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Charlie Hebdo, laughter, dogma and ‘truth’

The recent “terrorist” attacks at the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, France, is a stark reminder of something that the Italian semiotician, philosopher, novelist and universal scholar Umberto Eco thematised in his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1998), namely, the supposedly negative, mutually exclusive relationship between what is taken to be absolute, unquestionable TRUTH, and laughter — good old, down-to-earth human laughter.

Those who have read this poststructuralist literary masterpiece — poststructuralist, because it shatters literary categories predicated on hard-and-fast literary genre-boundaries. It is at one and the same time a novel, a philosophical text, an introduction to semiotics and to the history of the Middle Ages, and it is disguised as a medieval whodunnit. It is the story of (and supposedly written by) Adso, a novice priest travelling with Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk with a reputation for erudition and intellectual prowess.

Brother William has been summoned to a Benedictine abbey situated high on top of a rocky mountainside by the abbot to investigate some suspicions of heresy involving Franciscans, but finds himself engaged in an attempt to solve a series of mysterious murders that plague the little Benedictine community.

From the outset one can tell that this riveting tale was written by a semiotician, about a semiotician-detective. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the exemplary semiotician detective, who excels at decoding any crime-scene with regard to clues indexing the culprit’s modus operandi or identity, and Brother William fits into the same category. Early on, as they trudge up the mountain path, William and Adso hear a commotion in front of them, and to the latter’s astonishment, when they encounter people looking for a horse, William deftly reconstructs what happened there from “signs” left in the path and tells them where they would find the horse. It is with similar interpretive acumen that he deciphers the scenes of the murders that are committed in this supposed place of sanctity.


William tackles the unravelling of the mysterious deaths with his usual mixture of semiotic circumspection and faultless logical inference. In the course of successive events the reader is introduced to a number of important characters, and naturally one is receptive to any indication that one of them might be the murderer. The recent events at Charlie Hebdo in Paris resonate with a narrative thread of the novel that concerns the question, whether humour, laughter, and ridiculous or ludicrous images are compatible with “truth”, and the main champion of the claim that they are incompatible is the librarian, a monk named Jorge. Here is a passage that sets out the terrain of the debate. The monk Benno is answering a question by William (p. 90-91):

“ … Jorge was saying that it is not licit to use ridiculous images to decorate books that contain the truth. And Venantius observed that Aristotle himself had spoken of witticisms and plays on words as instruments better to reveal the truth, and hence laughter could not be such a bad thing if it could become a vehicle of the truth. Jorge said that, as far as he could recall, Aristotle had spoken of these things in his Poetics, when discussing metaphor. And these were in themselves two disturbing circumstances, first because the book of the Poetics, unknown to the Christian world for such a long time, which was perhaps by divine decree, had come to us through the infidel Moors … Jorge added that the second cause of uneasiness is that in the book the Stagirite [Aristotle] was speaking of poetry, which is infima doctrina and which exists on figments. And Venantius said that the psalms, too, are works of poetry and use metaphors; and Jorge became enraged because he said the psalms are works of divine inspiration and use metaphors to convey the truth, while the works of the pagan poets use metaphors to convey falsehood and for purposes of mere pleasure … ”

Here we already have all the components of a potentially deadly field of differences that morph into antagonisms that motivate someone to murder human beings in the novel, and similarly, motivated some individuals to massacre staff members at Charlie Hebdo. These words might be construed as Eco’s allusion to what is known either as ideology (a set of ideas, dogmatically adhered to, which dictates one’s actions) or as discourse (a systematic use of language in such a way that it is interwoven with one’s actions). In both cases — whether you think of it as ideology or as discourse — there is a conspicuous link with power, or empowerment: the ideas, or the language to which the ideologically or discursively interpellated person is committed, forms the basis of behaviour characterised by intransigence or rigidity, in short, by dogmatic behaviour. And once this has occurred, dogma starts masquerading as TRUTH.

