I promise I'll go back to talking about dandyish things some day, but this is one of those things I just had to write for myself.
There’s a very unpleasant “conversation” happening right now, made all the more distressing not only because the people taking the side opposing mine are people I’ve long respected but because some of us feel that the principle at stake should be fairly uncontroversial, especially for writers, artists, and intellectuals: when someone is murdered for drawing, writing, or creating something, no matter how crude or offensive, their killers are to be unequivocally condemned, and the content of their work is irrelevant to the matter. Instead, you have what Salman Rushdie has called the “But Brigade,” those people who say “I believe in free speech but...” (listen to the chilling audio recording of the attack on the recent Copenhagen freedom of speech panel discussion - one of the panelists is lamenting this very phenomenon when the shots sound out, chairs scrape across the floor, and people hit the ground in fear.)
When it comes to the massacre of cartoonists and journalists at the offices of the small left wing satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January, one would hope that the murderers be condemned, the murdered be respected, and the survivors commended for not caving in to terror. Instead, a subsection of the world’s literary elite has decided to spread the calumny that Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine, bringing with it the unmistakable suggestion that the staff of the magazine somehow had it coming to them or that they were asking for it. In recent weeks, close friends and family members, most of whom don’t read French and have never lived in France - some of whom have never even been to France - have confidently asserted to me that Charlie Hebdo was racist and unfairly insulting to Muslims, having acquired this second-hand opinion seemingly on faith and a couple of cartoons shown to them without any context. I’ll say again that the cartoons themselves, their content, even their intention, are irrelevant in the most important sense: reacting to art and words, however insulting, with murder and violence is disproportionate, to put it at its mildest.
I don’t want to belabor the points that have unfortunately been necessary for so many people to make: that the editorial meeting that was attacked was about Charlie Hebdo’s participation in an upcoming anti-racism event, that the founder of SOS Racisme has passionately defended Charlie Hebdo as an anti-racist publication, that the magazine had a multi-ethnic staff, that Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of very vulgar French satire, particularly targeting the clergy and religious power. Le Monde, determined to find out whether Charlie Hebdo was indeed obsessed with insulting Muslims or even mocking the religion of Islam went through more than 500 of the magazine’s covers from the past 10 years and found that only seven had anything to do with Islam or the Prophet Mohammed (including times when it was mentioned along with other religions.) Accusations that it inordinately targeted Muslims with its satire are completely, verifiably unfounded. The website http://www.understandingcharliehebdo.com has been set up with the unfortunate and tedious mission of explaining the more questionable-looking cartoons to those of us who really have no context for them.
The distinction of questionable-looking is an important one. Cartoons are usually single images. Nuance is not their forte, so they rely particularly heavily on context for the reader’s understanding. As a result, sometimes even the cartoons which seem the most vulgar and offensive at first glance can require a sophisticated understanding of the issues at hand to appreciate the point being made. This is perhaps why so many people, seeing a drawing of a black woman as a monkey or the Nigerian “Chibok Girls” abducted by Boko Haram portrayed as greedy welfare mothers jumped to the immediate conclusion that these are flat-out racist caricatures.
First of all, it’s important to remember that Charlie Hebdo is a newspaper, albeit a deliberately crude and vulgar one, so when they feature a cartoon it’s related to something happening in the news (in fact, whenever Charlie Hebdo caricatured Mohammed, it was because there was some news story related to Islamic fundamentalism or, especially, the political and censorious issues around depicting the prophet.) In the above two instances, Charlie Hebdo was referring ironically to positions taken by the French far-right wing. The cartoonists responsible shouldn’t be blamed too harshly for not working harder to make sure that the relatively few non-French readers of their tiny magazine got the joke about French domestic politics.
