In response to the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices last week, I have read a number of arguments, claims, and memes that I strongly disagree with.
Instead of writing multiple posts covering them all and having my views on one issue distorted by people who would imagine for me the worst of all possible views on all other interrelated issues, I have decided to post sixteen (mostly short) replies covering many nuances of controversy swirling around. Feel free to jump to the topics of greatest controversy to you, but please if you seek to criticize my views on any one controversy take note of other sections where I might address other objections you have further.
1. “Why are people insisting we show the images? We can stand up for free speech without approving of or republishing images we disagree with.”
2. “Charlie Hebdo’s murdered staff aren’t heroes and martyrs. They were just insulting marginalized people and disrespecting religion.”
3. “Freedom of speech shouldn’t give you the right to insult people’s religions.”
4. “Even if we should honor the legal right to blaspheme, it’s still morally inappropriate for being so disrespectful.”
5. “I refuse to say ‘Je Suis Charlie’ because I don’t do the offensive things they do.”
6. “How can you be racists to Muslims if they’re not a race?”
7. “The real heroes are the Muslim cops who died defending Charlie Hebdo even though Charlie Hebdo mocked their religion. Charlie Hebdo by contrast weren’t heroes.”
8. “Almost no Muslims support assaults on conscience so it’s unfair to blame Islam itself for theocracy or terrorism.”
9. “But why is it that if a Muslim commits murder an entire religion is blamed, if a black person does an entire race is blamed, but as soon as it’s a white male he’s just a random “psycho”? Blaming Islam for the actions of these terrorists is clearly just racism.”
10. “No True Muslim Would Be A Terrorist.” Or, its evil cousin, “Muslim terrorists are the true Muslims”
11. “Aren’t the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo generally racist, sexist, and homophobic even when not portraying Muslims?
12. “Are the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo examples of ‘hipster racism‘”?
13. “All good satire punches up, rather than kicks people who are down. Mocking the marginalized is not funny, it’s kicking people who are already down. It’s one thing for French satirists to go after the Pope (he represents the putative majority religion in France, so that’s punching up) but it’s qualitatively different to go after the founder of a minority religion (that’s punching down).”
14. “But Muslims have no choice but to be offended since their religion requires that there be no depictions of Muhammad.
15. “Is it racist of the media to pay so much more attention to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo than the Nigerian massacre by Boko Haram and the attempted bombing of an NAACP building?”
16. “If the West truly cared about free expression it would be equally up in arms about all its own human rights abuses.”
“Why are people insisting we show the images? We can stand up for free speech without approving of or republishing images we disagree with.”
My main concern is that the mainstream media bravely do their job and show the images. The media shouldn’t be concerned with whether or not they agree with the images. In fact, in their non-editorial reporting they shouldn’t even be endorsing them. They simply have a responsibility (and usually the inherent desire) to give people all relevant information to a story. When people are threatened or murdered over satirical cartoons it should be a matter of course to show the offending images so that the public can assess them for themselves. I do think that in editorial contexts, it’s vital that all media also stand in solidarity with all those victimized for exercising freedom of the press and free expression. But that’s a different moral argument. I could understand the media not going that far according to their own consciences for some reason. But not showing the images in reporting contexts is dereliction of duty.
When there was a media blackout on reprinting the Danish satirical cartoons when there were protests responding to them in the wake of the murder of anti-Islam documentarian Theo van Gogh, the mainstream media corporations were responding out of terror. They were cowed into deferring to the demands of terrorists. They were afraid of being murdered themselves. They sent a clear message: if you murder people you can get your way. By not taking the risks for the sake of freedom of the press they were not “respecting” the feelings of Muslims, they were fearing the retaliation of Muslim extremists and letting that fear dictate their behavior. The Western media, for all its bluster about defiantly brave journalism and freedom of the press proved it could be cowed into submission if you kill one documentary filmmaker. So… why not try killing multiple cartoonists and see what happens?
The blackout on republishing the images has been so pervasive that even the publishers of Jytte Klausen’s The Cartoons That Shook the World a scholarly book on the whole uproar around the cartoons refused to publish the cartoons the book was about. If even in a scholarly, academic context, we cannot present the truthful information for other scholars and future historians and laypeople to look at and think about for themselves, then a serious blow to principles of free inquiry has been struck.
