Charlie Hebdo: What’s a teacher to say?

The horrifying massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris cannot be ignored. It is a deeply disturbing and highly emotional story of deep significance in the modern world. But how does a teacher deal with this in a way that is both meaningful and responsible?

In my teaching career, my students and I have been (distant) witness to

  • Deadly earthquakes, including the 2010 Haitian earthquake that killed 316,000 and the 2005 quake that killed 86,000 in Pakistan.
  • The 1989 Montréal Massacre.
  • The 9/11 terror acts.
  • The 1989 Salman Rushdie fatwa.
  • The collapse of the Soviet Union
  • The 1999 Columbine Massacre.
  • The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami that killed 230,000.

You get the idea. There have been many more, but these are obvious and significant.

Now not all current events belong in all classes. Particularly in junior high/middle school and high school, students typically travel from class to class and teacher to teacher and will not benefit from the same discussion in every class period. Teachers need to make a decision about relevance. On the other hand, there is a risk that some students will get no classroom time on great issues that may shape our world.

First, think about your students. How old are they? What can they understand? What do they need to understand? Often with young children, the most important lesson is that people have been hurt, but they, themselves, are safe. Empathy is valuable; terrifying children is not. Older students will come to class with more fully formed ideas, values and expectations. Sometimes education should challenge these; often it should not.

So what about the Charlie Hebdo massacre?

Students who are ready to understand need the basic facts. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical French magazine that sometimes makes poignant social commentary, and sometimes just seems to be taking shots at people and groups. The magazine has taken on Catholicism, Islam, many governments, and many public figures. It has taken stands on politics, sexuality, religion, race and bigotry. To be sure, Islam is one of the most frequent targets, with a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad frequently appearing on the cover. On January 7, 2015 two men forced entry into the Charlie Hebdo office, killing 12 people including 9 staff members. It became clear right away that the gunmen were seeking some kind of retribution on the magazine for what they saw as blasphemy and insult to Islam.

Much as a teacher, I am encountering this story as events unfold; there is considerable uncertainty over the details. When I began, two suspected gunmen were holding hostages and were surrounded by police. As I write this paragraph, it is reported that both suspected gunmen have been killed. Obviously many facts will come forth in the coming days. If I chose, I can come back and edit this blog. Teachers can “reteach” what they tell their students, but there is a risk of causing long-term beliefs to solidify, making correction difficult. Teachers must cautious in how they speculate.

So far so good. I don’t see anything particularly problematic about a teacher providing the sort of facts that I have brought forward. Let me ask a slightly harder question: should a teacher (of teenaged students, say) show the sorts of images that the gunmen appear to have found abhorrent? Here’s a gentle image from Charlie Hebdo.

Nov. 2011

The caption translates as “Love is stronger than hate”. That’s a nice sentiment. Not too much to complain about there. But what else is going on? The picture indicates at least some tolerance, if not outright approval, of same-sex sexuality. The image of the Prophet and the editor kissing is provocative not only because it’s surprising, but also because of the messiness with which it is portrayed. This is not a beautiful image; it’s slightly gross.

But there’s a significantly more unsettling aspect to the cover. The hook-nosed caricature of a Middle-Eastern man plays into some ancient and unwholesome stereotyping. Maybe it’s time to teach about racist stereotypes in the media. Or is there time? It’s a different story, but it’s here. It’s presented itself and it won’t go away. Do you ignore it and hope for the best? Do you risk being part of a different but still serious problem? Are you harming your students by dropping this on them?

There’s another story here, too. That Charlie Hebdo cover is from the November 2011 issue; it followed the firebombing of the magazine offices. Where do you go with this?

As you ponder these questions, take a look at a more challenging cover.

Here the caption translates as “The film that ignites the Muslim world” and in the photo, the Prophet says, “And my ass? You like my ass?” I have a hard time making sense of this one. What are they trying to say? Is this political commentary? Is this meaningful satire? Or is it simply gratuitous vulgarity and insult? It’s a worthwhile discussion. Maybe Charlie Hebdo really did publish garbage it should have shown the maturity to file away. If so, does immaturity and poor judgment justify mass slaughter? Mature students surely can benefit from this discussion.

But as I go on, perhaps there is some unease settling into you, dear reader. Nobody is forcing anyone to buy Charlie Hebdo. If you don’t like what you see or read on this page you can just click away. No harm done.

But students are trapped.

They can’t just walk out of your class. They can’t simply turn off their attention. They can’t easily (or often successfully) challenge the authority of the teacher to put these images before them. For some students, these images are truly distressing. These images are an affront to their most deeply held beliefs. Imagine these cartoons being redrawn with your family members in compromising situations. Think of the things you would not want people to have in mind when they think of you.

As a teacher you have a number of difficult decisions to make. Your students deserve a fair and reasonable take on such an event. Your students need to understand the background and ethical ideas at play. (The easy one is this: free speech is protected in France, and there is no legal or moral justification for the murders.) How can you get this to your students without risk of harm to them?

Weigh it carefully. Be fair. Do not subject your students to images they might legitimately seek to avoid outside of school. It’s not easy. But it has to be done. And teachers have to be accountable for the decisions they make.


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