Imagine for a moment that someone who speaks no English is flipping through American television and comes across a scene from South Park. Perhaps it’s the one where Native Americans are rubbing slit-eyed half-naked Chinese men on blankets in order to infect South Park’s white population with SARS in order to steal their land. Perhaps its the scene where Kyle gets a “Negroplasty” because he thinks being black will make him a better basketball player. Perhaps it’s the episode in which Cartman, in full Nazi uniform, leads an army of Christian Mel Gibson fans through town chanting anti-Jewish slogans. Perhaps its the episode in which Randy, having guessed the word “Nigger” as an answer on Wheel of Fortune, feels unfairly discriminated against now that everyone thinks of him as “that nigger guy.” In the first case, the viewer needs to know the history of the campaign to infect Native Americans with smallpox in order to steal their land as well as the media hysteria, at the time, over SARS spreading from China. In the second case, the viewer needs to understand common stereotypes about black peoples’ athletic ability as well as controversies about plastic surgery and identity. In the third case, the viewer needs to understand Mel Gibson’s own history as well as the controversy over anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ. In the final case, the viewer needs to be familiar with recent controversies around the use of what’s euphemistically and Voldemortishly called “The N-Word,” and appreciate the risible cluelessness of Randy, who’s too stupid to understand that being called “that nigger guy,” will never be as bad as being called “nigger.”
Without understanding American history, current political cultural context and, perhaps most importantly, the sort of gross and vulgar irony used by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their satire, an unfamiliar viewer might well assume that South Park is a deeply racist show (or misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, Anti-Catholic, Anti-Muslim, or any number of other things,) and I’m sure some humorless people do sourly condemn it for being all of these things and they may have some point. The case of Charlie Hebdo is no different. We don’t need to look far to find another American example of a comedian being righteously pilloried as a racist on the assumption that context is irrelevant. Stephen Colbert, famous for playing an arch-conservative idiot character on television, was the target of an outraged Twitter campaign aimed at having him fired after used a blatantly racist imitation of a Chinese man to make an ironic point about the racism inherent in the Washington Redskin’s name and logo. Again, Charlie Hebdo is no different from this.
What I found particularly distressing is the number of creative, progressive, liberal-leaning people who have subscribed, almost sight-unseen, to the idea that Charlie Hebdo was, if not racist, at least unfairly mean to France’s Muslim minority. Among the many people taking the same side as the Pope and other religious fundamentalists about what is, essentially, an argument about blasphemy and the appropriate response to it, are famous writers including Peter Carey, whose sons I used to babysit. I wrote to Peter to express my disappointment at his anti-Charlie Hebdo protest. It seems to me that Peter and his colleagues who boycotted the PEN America gala have bigger problems with the PEN organization in general, but that isn’t what their statements or protest letter said. They chose to protest Charlie Hebdo’s receipt of a freedom of speech award specifically, citing France’s anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-Maghrebi attitudes. Peter went on the call the whole French nation arrogant, and I’ve recently been assured by several people (who, again, have spent little, if any, time in France,) that the French are very racist. Indeed, I haven’t heard so much gleeful gang-up pile-on French-bashing since the Bush administration, and nobody has yet explained to me how calling the entire French nation and people arrogant and racist is any different from calling all Mexicans lazy or all Arabs misogynistic.
The latest buzz-terms, rapidly becoming as cringe-making, cliched, and overused as “problematic,” “intersectionality,” and “self-empowered,” are “punching up” and “punching down.” I’m personally unaware of any hard and fast rules for satire. Indeed I’d think that comedy and satire can’t flourish if shackled with rules and responsibilities, whether from censorious bodies or governments or simply the icy chill of respectability, taste, or consensus. But for the hell of it let’s say that this is true - that the only appropriate target of satire is the powerful, and that to mock the powerless or disenfranchised, as in the case of French Muslims, is never acceptable.