Philosophy is in principle different from, and opposed to, such a stance, because it is constantly animated by the constitutive possibility of questioning the very things that one has hitherto accepted as true. This is what philosophers, artists and scientists have in common: any previously reached position has to be interrogated and, if a better answer can be formulated, the previous one must be discarded, even if this is done very differently in these three domains.

But once a person has committed themselves to a dogmatic stance as described above, he or she is blind to alternative answers — for them there is only ONE answer, and anyone who questions this is an enemy. Dogmatists are blind to the implications of the demonstrable fallibility and finitude of human beings, which philosophy, by contrast, is founded upon: we cannot know anything with absolute certainty, as Socrates taught. Even if such dogmatists, especially religious ones, admit that we are fallible — they call it being sinful — they believe that it does not matter, because they believe they “have found” the absolute TRUTH, and can therefore sit in judgment on all others who “have not found it”. And as the example of Jorge in The Name of the Rose demonstrates so frighteningly, according to them no one is allowed to show a sense of humour — something that is, in my humble opinion, one of the redeeming traits of our species. Instead, if you dare laugh at the TRUTH — in the form of drawing cartoons ridiculing hallowed personalities, for example — you should be punished, preferably terminally.

It is this stance of uncompromising condemnation of everyone who dares to make fun of certain dogmatically held beliefs which animates individuals like the ones who arrogated to themselves the right to render judgment on the employees at Charlie Hebdo, for their “sin” of daring to depict the objects of dogmatic belief in a satirical light. To such blindly dogmatic people (whether they are Hindu, Christian, capitalist, Jewish, communist, or Muslim) one should say: learn to laugh a bit at yourselves; life is very boring without laughter. Besides, you, as much as anyone else, are finite, fallible creatures, even if the truth you believe in is supposedly absolute. In other words, you can make mistakes, too. Get a life, learn to laugh.

The novel ends where William, having discovered (predictably) that Jorge is behind the series of murders, stands helplessly, watching the abbey burn after Jorge has set fire to the library. William tells Adso (p. 471):

“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them … Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, TO MAKE TRUTH LAUGH, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

This book was first published in 1980 and the English translation in 1998, before 9/11, before Charlie Hebdo; it is obvious, however, that the last quotation applies to these events with uncanny accuracy. But not only to them; it applies to every instance where human beings forget their own limitations and believe blindly that they have stumbled on the absolute truth. Such people should learn to distinguish between what they regard as the absolute truth (which is always only partially knowable), on the one hand, and their (perhaps) absolute faith in it, on the other. Faith is not knowledge; it is a species of belief.

Image – People gather to take part in a unity rally “Marche Republicaine” on January 11, 2015 on the Republique square in Paris. (AFP)


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Cliff Smith Cliff Smith 12 January 2015

    Always puzzled me how certain people come to the conclusion that Allah is incapable of popping off his foes with a simple heart attack or some painful cancer. Instead they feel compelled to take matters into their own hands – with a Kalashnikov.

  2. Sydney Kaye Sydney Kaye 13 January 2015

    Yes, “truth” should go into speech marks, but I don’t get “terrorist” attack.

  3. Bert Bert 13 January 2015

    Sydney – I used scare quotes with “terrorist” because it is a term that has become a portmanteau word, a hold-all, for a whole lot of differently motivated assaults or attacks against people. I would rather call the individuals who killed the Charlie Hebdo journalists religious fanatics; that’s more specific. As far as I know, the first ever “terrorism” in history was from the side of the state, post-French Revolution, against the people – which puts a different complexion on the term. People have been so brainwashed today that they believe terrorism is always perpetrated against the state or against the people by agents not representing the state. The state (any state) is just as capable of “terrorism”, hence I try to be more specific, or I warn against generalisation by using scare quotes.

  4. Bert Bert 13 January 2015

    Margarita – Than you for the link. When you see my response to Sydney, which I posted before I read the Chomsky piece, you will see that he and I are on the same page.

