The tragedy of Charlie Hebdo produced a generous amount of commentary. If I were to write directly about that particular event then I would probably just regurgitate some of what has already been said. In my blogs my preference is for arguments that have not been previously enunciated. So instead of directly discussing that horrible event, I want to focus on another occurrence that happened soon after the shooting – the removal of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photo by Associate Press (AP).
Until January 7, the AP had a photo on its website of a piece of artwork that is commonly called “Piss Christ.” This was a controversial, to say the least, photo by Andres Serrano of a crucifix placed in a jar filled with his own urine. One can find distasteful, insulting artwork rather easily, so the content of the photo alone did not create the controversy. But some of the financial support he received from governmental sources generated most of the debate. Some Christians believed that such support was reflective of a failure to keep the church and state separated. I am not interested in rehashing those old arguments but needed to make clear that the argument was not on whether Serrano had the right to do such artwork but whether such artwork should enjoy federal financing.
This photo had been on the AP website since 1989. So why, twenty-five years later, has it been taken down from the website? Soon after the assassinations, an AP spokesperson was asked why the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would not be published. He stated, “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.” However the problem with that assertion is that Serrano’s photo could still be found on the AP’s webpage. Timothy Carney (Washington Post reporter) pointed out that the AP had a double standard in its willingness to have provocative images that offend Christians. It was then that the AP decided that twenty-five years was long enough for Serrano’s “masterpiece.”
So why did the AP show such willingness to publish a photo for such a long time that offended Christians but were not willing to publish a photo that would offend Muslims. I can only think of two good reasons for why we have such different treatment of these photos. Since I have not yet perfected my mind-reading machine, I doubt that we will ever completely know if one, or both, of these reasons for the discrepant treatment is completely accurate. However, both reasons provide us important potential insight into religious attitudes in our society, particularly the attitudes of important media leaders.
The first reason for the differential treatment of the photos is that the leaders of the AP are fearful of possible violence. Publishing the cartoons is clearly a potential hazard and one that was driven home by the tragedy in France. Such an attack seems less likely in the United States, since the Muslims in our country are smaller in number and less likely to be radicalized. However, it only takes one unbalanced individual to result in the killing of AP employees. Given that potential, who can blame the AP from refusing to post the Hebdo cartoons? Of course once they decided for safety sake to not publish those cartoons, they also lost any rationale for keeping up the Serrano photo. Are they going to say, “We do not mind insulting Christians because they will not shoot at us”? Clearly the Serrano photo had to come down as well.
If fear is the driving force behind the AP decision then there are important implications to be considered. I am a big believer that what people do tells us much more about their beliefs than what people say. One theme I have heard since the shootings was how all religions are fairly equally violent. In a somewhat funny presentation of this idea, one commentator equates the Paris violence to Jerry Falwell’s defamation suit against Larry Flynt. I am not a big fan of Falwell but really? If a lawsuit is the equivalent of violence then the word violence does not mean what I think it means. But the leaders at AP do not think that all religious groups are equally violent. I do not care if any of them state that they have such a belief; their actions betray a different belief. If fear is what motivated them to refuse to print the Hebdo cartoons then why did not such fear prompt them to avoid the Serrano photo? Clearly they are relatively unconcerned about Christian gunmen seeking them out.
When we think about it, it is rather incredible that the AP leaders are not afraid of Christian violence. Most individuals in the United States adhere to some form of Christian beliefs. In the United States there are many large Christian organizations that are theoretically capable of organizing a physical attack on AP personnel. It seems impossible for the FBI to keep tabs on all such organizations if many of them decide to become violent. Finally Christians, unlike Muslims, have some degree of political clout and may be able to protect those who engage in violence. If there is a fear of Christians acting out violently then the AP should be extremely worried given these conditions. Yet they posted the photo with seemingly no real concern for their own safety. I am not arguing that Christians do not engage in violence because we have some isolated cases where this has happened. And I am not arguing that Muslims are extremely violent. However, the evidence is that Christians are less likely, on a per-capita basis, to engage in violence than Muslims. Do not go on what I am saying; just look at the actions of the AP reporters. As such, arguments that all religions are equally violent are classical cases of false equivalency arguments.