Again, we can look a the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, particularly the ones featuring the Prophet Mohammed (which, again, were only featured in the magazine when there was some topical newsworthy reason.) These cartoons were never mocking individual Muslims but a symbol of religious authority. In fact, many of the cartoons painted a rather sympathetic picture of the Prophet (more sympathetic than the one in the Koran or his biographies, it seems to me,) showing him depressed that so many of his followers were becoming violent, humorless, and censorious assholes, or him being beheaded by ISIS under suspicion of being an infidel - suggesting the belief, commonly asserted by moderate Muslims around the world, that ISIS is at odds with the true Islam of the Prophet. Now, if some Muslims happen to have their own identities and self-respect so tied up with a long-dead man who spoke to angels, led armies and raiding parties, was barely tolerant of most Christians and didn’t seem too fond of Jews in particular, and had highly dubious sexual and marital morals (I’m talking about Mohammed, in case you thought I was back on Mel Gibson,) to the point where even seeing an image of him wounds them to the core of their very being, then I daresay that’s a personal problem of theirs and a very big problem indeed, especially when it has consequences for the rest of us who don’t believe the extraordinary claims of the Prophet. But Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Mohammed were categorically not personal attacks on individual Muslims or incitements to anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hatred, and if people chose to take them as such that’s entirely their fault (and gross misunderstanding,) and not the cartoonists. As it happens, the people who attacked Charlie Hebdo didn’t do it because Charlie Hebdo was racist or “punching down,” or unfairly maligning Muslims. They did it to avenge the perceived honor of their Prophet, as they stated over and over again. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t attacked for being racist. It was attacked for blaspheming.
A little more on this punching up/punching down nonsense and the allegations that Charlie Hebdo was attacking the powerless. Charlie Hebdo consistently satirized the intrusion of religion - any religion - into politics, and globally Islam is absolutely a political force to be reckoned with. The idea that a small struggling French satirical newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 on its best week was some sort of establishment organ using a privileged and powerful position to unfairly insult the icon of a religion that boasts 1.5 billion followers, 49 countries in which it claims a majority (a few of which control great oil wealth and influence,) is the powerful insulting the powerless would be laughable were it not such a perverse look in the funhouse mirror. The fact that there is a measurable power hierarchy between men holding guns and those holding pens should go without saying. Most importantly, the self-righteous are and should be, a prime target of satire, and nobody is more self-righteous than those who believe they know the mind and will of god, especially those who seek to impose this tyranny on others. Anyone who claims such authority or knowledge deserves to have his nose tweaked. That these are deeply-held beliefs is less than irrelevant: the more deeply-held a belief is the more it should be questioned, criticized, and yes, even mocked and satirized. The size or power of an impermeably self-righteous group doesn’t make ridiculing their beliefs any less fair. Where were the authors lining up to cry foul at mockery of the Mormons or Scientologists? Their religions are far more marginalized and powerless globally than Muslims, and nobody bats an eyelid when their patently absurd beliefs are questioned or ridiculed.
In their letter the anti-PEN protesters mention the idea of “expression that violates the acceptable.” The sight of writers suggesting that some language is “acceptable” and others isn’t is very troubling, and it only raises more questions: is the line clear cut and immovable? Is it different depending on the speaker? On the listener? If a man says “nigger” in a forest and nobody is around to hear it is he still racist? What if only nobody black is around to hear it? Most importantly, who gets to decide what is and is not acceptable - the ancient and noble job of censor? Peter Carey? I hope not Gary Trudeau. The fact is, only I get to decide what language is and isn’t acceptable to me, and although I do get to disagree with or ignore what I don’t like, I don’t have the right to hurt the people who say it or even to stop them from saying it at all.
The authors who signed the PEN letter have a difficult question to answer: how is supporting Charlie Hebdo different from supporting Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence in 1989? The question is difficult to answer without an appeal to taste or literary sophistication, especially because the Satanic Verses was arguably far more critical of the foundations of Islam, suggesting that the Koran might have been man-made rather than the revealed word of god and that the prophet was a human man, and just as capable of being venal and power-hungry (of course most of those who condemned and attacked Rushdie hadn’t read the book and if they had any objection to its content it was usually because they’d been told about some version of the subplot in which the women in a brothel take on the names and personalities of the prophet’s wives - as is so often the case, sex, honor, and female chastity and control are great motivators of the self-righteous.) The forgiving prophet of Charlie Hebdo is a sweetheart by comparison.
