THE BLOG
01/12/2015 01:43 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

School Bullies and Je Suis Charlie

Thursday and Friday of last week, teachers and students joined voices across the globe in declarations of "Je Suis Charlie." A statement of solidarity: teachers and students standing with those who condemn the barbaric murder of the French cartoonists; teachers and students affirming the liberty-or-death importance of democratic ideals.

That same Friday, as French authorities closed in on the attackers, a world away I was looking into the tear-streaked face of an 11 year-old boy. We were discussing how the other kids could be so mean, how they didn't seem to understand that their jokes were causing such pain. Or maybe they did understand, and yet they still kept mocking.

As a public school principal, I spend a lot of time thinking about the line between humor and harassment, teasing and taunting, satire and bullying. I am drawn to those commentaries on the Charlie Hebdo massacre that explore this. For instance, this piece by Hussein Rashid, professor at Hofstra University:

Charlie Hebdo has a right to publish whatever it wants. At the same time, the material was racist. It did not matter if the images were going after Muslims, blacks or Jews; it was always about reinforcing racial and religious hierarchies. In a country where women's headgear is legislated, religious expression is curtailed and a former prime minister calls minorities "scum," what Hebdo does seems like bullying.

Some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons indeed seem like bullying -- because they don't "punch-up," they "punch-down." The cartoonists pride themselves on being "equal opportunity offenders," willing to provoke anyone, whether it's those in power or people of lower social status, such as the Muslim population in France. In a stratified and dangerous post-colonial society, one can see these provocations as heroic assertions of free speech, or one can see it like this -- from The Daily Beast:

There's no particular merit to being an "equal-opportunity offender" -- indeed, it's lazy and cheap, a way to avoid being held accountable for anything you say because none of it is part of a moral worldview or to be taken seriously.

I recommend reading this whole piece, by Arthur Chu, a frank discussion of the problematic nature of "no-holds-barred" satire, particularly in a post-colonial context. Here's some more:

The whole reason the concept of responsible satire has been summed up as "punch up, don't punch down" is to acknowledge that not all your targets of satire start out on an equal footing. Francois Hollande is not on the same level as girls who have been kidnapped into sexual slavery, and having the same "no-holds-barred" attitude toward them both is not the same as treating them fairly.

I mean, Muslims in France right now aren't doing so great. The scars of the riots nine years ago are still fresh for many people, Muslims make up 60 to 70 percent of the prison population despite being less than 20 percent of the population overall, and France's law against "religious symbols in public spaces" is specifically enforced to target Muslim women who choose to wear hijab -- ironic considering we're now touting Charlie Hebdo as a symbol of France's staunch commitment to civil liberties.

Muslims in France are clearly worse off overall than, say, Jean Sarkozy (the son of former president Nicholas Sarkozy) and his wife Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, but Charlie Hebdo saw fit to apologize for an anti-Semitic caricature of Ms. Sebaoun-Darty and fire longtime cartoonist Siné over the incident while staunchly standing fast on their right to troll Muslims by showing Muhammad naked and bending over -- which tells you something about the brand of satire they practice and, when push comes to shove, that they'd rather be aiming downward than upward.

The 11 year old and I were discussing this kind of pushing and shoving, the kind of teasing that aims downward. It can be common in schools: the clumsy kids teased by more able athletes; the less conventionally cute teased by those who feel pretty; kids from handsome homes denigrating those from the trailer park; the straight kids putting down the gay kids; the able readers making fun of those who struggle.

Punching-down -- bullying -- is common to the identity melee that is adolescence. Nearly everyone is seeking some kind of certainty at this time of identity upheaval, and many get their sense of self through the status prism, elevating some and degrading others -- often harshly and publicly.

And those of us familiar with stories of adolescent suicide, homicide, and other acts of violence, understand that these questions of status are not petty concerns. The struggle for identity is a battle: the stakes are high and it can become bloody in its extremes. It therefore matters very much how you fight this battle day-to-day. So I spend a lot of time in the principal's office working with young people to understand the identity journey they are on -- including how they negotiate the boundaries between criticism and cruelty, teasing and taunting, my freedom to speak and your freedom from harassment.

I believe that our artists and poets must provide mirrors that are brutally honest sometimes. I was once principal at the James Baldwin School, named for a man whose criticisms of American hypocrisy, injustice, convention and complacency were fierce. But when an artist like Baldwin makes a person tremble, it may be from painful self-revelation, it may be rage at injustice, it may be joy or deep sadness -- but it won't be from the pain of feeling ridiculed.

I am sickened by the violence in Paris last week. I condemn the killers and mourn the deaths of the artists. But because of how I think battles for democracy and identity should be fought, I can't je-suis-proclaim my solidarity or affirm these cartoons as heroic. I want my students to believe that heroes in a democracy don't punch-down.