In this context for years defenders of free expression have been agitating that satirical cartoons which people are threatened with murdered over must be spread far and wide. They must be at least shown by the mainstream media. And, preferably, they should be shown by anyone else who is willing and in possession of an appropriate forum. In these ways we would send the message that it’s futile to threaten or murder someone for publishing images of Muhammad (including, but not limited to, disrespectful ones) because the violence will get you nowhere. If “everyone” publishes them then the risk is completely spread out. No one in particular becomes a special target. And there would be no illusions that by killing people you can stomp out free expression about Muhammad by non-Muslims. Or even by Muslims, since they also should have the right to interpret their faith differently than other Muslims. Muslims have depicted Muhammad in the past. There is not unanimous consensus across all times and places about whether Muhammad can be depicted pictorially. And Muslims too are also entitled to the right to draw Muhammad for whatever purposes they want, including irreverent ones if they so desire.
In real-world power dynamics, extremists will not give up recourse to violence for as long as it accomplishes their goals. They will turn to softer tactics of persuasion only if forced by seeing that violence is simply futile and only causes more disrespect of their wishes and puts them more on defense against world opinion. Fundamentalist extremism must not be pandered to in its demands for deference. We must not do it the favor of sympathizing with its grievances.
Now if you, as an individual social media user, don’t feel comfortable posting the images or if you have some principled reason not to do so, then by all means, that’s your freedom of expression and I respect that even if I disagree with your choice. But the mainstream media is threatening to lose a powerful pillar of freedom of expression (the right to offend religious sentiments) by being cowed into reshifting our norms to be ones where socially it’s understood that extremists are deferred to in the matter of whether their prophet is shown. I find that to be something that deserves our full moral and social condemnation. It is a moral and social responsibility for the media to inform the public, whether religious people like it or not and whether they are threatened with terrorist retaliation or not. If they don’t, well, the old coercive lying cliché is actually true for once: in that case, the terrorists win. And we can’t allow that.
“Charlie Hebdo’s murdered staff aren’t heroes and martyrs. They were just insulting marginalized people and disrespecting religion.”
No, they are heroes. They are martyrs. They weren’t merely random targets. When the vast majority of Western media outlets refused to republish the 2006 cartoons because they were cowed into submission by the threat of violence, Charlie Hebdo deliberately stood up. And they were left in the lurch by most of the rest of the media. They became top targets of terrorists and they knew it. There was a hit list publicly published and in 2011 their offices were firebombed. In those times, hardly anyone in the media was standing with them in solidarity. In 2006, there was no “Je Suis” movement identifying with those being threatened with murder (or, in 2011, actually firebombed) for drawing cartoons — apart from a few brave outlets like Free Inquiry and Charlie Hebdo and South Park (as much as Viacom would let them). In 2006, some victim blaming commentators took the occasion of the murder of van Gogh and the threats to the cartoonists to criticize the content of the controversial cartoons instead of standing up for free speech. And, despicably, they’re doing it again now.
Charlie Hebdo assumed disproportionate risk because they kept their head up where it was a target when the rest of the media ducked. That made it so that the extremists could say, “We can finish the job and make it so no one satirically depicts Muhammad if we can just pluck off those few heads remaining!”
This time, in 2015, it shouldn’t be that way and it won’t be that way. So much of Western media has blood on its hands for not spreading the risk in 2006. For not standing united. For not joining with Charlie Hebdo‘s brave stand sooner. This time is different. It seems the lesson is learned.
All this history is why even though when the news broke and I quickly googled the cartoons and found some disgusting, I didn’t worry about even first learning their context. I worried about publishing them as fast as possible with an explanation of why I was doing so. My only concern was that the images would propagate through gestures of solidarity, at least through my blog. I was heartened to see when I emerged from rushing to write that post that I was not nearly alone in my mindset.
“Freedom of speech shouldn’t give you the right to insult people’s religions.”
