01/21/2015 11:50 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Charlie, Secular Culture and Practical Wisdom

Tragedies shrink communication. They take us by surprise, and force us to use slogans and tweets. It is emotional contraction. Understanding, however, is an act of expansion. It requires patience: the privilege of those who are not personally touched by the crippling effects of tragedy. Let us use this privilege. Let us be respectful, but also brave. Let us condemn the killings, but also expand. In doing so, we discover that the commentary of the Parisian tragedy has been largely based on a number of faulty assumptions.

According to many, the brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo has been an aggression against the secular understood as the realm where freedom of speech is not limited by religious or ideological constraints. In painting this picture, commentators have evoked the Age of Reason. In a society based on the values of the Enlightenment, it has been argued, humor should be un-restrained. But, is this the case? Is the secular really a neutral sphere? And, should Voltairean reason be the only guideline for satire in the West?

In France (but also, in more subtle ways, in other contexts) the secular is portrayed as an aseptic meeting place: a locus that you enter by leaving cultural and religious rules behind. The public is deemed to be incompatible with religious symbols, and the secular as an a-cultural realm. Now, as any anthropologist would know, the notion of a completely 'a-cultural' sphere is extremely problematic. Mainly because it does not exist.

Even those of us who believe in trans-cultural truths know that these truths are always expressed in culturally specific ways. And here lies the paradox of an a-cultural secular. 'Our' secular comes with a supposedly a-cultural demand: enter a place where what is culturally un-offendable can be offended. However, this request is based on culturally specifically European roots: the Enlightenment, with its freedom from religious constraints, as much as the Gospels, with their command to keep Caesar and God separated.

The secular asks us to create a society where everyone renounces to a little bit of his culture in order to create the conditions of coexistence. However, it does so by excluding itself from this very logic of equal renunciation. While it asks everyone to be vulnerable to irony and criticism, it makes sure that those who are less familiar with European cultural notions are more vulnerable than others. It presupposes equality, but it demands inequality. So, how do we proceed?

First of all, we need some clarifications. Understanding that the secular is cultural does not support the arguments of many right wing movements in Europe. When these say that Western values should be protected, they use a faulty notion of 'culture', and ignore that cultures are always 'contaminated', often by the very act of preserving them from contamination. Rather, this critique should make us aware of the deep causes of radicalization.

It is by understanding the difficulty to fit in, and not by claiming a supposed incompatibility between Islamic culture and the a-cultural secular that these cause are to be found. Islam has the concept of Jihad, but this concept has rules, and those who attacked Charlie disrespected them. It is the heaviness of cultural demands dressed up as a-cultural requests that pushes those who do not fit to react in rage by 'exaggerating' their own culture, by breaking their own rules. The above -mentioned cultural contamination applies here as well. It is a contextual reaction, not straightforward application of religious principles.

These clarifications force us also to abandon old-fashioned lefty claims that have been dismissed by contemporary leftist intellectuals like Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek. Namely, the notion that religions are threats for the a-cultural secular. The Enlightenment has furnished colonialism with a justificatory language: now that we have reason, we have to export it. In the same way, Christianity, found on the command "to love the enemy", has been used violently. This is not a matter of secular versus religion (once again a culturally specific Western notion). Rather this is the way in which all cultures work. When put into practice they are surprisingly incoherent.

The other thing about culture is that we cannot get rid of them. But this is not necessarily a bad news. Cultures change, but we will always be cultural creatures, in the West as elsewhere. What we need to understand, however, is that all cultures are composite entities. Je suis more than the Enlightenment. There are many discourses in the Western cultural repertoire, some of which might help us more then Voltairean supposedly a-cultural reason in dealing with the issues brought about by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

The Western tradition of satire (with the exclusion of Nazi humour) is based on the need to ridicule the powerful, not on humoring the creed of religious minorities. Psychoanalysis teaches us that it is social and psychological wounds, and not the sleep of reason, that generate monsters. All these 'western discourses' are much more apt when it comes to analyze the attacks on Charlie. One, in particular, is very useful: the notion of 'practical wisdom'.

This concept (that Aristotle called "phronesis', and Cicero "prudentia") is key in Western Philosophy and Politics. McIntyre was a great fan of it. It indicates the practice ability to discern reality, to foresee consequences, to know the context. What context? French Muslims are a minority that struggles, French colonialism in Muslim countries ended only fifty years ago, both ISIS and many European media foster the faulty discourse of a clash of civilization between Islam and the West. Practical wisdom allows us to see that the vignettes on the prophet Mohammed do not exist in an a-cultural vacuum, but in this specific context, where they acquire an antagonistic meaning.

Obviously, this was not the meaning intended by the satirists. But in a society where the presence of different cultures is a fact of life, humor cannot afford to be a-contextual. We need to know the politics of what we do, particularly because this sensibility is part of our cultural background. It is not a matter of being less secular, less Muslim, or less Christian. Rather we need to find in our cultural repertoires elements that allow us to live with each other. Obviously, we will do that in culturally specific ways, but it is a start. Forget about the myth of a-culturalism. Cultures might be our only hope.