Readings on Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and Violence

In the days after the shooting at the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo‘s offices and the anti-Muslim violence that has followed (and anti-Muslim sentiment that preceded it), many people have had a lot of things to say. Despite being broadly against violence and in support of free speech, I’ve been uncomfortable with what a lot of people are saying and presses are printing. I’ve struggled to articulate it all, and so I’ll rely on the following.

In an early and succinct response to “#JeSuisCharle, Angus Johnston stated that:

An odious piece of writing doesn’t become not-odious because it offends someone odious. A pointlessly crappy cartoon remains a pointlessly crappy cartoon even if the cartoonist is targeted for murder.

It’s true (and important) that the murder of people who express stupid ideas stupidly is a threat to free expression more generally. Violence against bad speech can chill good speech, and even bad speech should not be greeted with lethal violence.

But the cure for violence against bad speech isn’t more bad speech.

Adam Shatz questions the “Je suis Charlie” line in a smart critique of George Packer and other liberals who have identified extremist ideology as the only culprit, explaining that:

We have been here before: the 11 September attacks led many liberal intellectuals to become laptop bombardiers, and to smear those, such as Susan Sontag, who reminded readers that American policies in the Middle East had not won us many friends. The slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ expresses a peculiar nostalgia for 11 September, for the moment before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, before all the things that did so much to tarnish America’s image and to muddy the battle lines. In saying ‘je suis Charlie’, we can feel innocent again. Thanks to the massacre in Paris, we can forget the Senate torture report, and rally in defence of the West in good conscience.

Packer’s article isn’t surprising, but it’s also symptomatic. He reacted to 9/11 by supporting the invasion of Iraq. He later became a critic of the war, or at least of its execution. Yet he responded to the Paris massacre by resorting to the same rhetoric about Islamic ‘totalitarianism’ that he invoked after 9/11. He even hints at a civilisational war between Us and Them – or, at least, some of Them, the ‘substantial minority of believers who countenance… a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique’. That such rhetoric helped countenance the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq seems not to occur to him, bathed as he is in what liberal hawks like to call ‘moral clarity’. To demonstrate ‘moral clarity’ is to be on the right side, and to show the courage of a fighting faith, rather than the timorous, context-seeking analysis of those soft on what Christopher Hitchens called ‘Islamofascism’. Packer’s New Yorker article is a declaration of this faith, a faith he confuses with liberalism.

In laying exclusive blame for the Paris massacres on the ‘totalitarian’ ideology of radical Islam, liberal intellectuals like Packer explicitly disavow one of liberalism’s great strengths. Modern liberalism has always insisted that ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter. The Kouachi brothers were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention. They were, above all, beurs, French citizens from the banlieue: Parisians of North African descent.

Regarding how to feel about the attacks and the cartoons, Richard Seymour identified the main problem, stating that: “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.”

The collapsing of these two ideas is what has made me so uncomfortable with the response to the attack.

And here’s Jacob Canfield on the role of satire and its targets:

[T]hese cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking: France’s incredibly marginalized, often attacked, Muslim immigrant community.

[…]

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.

The conversation around these cartoons maintains the status quo, glorifying white men who put down vulnerable populations while also labeling all Muslims as extremists. The conversation about the attacks also does this. Some have stated that this is the worst terrorist attack in Europe since 2005, conveniently forgetting right-wing nationalist and Islamophobe Anders Breivik’s murder of 77 people, mostly children, in 2011.

And I’ll close with Teju Cole, speaking truths on which bodies are mourned and remembered and which ones are left and forgotten:

Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen.

[…]

The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible.

The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.

Edit to add: Another thing I’ve seen making its way around the internet is Mahmood Mamdani’s speech given at the University of Johannesburg a few years ago, on the subject of depictions of Mohammed in European newspapers. Mamdani speaks about the line between blasphemy and bigotry, stating that both “belong to the larger tradition of free speech, but after a century of ethnic cleansing and genocide, we surely need to distinguish between the two strands of the same tradition. The language of contemporary politics makes that distinction by referring to bigotry as hate speech.”

He identifies the “dark side of free speech, its underbelly: how power can instrumentalize free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice” before delving into what kinds of speech are identified as acceptable and which are not. He defines them thus:

Blasphemy is the practice of questioning a tradition from within. In contrast, bigotry is an assault on that tradition from the outside. If blasphemy is an attempt to speak truth to power, bigotry is the reverse: an attempt by power to instrumentalize truth. A defining feature of the cartoon debate is that bigotry is being mistaken for blasphemy.

This distinction, I think, can be helpful in identifying the problem with these instances of “free expression” – and further explains why we shouldn’t be amplifying offensive speech in the name of defending free speech.

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