History Today column: Charlie Hebdo and the judgement of history

As I write this, millions of people are on the streets of France to protest about the murders of eight writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo, of four Jewish patrons of a kosher food store, and of three police officers.

Much comment in the media has identified the slaughter in Manichean terms, reflecting a battle between religious sensibilities and free speech, between the forces of reaction and modernity, between Islam and the West – and so on.

We, as historians, have to judge such claims – both in the present and where they arise in the past. Discerning motive – or finding a way to calibrate the balance of motives in individual acts – is perhaps the hardest task we face. It is an intellectual challenge of course; but it is also a narrative challenge. How far to use the individual act to explain wider societal, cultural and intellectual forces; how far to claim those forces diminish the role of the individual actor, diminish the extent to which his or her uniquely personal experiences shaped and defined their choices.

It is curious that journalists and politicians on both left and right have been much happier discussing the murders in Paris in terms of sweeping cultural wars than in terms of individual actors. For some, they arose out of racism, ‘Islamophobia’ and various kinds of economic and political imperialism. For others, they were another bloody skirmish in the West’s war with ‘Islamofascism’.

It might be glib to suggest the attraction of such responses lay in their simplicity and neatness. Glib, but not necessarily untrue. Few people like to let events redefine their worldviews; editorial writers and politicians like it less than most. Historians, I like to think, are made of sterner – if more supple – stuff.

One of my first thoughts on hearing of the killings at Charlie Hebdo was Milton’s dictum in Areopagitica: “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, the image of God”. Milton’s language as the passage extends is emotive, powerful: massacre, homicide, martyrdom. Censorship is a kind of murder. The concept of murder itself – and the threat of murder – as a kind of censorship does not seem to be in his vocabulary.

Not that Milton would have approved of Charlie Hebdo, of course. Far from it. His lines

“Licence they mean when they cry Liberty;
For who loves that must first be wise and good:
But from that mark how far they rove we see,
For all this waste of wealth and loss of blood.”

could almost have been written with the recent events in Paris in mind. For Milton – as for some of those who would import rigid Islamic standards of blasphemy into European society – a free press was intended to enable God’s Englishmen and women to find a truer path to revealed wisdom. He did not understand why the people, in their wisdom, had thought to use it otherwise.

There have always been people like those at Charlie Hebdo who, wherever the boundaries of free speech are, can be found pushing against them. Causing offence is almost a raison d’etre for it, and the magazine’s savage glee at doing so places it somewhere in the arc between South Park and Jonathan Swift.

But, given the magazine’s many provocations, were the forces of history such that the killings were inevitable? Or should we allow more for the role of contingency and chance in what happens – in the present as much as in the past?

As historians, we try to make patterns out of encounters and events, to sift for meaning beyond the oddities and quirks of each human actor. But surely we must resist the temptation to fit each of us wholly and neatly into a wider ideology or identity, to make coherent rational wholes of humans who are rarely less than contradictory and impulsive at the best of times.

Arguably, perhaps, the true definition of civilisation is the absence of a demand for too much intellectual clarity and precision in each other. As individuals and as societies, perhaps the more tolerant we are of both our own contradictions and those of our fellow humans, the more civilised we shall be.

 

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