Actually it must give that right. And people challenging that legal or moral right of conscience in the wake of this massacre is absolutely chilling to me. Because there is a faction in the United Nations pushing for the U.N. to come down against blasphemy. There are media organizations making choices to censor content out of fear of violent religious backlash. There are existing hate speech laws in Europe that are dangerous interpretations away from making it impossible to level harsh and irreverent criticisms of potentially influential religious ideas, figures, and institutions without being charged with criminal abuse. And if you use this moment to say, “no one should have been killed but also no one should be blaspheming” all I hear is, “while killing is over the top, at least we can learn the lesson the terrorists were trying to teach us about not hurting religious feelings.” Giving into a violent expression of feeling and saying, “you know, maybe that person’s complaint really needs to be listened to…” is validating the violence.
When you turn right from your obligatory denunciation of the extreme of killing to get on your soap box about the issue that the killers were trying to get you to support? You’re basically playing right into the killers’ effort to push the needle of the discourse. You are making them into “protestors whose demands are met” instead of “terrorists who are unequivocally repudiated”.
Now it is possible to reaffirm a moral commitment even as you denounce violence in its name. It is possible to think a cause is just even if you’re rejecting terrorist tactics in support of it. But saying, “violence is wrong, but so also is insulting religious people” basically puts those two things on the same moral level by putting them in the same sentence. It basically says, “Let’s stop doing both” as though both deserve equal condemnation. And if the violence stops because we “learned our lesson here” the terrorists are vindicated and the violence is rewarded. This is categorically different than saying something like “this terrorist act was wrong but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that this other violent or oppressive government action it was retaliation for was also evil”. A statement like that equates violence and violence and points out that a cycle is at work and it’s not just lopsided violence. But a massacre of insulting cartoonists is not a cycle of violence. It’s a violent reaction to (at most) offensive free speech. They’re not equivalent.
And when you say “the murder is wrong but the speech was offensive” you are minimizing the murder. Because if you didn’t want to minimize the murder, you could have said “the speech was offensive but murder is wrong”. You can affirm both things if you think the speech was offensive and their massacre was wrong. But which one you put after the “but” shows which you think is most important. It’s the difference between “she was dressed provocatively but no one deserves to get raped” and “no one deserves to get raped, but she was dressed provocatively”. The former is a rejection of victim blaming and the other is an instance of it. In the Charlie Hebdo case your choice is between effectively rejecting victim blaming by saying, “sure, I won’t dispute the point that the cartoons were offensive but the really important thing here is they shouldn’t have been murdered.” Or engaging in victim blaming by saying, “sure, I won’t dispute the point that murder is wrong but the really important thing here is they shouldn’t have been offensive.”
Even beyond my outrage at these soft supports for the terrorists’ agenda let me make clear why mockery and “blasphemy” of religion are vital rights of free expression in general. Let me make clear why I think they are basic human rights.
The right of conscience of all people includes the right of all people to have their own authentic expression with regard to religious matters. That includes religions’ critics. Religions are powerful institutions which perpetuate immensely influential beliefs, values, attitudes, and power structures. The irreligious or the members of minority religions deserve to express their own views on majority religions because those religions have massive impact on their lives and their neighbors’ lives. We must have the right to criticize each other’s ideas.
And, specifically, we must have the right to do so in irreverent ways. This is because the key nature of the power of religions is often in their ability to inspire reverential deference to their leadership. They often make astoundingly outsized claims to moral and political authority and sometimes claim that they exclusively hold the very keys to salvation. Traditionally, Christianity and Islam in particular have made aggressive claims against non-believers. Regularly Christians and Muslims threaten non-believers with eternal torment for not submitting to their faiths. Regularly adherents of these faiths accuse non-believers of being incapable of being moral. As a matter of routine, any number of clerics will use every emotionally exploitative tactic they can on their own flocks, while proselytizers will prey on the vulnerabilities of those they evangelize and parents will manipulate their children’s whole perceptions of reality in order to mentally lock them into their faith.
Of course not all religious expression is authoritarian or exclusivistic or belief-centric. The point is that religions gain their deep structural power through embedding themselves profoundly deep in people’s psyches and social structures by creating reverence for their supposed inherent authority. And this is certainly the case with respect to the basic structures of traditional Christianity and Islam.
So, if critics of these religions are to be treated fairly, not only must people have the right to worship and revere God or gods and defer with reverence to their religious traditions, but atheists, dissenters, apostates, heretics, and members of minority or despised religions alike must be entitled to speech that tries to puncture the air of reverence which we believe is undue to those religions. It is our right as critics of received religions to express ourselves in ways that make clear the extent of our rejection of the reverence too often afforded influential religions.
