movement stopped.

We were packed like sardines. There were periodic chants: je suis Charlie! je suis Charlie! je suis Charlie! I saw no overt signs of Islamaphobia. One of the symbols of sympathy for freedom of speech in Paris right now is the pencil. Some people had pencils in their hair. Others had made large pencil mock-ups and held them like banners, and others simply held up handfuls of pencils. People carried placards, mostly the white on black Je Suis Charlie signs. One read: “Je suis musulman, je suis juif, je suis athée, je suis Charlie.”  (I am Muslim, I am Jewish, I am atheist, I am Charlie). This was the main spirit of the day: an affirmation not just of freedom of speech, but also of tolerance and pluralism. And yet, there was also something disquieting in the demonstration. There were almost no identifiable Muslims in the crowd, indeed almost no one who was not white. There was no recognition of the cultural exclusion and poverty that fuel the disaffection and anger reflected in the attacks.

There was also clearly a nationalistic undercurrent. Occasionally people sang Le Marseillese. At one point I overheard a conversation among some people about my age discussing the rally. One of them objected strongly to singing the Marseillese with its talk of aux armes and sang impur (impure blood). That is not the message we need in France now, she said. And then there was the gathering of world leaders at the head of the demonstration, some of whom are hardly defenders of free speech. Hypocrisy and posturing by powerful people in moments like this is always especially galling.

Slowly I squeezed forward and managed to actually get to the center of the square near the statue symbolizing the French Republic. People had climbed up the pedestal, and some higher. I was tempted to join them, if just to get a better view of the crowd. But my back was a bit sore from travels, and I certainly didn’t want it to go out on me in that scene, so in the end I remained in the crowd. There was no indication of an actual march, just people standing around plastered to each other. So I did the same, soaking up the scene.

Meeting Time

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the meeting of the IPSP scientific council. Our task was to go through the proposed topics for the final report one by one, discuss the content, clarify the normative issues, propose changes in the 17 chapters, and generally get things lined up for the massive task of recruiting people to actually do the work of writing.

Monday was devoted to the economic and political themes, anchored in normative concerns with fairness and democracy. Tuesday, we continued the discussion focusing on part three of the proposed report dealing with transformations in values, norms, and culture. This was the least coherent part of the planned project. We had an extensive discussion of the idea of solidarity and whether it could anchor this section. What is social progress with respect to “solidarity”? Some intensification of solidarity becomes very exclusionary—like solidarity against Muslim immigrants in some European countries. There are regressive and emancipatory solidarities, dangerous solidarities, and benign solidarities. This led to an interesting discussion of cosmopolitanism and universalism—an idea of a solidarity that also allows for diversity and difference and reciprocal tolerance. This was a bit slippery, but interesting. It was also very loaded because of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Another interesting issue ran throughout the discussion: the problem of geographical scale. The theme was introduced by Saskia Sassen, who proposed that the idea that “new geographies” be an organizing principle for the whole volume. While unlikely, she was right that this theme implicitly runs through many of the topics: new geographies of the economic, of the state, of identity. What is especially interesting are the disjunctures in the geographical scales at which problems are generated and problem-solving institutions are located. The cultural diversity and heterogeneity that characterizes cities is because of flows of people globally, and since they bring their identities with them there is a “new geography” of identity. There is the conventional geographical demarcations of local/regional/national/global and also various notions of networks that transect these scales. These create ambiguous borders and contested rule. The discussion was engrossing, sophisticated, and productive.

We were clearly running out of steam by the afternoon. We had a fairly scattered discussion about culture, education, and media and how to deal with these issues, and another about where health should be placed in the report. We also meandered around the problem of religion and world views, again salient issues because of Charlie Hebdo. How should we think about religion in terms of social progress? Is the issue here tolerance or religion as such? Is the problem understanding how belief systems that give people meaning can become fanatical and intolerant rather than just constitute groundings for action? Perhaps we need a specific discussion of fanaticism? These and many other issues were left on the table as the meeting wrapped up and we went our separate ways.

Social Progress

We live in a time of urgency, where pressing, devastating problems threaten prospects for any sense of advance in social justice and human flourishing. It is easy in such times to slide into fear and despair with a turn to authoritarian repression of problems rather than more emancipatory solutions. The coincidence of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the massive demonstration in favor of pluralism and tolerance, and the two days of intensive discussion on the dilemmas and possibilities of social progress brought all of this into sharp relief, both intellectually and emotionally.  Social Progress is, of course, a fraught expression much criticized for implying some kind of unitary vision of human betterment. Yet, it is crucial to sustain some sense of hope for progress, and for this sociologists have a vital role to play in diagnosing the problems of the world as it is, pointing the way forward to a better world that could be, and understanding the nature of the obstacles we face to get there.

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