Many of the issues of offense, blasphemy, hate speech, and satire are rooted in matters of taste whether people always realize it or not: not so much the taste of the creator, but the taste of the individual reader or viewer, which is something the creator is powerless to control or account for directly. A friend, challenging me, asked me why rape jokes are wrong. I replied that I wouldn’t call any joke on the topic of rape was categorically “wrong,” especially not without hearing it first, and that I could think of a few by the likes of Sara Silverman and Louis C.K. that were hilarious. Ok, he conceded, but what about rape jokes like Danny Tosh’s - why were those rape jokes wrong? I believe that they’re not “wrong” but not funny, ironic, or clever, meaning that they lacked the property that makes something a joke in the first place - without which it just becomes a statement or, at worst, a harangue. My friend insisted that the reason a rape “joke” like Tosh’s is “wrong,” is because it might threaten and traumatize someone who hears it, possibly because they themselves have survived sexual assault.
How an audience will respond is something every creative person considers. Tosh probably knew that most of his audience was stupid enough to laugh at anything he says, were in fact dumb enough to mistake a harangue for a joke provided it was offensive and crude enough. But Danny Tosh, like everybody else, has no direct control over how his audience will actually feel about anything. Such emotional and intellectual control is as impossible as it is undesirable, for it reduces the beautiful complexity of the relationship between creator and audience to one of manipulation. Because of the impossibility of completely accounting for an audience’s reaction, something as subjective as personal offense can’t be the precedent for “acceptable” language or expression, because there’s no way to predict or account for it - and to attempt to do so would inevitably lead to self-censorship and prior restraint. Anyone can potentially be offended by anything. They might even be traumatized or profoundly, deeply upset by something someone says. But that possibility can’t be the standard for governing people’s expression.
What does this have to do with Charlie Hebdo? The point is that anyone can simply declare that they find anything offensive -that alone says nothing about the value of the thing in question, and it says nothing about what should be done about the thing. At a security-heavy PEN event which I attended at NYU a few weeks ago, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo’s film critic said that he finds the French worship of soccer players offensive. He thinks it is vulgar and he wishes his children didn’t have to see posters and magazine covers praising the unimportant lives and feats of these athletes everywhere they look in public. But his solution is to not buy the magazines with soccer players on the cover, to not go to matches or watch them on TV, to ignore commentary on soccer, toss out the sports section of his newspaper, and spend his time on what he thinks are more worthy pursuits. The comments drew laughs, as they were no doubt intended to, but they made an important point: in a free society the audience can choose how to respond just as the creator can choose what to create, but violence is never an option when it comes to expressing ideas and opinions.
People have pointed to French hypocrisy in the case of the arrest of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne on hate speech charges for expressing something that could have been construed as sympathizing with the terrorists who attacked Cahrlie Hebdo. Why is Charlie Hebdo’s satire of the Prophet Mohammed protected free speech and not Dieudonne’s tasteless tweets? I agree completely. It’s a scandal and hypocrisy of the first water and a major blow to the credibility of the French government that they have “hate speech” laws on the books at all - including the laws prohibiting Holocaust denial and the Hitler salute (France has a particularly uneasy national conscience when it comes to its own anti-Semitism going back through Vichy, the Dreyfuss affair, and the Catholic Church’s heresy crusades and now seemingly resurgent in some extremist Muslim circles throughout the country) - and still claim to believe in freedom of speech. People may be interested to learn that Charlie Hebdo - who, just to be clear, are not even remotely in bed with the French government or representative of the entire French nation but are dirty old Soixante-Huitards with a very liberal attitude - also agree that the prosecution of Dieudonne for hate speech was unjust. At the discussion at NYU, the two members of Charlie Hebdo’s staff present unequivocally supported Dieudonne’s right to free speech, spoke out against hate speech laws, and righty said that the antidote to offensive, hateful, or incorrect speech is more speech, not censorship, or, in the case of their friends and colleagues, murder.