Especially worth noting is the right of conscience of the apostate. Too many Muslim leaders preach (and adherents accept) that apostasy from Islam is punishable with the death penalty. This and the Christian and Muslim threats of hell for non-believers are profoundly cruel, hostile, and intolerant to atheists and members of other religions. And former believers are often deeply psychically and socially tied to the beliefs they are apostasizing from. They especially deserve our compassion and the protection of human rights. The most formerly devout are some of the most vulnerable, psychologically and socially, to the powerful religious institutions that have enormous privilege in their societies (or subgroups). Apostates are unequivocably classifiable as a generally marginalized class of people.
Sincerity of religious devotion is pandered to by many inclusive secularists who don’t share any such devotion themselves but who want nonetheless to “celebrate” or, at least, “respect” religious sincerity out of tolerance and openmindedness. But as soon as that religious devotion turns to religious disillusionment and resentment and takes the form of equally vigorous apostasy or atheistic critique of religion it is dismissed as intolerable intolerance. The religious experiences of the apostates are invalidated both by their former faith and by sneering secularists. We apostates are disrespected from both ends.
And should we ever get murdered for defiantly and vulgarly trying to break the spell of undue reverence that we think was used to manipulate and exploit us, we risk getting told that we “had it coming”, should this pernicious meme that “murdered blasphemers kind of deserve what they got when you think about it” continues to take off.
And not defying the cultural norms whereby sacrilege is frowned upon implicitly obeys religious demands about what is to be treated as sacred. When I refuse to express my views out of deference to the demands of your faith, I have let your faith dictate how I behave and what I can say or not. Freedom of conscience means the freedom to ignore religious prohibitions.
“Even if we should honor the legal right to blaspheme, it’s still morally inappropriate for being so disrespectful.”
I think being gratuitously insulting on an interpersonal basis is usually immoral, yes. Dealing with individual members of a different cultural, subcultural, or religious group, it’s only respectful to show courtesy and not be narrowminded, chauvinistic, or obnoxious about pissing on the peculiar idiosyncratic forms that matter to them but not to you. It’s like being a guest in a foreign land or even just a neighbor’s home. You don’t disrespect while a visitor or while at the table together.
People’s customs and symbols and rituals are often meaningless and arbitrary to outsiders and yet infused with contextual associations that make them deeply meaningful to themselves. Basic respect and empathy means recognizing that what is an empty thing to me has a psychological and social context for you that lets it be a genuine vehicle for authentically valuable things. So we should keep that in mind and respect other cultures’ morally indifferent idiosyncrasies, even as we reserve the right to have moral disputes about aspects of their culture which are demonstrably unfair or harmful even with adjustments for cultural differences accounted for.
And even in abstract, impersonal discourse about ideas we should be driven by solid reasoning that gains its moral force from the truth of what we are saying rather than tries to bully people with abusiveness.
But when it comes to satire and comedy as genres, the rules must simply be different. We need satire. We need comedy. They play vital roles of puncturing the airs of reverence around authority figures. And in that context, religion must be fair game for the reasons I spelled out in the section on why blasphemy is justifiable at all. Religions’ entire authority and real-world power are undergirded by their abilities to command reverence and deference and create the illusion that they are sacred, sacrosanct, and immune from fundamental criticism or ridicule.
Satire and blasphemy are the strongest tools for those who want to challenge that. And for those of us who believe religious influence is way out of proportion to the genuine intellectual or moral authority of religious institutions, we must insist on the right to use these tools for criticism when they are necessary and ultimately fair for this vital moral and intellectual purpose. It is vital as a matter of defying religious privilege and keeping it from gaining political footholds that deep criticisms and deep disrespect for religions’ pretensions be allowed morally.
I understand those who say they believe in civil dialogue and creating bridges between people. I have passionately and at length argued against my own allies (atheists and humanists) treating religious individuals abusively rather than sticking to the criticism of ideas and beliefs and values. But satire is not the same as personal mistreatment. And there’s a qualitative distinction between satirizing religious ideas, values, symbols, and especially dominant religious figures and authorities on the one hand and abusing religious people. And morally these should be judged completely differently.