  5. Isabella vd Westhuizen Isabella vd Westhuizen 13 January 2015

    So there is no truth Bert it is all relative..
    Pretty weak as a philosopher if you go that route

  6. Richard Richard 14 January 2015

    This is a very timeous piece (by definition) and insightful. I wonder, though, whether the real intention of the assassinations is to present a version of “truth” that has a greater veracity than that offered by libertarian European culture. In other words, is this really an ideological battle, or is it actually something simpler?

    Islam presents a perfect amalgam of religion and politics. As we saw in Egypt, people will exercise their democratic right and vote, after great upheavals, but they will vote for an Islamist party, because, as good Muslims, that is what they feel they should do, as it is what they are required to do. So Islam presents a “requirement” aspect, which is something I don’t believe fits into democracy, at least not of a properly majoritarian sort (many democracies are not majoritarian, since they abide by laws that constrain actual democracy more than empower it). Because people do what is expected, they don’t do what they wish or feel is best for society, but rather what they must. It turns the exercise into a sort of mindless, inevitable exercise of Islamic identity.

    If you place such people into a society that operates according to a different set of values and behaviour, you can see that the challenges offered by a satirical magazine such as Charlie Hebdo offend Muslims as an identity, which trumps the theological proscriptions the religion might enforce. It reveals that this whole sorry event is a sort of test of power, whether the greater society in which it occurs is strong enough to withstand the assault of people who clearly abide by a completely different set of identity values. Although the overt reason is an insult to their prophet, it is actually about insulting a group that feels itself strong enough, and different enough, to take on the stronger culture.

    It is not even necessary for the finer points of discussion or debate to be entered into by the challenger: the challenging group know what the struggle is actually all about, even if the leaders of the dominant group do not, as yet. For some, the underlying reality of the situation only dawns on them once it is actualised.

    What this really is, is simply a power-struggle. Intellectual or other dimensions are paid lip-service to, as an excuse by the challengers, but the monolithic nature of the politico/religious amalgamation of Islam makes it particularly difficult to open up to normal human laughter and pursuit, as you so eloquently state. As cultural beings, we tend to fight our battles abstractly, in the realm of ideas, but frequently the patina is broken through, and we see the actual violence underlying it. Rather, I suppose, like Marx saw the underlying violence of capitalism beyond the pieces of paper that were money.

    How depressing!

  7. Bert Bert 14 January 2015

    Richard – Thank you for that analysis. I tend to agree that most people prepared to defend their religious (or other kind of ideological) turf don’t even think about it as ideology, which is why I framed it in terms of the notion of truth, even if this notion functions subliminally. They probably do understand their actions as a defence of sorts, or simply something that issues from an imperative to do what their religious precepts demand. But I believe that what is at stake are divergent conceptions of truth – on the part of the religious fanatics as well as the dogmatic defenders of capitalism or communism, a simplistic, monolithic notion of what truth is, and on the part of poststructuralist thinkers, a complex, historical notion of truth, that can never be regarded (as Isabella evidently does) as something absolute, always accessible to people in exactly the same manner, but always being a function of changing historical, social, political, cultural, scientific, etc., conditions. This does not mean truth is “relative”, Isabella, but that it is relational, which is something very different. Unless you are prepared to understand things in all their complex inscriptions in overlapping contexts, you will never unravel what is true or not, Read Eco’s novel.

  8. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 14 January 2015

    There will never be an end to this debate and certainly no resolution to it because in the case of homo sapiens ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are both paths to knowledge, sometimes equal, sometimes one outweighing the other, the difference being which path you favour.
    Take Richard’s point – that because people do what is expected, they don’t do what they wish, or what is best for society. I do not accept that. By what standard do you decide that or distinguish the difference?
    Then there is the Xtian view below, that truth is not relative. That truth is relative is a self-evident truth. Witness the discussion here.
    People will argue who’s ‘right’ and who’s ‘wrong’ in the Charlie Hebdo murders till the cows come home, but there is no answer because there is shared universal idea.
    That is why homo sapiens needs the state.

