The attack by Islamic terrorists on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the death of twelve people is appalling enough, even without the implied attack on a free press and freedom of expression. We are naturally outraged, and the impulse to join together in solidarity under the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ banner is almost overwhelming.
But I’m resisting the temptation, and I’m not very happy, because it’s an uncomfortable position to be in. Here’s why. First take a look at the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed cartoons, with English translations.
Some of these cartoons are vile, for example this one.
Compare it to this antisemitic cartoon from the Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer.
Both cartoons vilify an entire religion and by implication all its followers. Now you might say that satire is meant to be offensive, and of course it is. The great tradition of British cartoon satire held nothing back, and Steve Bell is its torch bearer. Here’s an example of his work.
The image of George Osborne is personalised, as with Muhammed, but it’s not implicating every Tory voter as scum of the earth. Or presenting a stereotype, as in the Der Sturmer cartoon, inviting the reader to tar all Tory voters with the same brush.
The point is that if freedom of expression is sacrosanct, then some of those expressions will inevitably be racist, zenophobic, antisemitic, Islamophobic. You have to ask who produced them and why. So the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ meme is fine when you’re defending an abstract right, but the Devil’s in the details. It’s such a big tent that any racist, zenophobe and Islamophobe can happily crowd in, along with the people who genuinely care about freedom of expression.
And I’m choosy about the people I associate with.
Yes, of course you’re right. I just saw this 2007 quote from Clive James on another blog:
‘…there’s every reason to think that civilization is simply too strong to be brought down by terrorist activity. But I don’t want to foist on you any false hopes; and it would be a false hope to say that if you learn enough, if you love Botticelli enough, if you listen to Beethoven enough then the enemy will retreat. It’s not going to happen.’
Extremism is the fault of all of us. The enemy is within us.
We’re all capable of extremism, and the most beguiling excuse is the perceived need to defeat an opposing extremism. The trick is to do it without becoming the enemy. Islamist terrorists are very good at provoking knee-jerk reactions in which ordinary Muslims are demonised.
It’s one thing to ridicule the oppressed or the down-trodden but thumbing your nose at bullies and warmongers and oppressors and slave masters is necessary. Very very necessary. The Nazis distributed hateful cartoons of Jewish people but the Nazis also rounded up Jewish people and killed them. The awful racist cartoons of the Little Black Sambo or the big lipped impossibly ignorant black-skinned big eyed negro from the American slave era through the civil rights era depicted an oppressed people. The oppressor making fun of the oppressed. While the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are disgusting they are a response to fear and terrorism and threats and bullying. In my opinion there wasn’t a cartoonist at that paper who didn’t know they were going to die in a terrorist attack. They purposely made themselves targets. They purposely made every cartoon as offensive as possible. The Muslim terrorists do not have political power like the Nazis or the American racist but they have the reputation of the bully. Not just the willingness to commit heinous violent acts but a history of it. You have to stand up to a bully even when you know you are bound to get your nose broken, your office firebombed or your body riddled with bullets. I am not Charlie. I do not have the courage or the conviction. I do not have the balls nor the brains. I am not Charlie because I am too frightened of my own mortality. But that doesn’t mean I don’t wish I were them. Je suis Charlie is an aspiration. When considering satire one must consider the source and the target at once. Not comparing only sources to sources or targets to targets. Satire out of context is always offensive. A small boy telling a much larger one that his mother’s a whore… that’s offensive. A small boy telling his larger bully that that boy’s mother is a whore, loud enough for everyone in the schoolyard to hear… well that’s just stupid… and also fearless… and also necessary. Very very necessary.
Very interesting points, Mel, made with great passion! Thank you.
I agree that satire is completely necessary in the face of governments and non-state thugs. But motives and targets are important. Charlie Hebdo, in targeting Mohammed, insults all the ordinary Muslims who wouldn’t dream of shooting anyone. It should be targeting the Islamists who use violence to pursue their world view. They don’t speak for all Mulslims, just as the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t speak for all Christians.
Of course, Charlie Hebdo should be free to mock Islam or any other religion. As an atheist, I have no horse in this race, and reserve the right to do the same. But I also reserve the right not to climb onto the Je Suis Charlie bandwagon when I don’t agree with their motives or targets.