“The real heroes are the Muslim cops who died defending Charlie Hebdo even though Charlie Hebdo mocked their religion. Charlie Hebdo by contrast weren’t heroes.”
First of all, minimizing the heroism of the cartoonists is despicable. By all means, let’s celebrate the heroism of police officers everywhere who wake up every day willing to put their own lives in danger on behalf of all our rights and for our protection. It’s also absolutely fine to use the symbolism of a Muslim agent of the French government dying protecting these cartoonists’ free speech as powerful pushback against the pernicious lie that “all Muslims are the enemy”. Yes, let’s celebrate the fact that most Muslims in France are people as secularized as anyone else in France! Let’s remind people they’re so integrated into French society that you can find them in every occupation, including as agents of the French government itself. Let’s remind people that disproportionate media coverage of violent Muslims distorts the reality that the vast majority of Muslims are ordinary people living ordinary lives and contributing to society in the full range of ways everyone else does. By all means use the names and faces of these officers to rehumanize Muslims in an all-too-bigoted Western consciousness.
But it’s repulsive to do all that in a way that pretends these cartoonists didn’t put their lives on the line also. Even if you hate their cartoons and what they stand for, they knew they were risking death by expressing themselves and chose to do so anyway. And they believed that what they were doing served the cause of freedom, free speech, and truth, whether or not they were right about that. To not appreciate or honor that bravery in the wake of their massacre and to treat the fact that their non-violent acts of publication offended you as cause to minimize their courage is an outrage.
“I refuse to say ‘Je Suis Charlie’ because I don’t do the offensive things they do.”
I’m sorry but this is just self-righteous lack of introspectiveness to me. All of us have and express ideas that are offensive to others. It is a complacent and intellectually lazy mindset, one that is obsequious in the face of religious privilege to hold that a non-Muslim representing Muhammad in a degrading picture should be seen by all people as horribly offensive but that Muslims and Christians preaching that God will punish mere disbelief in Him with eternal torment is not horribly offensive and insulting to unbelievers (or believers in of other religions). Saying that the founding books of the Abrahamic faiths are sacred texts revealing the will and values of a morally perfect being when those books are indisputably rife, at least on their surface, with violence, slavery, tribalism, genocide, misogyny, demonization of homosexuality–should be profoundly offensive to a moral conscience that opposes those evils. There is no obscenity I’ve seen in the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo that rivals those celebrated in the books of the Abrahamic faiths. It is only religious privilege that can make the claim that those books, filled with so much hate on literal readings, are not deeply insulting. It is only an unthinkingly reflexive deference to traditional hierarchy that finds the mockery of puffery and dominance more offensive and insulting than particular human beings claiming for themselves the ability to speak for divine powers.
And since those accusing Charlie Hebdo of bigotry don’t care at all about the tolerant, modern, left-wing values that the Charlie Hebdo were really trying to drive at with pictures that on their surface play in bigoted tropes, it’s especially rich and hypocritical that right now those same critics are leaping out of their seat to yell CONTEXT! in defense of all the evils unironically endorsed in the Abrahamic sacred texts. People who are appalled by irreverence but not more offended by the abuses of power of those being treated irreverently are in no position to lecture about what is and is not offensive.
If standing by “surfacely” offensive images make you able to say “Je suis Charlie”, then standing by any of the major religions’ “surfacely” inhumane religious texts makes you Charlie too in my book. And I would argue it’s a whole lot easier to prove the substantively evil character of the deeds committed in the Abrahamic holy books and their substantively evil influences on subsequent history of violence and discrimination within the Abrahamic faiths, than it is to prove the substantively evil intent or consequences of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons.
None of us can claim that we don’t hold views that offend each other. That’s why a civil and tolerant society can do no other than say We are Charlie Hebdo. All of us. And the pious hypocrites who deny this in their own case are precisely the self-righteous threats we should all be leery of.
“How can you be racists to Muslims if they’re not a race?”