  9. Richard Richard 14 January 2015

    As if more evidence were needed of the dogma cited in the piece above. This from USA Today recently, citing Anjem Choudary “Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone.

    “Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.”

    He goes on to say that Muslims and non-Muslims must realise the consequences of insulting Mohammed because the world is “increasingly unstable and insecure”.

    “Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities” Choudary said. “In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

    He continues by saying that Muslims hold Mohammed dearer than any family member and therefore will defend him with their lives, even taking the law into their own hands.

    “Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them.

    “The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia [Islamic law] is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, “Whoever insults a Prophet kill him.”

    “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

    The Islamic propagandist is known in Britain for inspiring a number of young men to become jihadists and plan attacks in Britain and abroad.

    Despite his influence in jihadi circles and creation of hard-line groups such as al-Muhajiroun, Islam4UK and Muslims Against Crusades, Choudary has managed to evade police arrest largely thanks to his studies as a lawyer.

  10. Richard Richard 15 January 2015

    If democracy is to succeed, it must be based on the application of reason to inform a choice. Otherwise democracy in Islam is a sham and is really simply rubber-stamping a theocracy. You can’t claim a democracy if people are bullied into placing their cross in a certain box because they are afraid of going to hell.

  11. Richard Richard 15 January 2015

    Indeed. As a metaphor, think of quantum physics: matter can behave as waves or particles, depending on how they are perceived. It is dependent on circumstance. There is no absolute truth about the nature of atomic particles.

    When it comes to primate behaviour (and humans are primates, in case the censors don’t like this fact, I suggest they consult a scientific text) I never really know whether thought informs action, or whether action occurs first, and then thought catches up as a way to excuse it. In my bleaker moments, I think the latter.

  12. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 15 January 2015

    There is an unbridgeable gap between Islam in what is called its ‘fundamental’ or, if you like, purist form and the ideals of western democracy, as there is, of course, between any imperative faith and democracy. The implications of this gap are too frightening for world politicians or for us to confront and so we speak of other things by way of diversion: the right to free speech; absolute and relative truth; multi-culturalism, imperialism and the colonising of minds. But long term only one of these ways of life can prevail because the world has become too small to insulate one opposite from the other. So the conclusion must be that either democracy or Islam must ‘reform’. Many in fact already believe it is the Islamic Reformation that we are living through.

  13. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 15 January 2015

    That is like saying that Malema represents all black people, Hofmeyer represents all white people and Terry Jones represents every Christian.
    Muslims, from around the world, have condemned the attacks. Muslims (and their leaders) were part of the march through Paris.

  14. Herman Hanson Herman Hanson 16 January 2015

    Just like there will be people who will argue for or against Oscar Pistorius. The solution is application of the law without fear or favour (or incompetence). You want to defend your religion; do it peacefully, not with an AK 47. If you elect to use the AK, you go to jail.

  15. Bert Bert 16 January 2015

    Richard – I’m glad to see that TL has placed your comment where you refer to quantum physics. I can’t for the life of me think why it should have been ‘censored’ at first – perhaps it was just a glitch on their part; at least, I hope so.