However, there is another possible reason for the differential treatment of materials that seem intended to offend individuals of certain religions. It may be that the AP leaders are not driven by fear of Muslims but rather by anger and hatred towards Christians. This is part of the Christianophobia, an unreasonable anger and hatred towards Christians, which some of my previous work has documented. This explanation begins with a relative eagerness of the AP editors to post a photo that places Christians in a bad light. Even if they do not have a high degree of animosity towards Christians, they are at least very insensitive to the desires of Christians relative to other social or religious groups. When the cartoons became such a vital news story, these editors had an opportunity to place insulting religious images online, but this time images insulted Muslims instead of Christians. However, unlike Christians, these editors care about offending Muslims and thus chose not to run the cartoons. Once there as a clear double standard pointed out in their failure to use those cartoons, they experienced strong social pressure to also take down the Serrano photo.
There is evidence that Christianophobia may be the driving factor behind the discrepant treatment of the cartoon and the photos. First, the likely characteristics of those who have Christianophobia – well educated, irreligious, politically progressive, relatively high SES, white – are also likely to be the characteristics of the AP decision makers. It is plausible that at least some of them have some degree of Christianophobia. Second, it is interesting that while the photo has been taken down from the website that the AP is still willing to sell images of the photo. We still have differential treatment of the two images indicating that the AP editors ultimately are not concerned with respecting Christians to the same degree they respect Muslims.
If this second reason is accurate, then we have a classic case study of how Christianophobia can manifest. I have argued that often this type of anti-religious bigotry operates in ways that allow individuals to make symbolic expressions of it. When policies have a non-bigoted justification then those with Christianophobia will use those justifications to express their hatred or fear of Christians. When the Serrano photo first came out, those with Christianophobia could justify placing it on their website since it was clearly an important part of a national story. They could argue that offending Christians was less of a concern than accurately covering that story. If challenged, they could deny any particular animosity towards Christians by stating that Christians were not being treated worse than any other group. They could even accuse Christians of “crying wolf” about being persecuted.
However the refusal of the AP reporters to print the Hebdo cartoons indicated that the AP reporters do not treat all religious groups equally. Those with Christianophobia tend to be well educated and have a strong desire to not appear to be prejudiced. Once the double standard was exposed then the fiction that Christians were being treated the same as other social groups could not be maintained. So the photo had to come down. This case study indicates that Christianophobia can be reduced when those who act according to that prejudice are placed in a situation when they no longer have non-bigoted justifications for their actions. However, given our human propensity to find justifications for the actions we want to do, this is not likely to be a powerful limit on Christianophobia.
The only possible third reason I can think for the actions of the AP editors is that perhaps they have grown in religious tolerance between the use of the Serrano photo and the Hebdo cartoons. Perhaps I am being cynical, but I question whether such a revelation of respect for religion would have emerged if only Christians were the group to be respected. I have seen no evidence for this “personal growth” such as statements about the universality of dignity or respect. So I am sticking with only the other two reasons provided above for their actions. I do accept that there may be a combination of these two reasons that help to explain their actions. Indeed I suspect that it is partially fear of violence and partially hatred of Christians that both have led them to their differential treatment of the Serrano photo and the Hebdo cartoons. If the decision to take down the photo was made by several individuals, then it is quite likely that some of those individuals were driven by fear and others by hatred. However, we are likely to never completely know which legitimization force is most powerful and have to juggle the implications of both reasons as we understand the actions of the AP.
I have tried to approach this topic with some degree of objectivity, but I must admit that I am glad that the photo has come down. I want to live in a society where we work towards respecting each other and such a photo clearly does not support such a society. In the same manner, I have little use for the cartoons. I do not dispute the right of artist to construct such photos or cartoons; however, I like to live in a place where such expressions of “art” are marginalized by the disgust of the rest of society. To have this, we need to work, as a society, at treating all social groups in a similar manner regardless of whether we, as individuals, fear those groups or hate them. In such a society I, as an individual, can reject whatever religion or philosophy I want but informal sanctions and a sense of common decency prevents me from needlessly humiliating those who have other faiths or ideas. I am not sure if such a society is possible, but if the AP editors can begin to ask hard questions about why they treated the Serrano photos distinctly from the Hebdo cartoons, and make corrections to not repeat their mistakes, then we can move one step closer to achieving it.