Wednesday, January 7, 2015

On Charlie Hebdo & the Politics of Speech, Satire, and Selectivenes

I wanted to put together some thoughts of mine on the Charlie Hebdo incident today.

(1) I am very happy to be reading Karen Armstrong's "Fields of Blood" right now. She does a wonderful job of deconstructing and historicizing the concept of "religious violence." What we call "religious violence" is rarely so simple as its name implies. Such violence is often connected to statecraft, nationalism, resource conflict, economic exploitation, economic disenfranchisement, or numerous other factors. Religious belief rarely acts as motivator outside of a web of other factors, and it can often be an ex post justification to a previously reached conclusion.

(2) I find it strange that the concept of “freedom of speech” or “freedom of the press” (its cousin) is so often brought up in connection to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. These concepts refer to the fact that the *state* cannot (should not) criminalize acts of speech or prevent things from being published or disseminated. They are constitutional protections of dissent from the coercive power of the state. When governments throw journalists into jail, that is an attack on freedom of the press. When governments force (or attempt to force) newspapers to refrain from publishing information, that is an attack on freedom of the press. Etc. etc. The issue of “artistic freedom” is partially but not fully contained within these concepts. They are related insofar as the issue is the *state* preventing the dissemination of certain forms of art (state censorship). However, “artistic freedom” also concerns issues of corporate censorship or self-censorship (due to fear or other forms of pressure) whereas “freedom of speech/expression/press,” in a constitutional sense, does not. The French government is not considering banning political cartoons, so—despite the heinousness of the crime committed—there is no attack on “freedom of speech/the press/expression” in any legalistic or constitutional sense of the word.

(3) Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are amateurish (at best) in style. They are offensive for the sake of being offensive and, as such, can often be virulently racist and are rarely (if ever) remotely clever. There is an intellectual component to good satire. CH lacks that, instead resorting to intellectual laziness.

(4) For satire to be sharp, funny, or (frankly) effective, its target should be power. It is the use of humor and ridicule to reveal the folly of the powerful, to “bring them down to size” (if you will). The attacks on Islam in CH are reproducing a quite commonly held prejudice in France. Their anti-clericalism is also not particularly funny because the Church is not the powerful institution in France it once was. (Anti-clericalism in France was far wittier and sharper when the Church was a powerful institution in French politics. The anti-clericalism in CH also suffers from intellectual laziness and a lack of creativity.) CH also traffics in racial stereotypes against Africans—another thing that reproduces commonly held prejudices. The intent, in such cases, is not to satirize the holder of such prejudice, but the victim. But good satire does the reverse.

(5) It is stunning to me that US politicians, including the president, have condemned this while at the same time completely ignoring the attack on an NAACP office in Colorado Springs (which, yes, was an act of domestic terrorism). No one died in Colorado (thankfully), but there was a clear malevolent intent by the deranged, racist 40-something-year-old balding white man behind the attack. That he did not succeed in his objective makes it no less heinous. The lack of media coverage has been likewise stunning.

(6) It is also interesting to see how US politicians pick and choose which acts of domestic terrorism abroad to condemn and which to ignore. The recent outbreak of mosque attacks in Sweden has not received the same level of condemnation as the CH shooting. One should condemn all or condemn none (condemn none as in “not speak on the issue because it is not within your power to effect change there as a politician in the US”). Inconsistency is not a virtue.

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