    Paul – There is a difference, as I pointed out to Isabella, between truth being ‘relative’ (in the sense of relativism, where everything depends on an individual’s ‘perception’, and therefore ‘anything goes’), and truth being ‘relational’, which means that the notion of ABSOLUTE, context-free truth is rejected, but that one can test the truth of insights, statements, theories, etc., in specific relational contexts. Such truth is attainable, but it requires a complexity-oriented approach, which acknowledges the historically situated nature of theories and statements, and follows all the links between the various factors involved in these to ascertain their ‘truth’. The way Einstein’s general theory of relativity was verified during a solar eclipse is an example of this, and in poststructuralist philosophy there are many examples, which often display paradoxical insights, such as that ‘true’ hospitality (or true gift-giving) is ‘impossible’ and ‘possible’ at the same time (Read Derrida’s Cosmopolitanism to understand this).
    Faith and knowledge are not the same, as the difference between the two medieval positions, “I believe in order to know” (Credo ut intelligam), and I understand, in order to believe” (Intellego ut credam; if I recall the Latin correctly), so clearly shows. The medievals knew the difference, and we should not bow to religious fanatics or any other fanatics speaking from a dogmatic ideological position, who claim that faith is knowledge. Kierkegaard also had it right: faith is a ‘leap into darkness’. As a philosopher, one cannot conflate the two.

  16. Richard Richard 16 January 2015

    They may not support it, but it is difficult to gauge. In Islam there is a dispensation called Taqiyya (taqiyya (تقیة taqiyyah/taqīyah) is a form of religious dissimulation, or a legal dispensation whereby a believing individual can deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal or blasphemous acts while they are in fear or at risk of significant persecution) which makes it difficult to tell. But even if we give people the benefit of the doubt, what you say is not equitable. The Quran contains many verses of violence of equal validity with the verses of peace (no less a person than Turkey’s Prime Minister is on the record as saying, “These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it”). To be a Muslim essentially means signing up to the Quran, like being a Maoist means signing up to Maoism. It is an act of conscious decision and will. Being a Christian means signing up to the New Testament, it does not mean signing up to Terry Jones, and being white does not mean signing up to Hofmeyer. Being white means being of Neanderthal/Homo Sapiens European ancestry, it does not infer any ideological belief or predict behaviour.

  17. Richard Richard 16 January 2015

    Sadly, I tend to think that Michel Houellebecq’s latest oeuvre, “Soumission”, is likely closer to reality.

  18. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 16 January 2015

    I think your last sentence marks the difference and contains my point. No doubt philosophy (and certainly ‘science’, which sees knowledge as secular and cumulative and therefore, as you say, ‘relational’) does not conflate the two, but most people are not concerned with these philosophical niceties and many are not troubled by ‘science’. To the man who believes the world is flat, the world is flat. I always puzzle that people miss such a simplicity and go on giving him ‘facts’, trying to ‘reason’ him into seeing that it is round, cursing him when he does not. There is always a contrary ‘truth’. Einstein’s theory that gravity would bend light could be proved because scientists at least shared the belief that it might. Papal Cardinals refused to look through Galileo’s telescope not because they were stupid, but because they would not trust their senses. The views are totally different and opposed but both make sense for their proponents. Kant let the cat out of the bag, as you know. No one can put that scratchy beast back in again.

  19. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 16 January 2015

    Interesting. Myself I would never take that view, not because I am a born optimist (though perhaps I was, who knows?) but because I think there is no evidence things are predestined to go to the bad. People just don’t let them in the end.

  20. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 19 January 2015

    Now take into consideration the Islamic leaders and the average Muslim people who marched through Paris in solidarity. Just because the media can’t ‘find’ any outrage, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. A few years ago, the media ignored the whole ”Not in My Name” protests too.

    As much as I have no time for any religion, the belief that they all turn into murderous barbarians is false. There are moderate Muslims and they need our support. If it wasn’t for the moderates in our country, all hell would have broken out here already.

  21. Richard Richard 21 January 2015

    Taqiyya (taqiyya (تقیة taqiyyah/taqīyah) is a form of religious dissimulation, or a legal dispensation whereby a believing individual can deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal or blasphemous acts while they are in fear or at risk of significant persecution).

    You just don’t know. If people renounce Islam, that is a different story. Until then, they are authorised to tell lies about how they feel. Telling lies in this context makes them observant Muslims, apparently. It is a Catch-22 situation.

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