If you have racist or xenophobic attitudes, values, or beliefs (whether acknowledged or not), then one of the ways this will manifest is with a special disdain for the outward expressions of the groups you have these states of mind towards. You will express disgust, mistrust, and other aversions towards just about anything that you associate as distinct signifiers of this group. So, if you have a generalized mistrust and contempt for Middle Easterners, Arabs, Persians, Africans, and Southeast Asians (as indisputably we Westerners are xenophobically socialized to have as a matter of course) then you’re very well primed to feel and express those attitudes towards the cultural signifiers that both represent those people and create contrasts between you and them in your mind.
And that means something as big and powerfully divisive as their foreign religions are prime candidates to be targets of your hostility. Your racism is eminently likely to make itself manifest in whatever special and hypocritical contempt, fear, disgust, and mistrust that you show towards a foreign religion that you don’t show towards native ones (or, especially, your own).
So, if the violence encouraged or celebrated all throughout the Qu’ran is proof that Islam is a barbaric religion to you, but all the genocidal violence in the Jewish sacred scriptures and the Christian Bible is an irrelevance (or perfectly morally justified even!) then you are probably expressing your racist assumptions about the “barbarity” of “brown people (assumptions with a truly horrific and long history in the West) rather than any kind of fair and sober theological reflection. If you think that Christianity is not an inherently violent and misogynistic religion because today Christians as Christians are not too often killing expressly in the name of Christianity, or ruling expressly theocratic oppressive regimes the way that some Muslims are, while you ignore Christianity’s past, which was rife with theocracy, expressly religious violence, and religiously imposed subordination of women, then you are giving Christianity a pass you don’t give Islam.
You are saying that Christianity is not inherently violent, even if it went through long oppressive stages, but something about Islam dooms it inherently to yield oppressive outcomes. The acknowledgment that Christianity can vary where cultural, economic, political, and moral pressures come to bear to reshape it into something more tolerant, civil, and egalitarian coupled with the denial that Islam is capable of similar transformations is often rooted not in any deep analysis of the structures of the religions themselves (which might be interesting) but rather a reflexive preference to give Christianity (the dominant religion of the West) the benefit of the doubt and Islam (the dominant religion of regions presently crushed under the economic and military thumb of the West) the assumption of inherent brokenness.
This is especially unfair since the modern trend is that cultures tend to secularize and religions tend to moderate as they become more economically prosperous. While most of the nasty potential within Islam is preexisting and by no means a creation of Western colonialism any more than the nasty potential within Christianity is, nonetheless people with less economic and otherwise secular resources to meet their needs will, seemingly inevitably, in their desperation, turn to “spiritual” sources for support. This can mean going to witch doctors because of a dearth of real doctors or relying disproportionately on religious sources for poverty relief and mental health support because you don’t have functioning secular welfare states or the economies to sustain them.
Or it’s possible that when you do have secular leaders who are authoritarian and in the pockets of hypocritical Western powers that are crushing you, you come to be persuaded that taking recourse to the independent power of religion is your best bet to justify and mobilize resistance among your people. And maybe if you live under oppression, true belief in a religion promising you a life of purposeful, morally righteous adventure and a glorious afterlife for your bravery is more enticing than if you have all the resources at your disposal to develop your talents in more secularly constructive ways.
Or, maybe, if you grow up in the West and you’re constantly either Othered as a scary foreigner or encouraged by well-meaning and tolerant people to see your Otherness as the most important thing about you, you will be inclined to dig deeper into that religious identity and solidarity with the suffering in your ancestors’ lands to the point of radicalism.
These and many other causes are at play. There is no “Islam in a vacuum”. And looking at human beings with the same charity we give ourselves and paying attention to how world events are caused by a wide range of factors helps us realize that this isn’t as simple as “religions with violent books lead inescapably to violence”. Were that the case reforming Christianity would be a more hopeless cause than it has proven over two millennia to be.
Don’t get me wrong. I do think that the holy books bear some significant measure of blame. I do believe a religion doesn’t get off the hook for being the primary cause of violence in some cases and a contributing cause even where many others are at play. It gives dangerous mental and social tools that, without it, would be much harder to construct in order to radicalize people. It’s a powerful force. And anyone who wants to praise religions for any good associated with them but deny those same religions all blame for evils regularly associated with them is either self-deluded or pushing a political agenda different than honest description of the real dynamics in the world.
The other issue is that racist effects need not be intended. If we perpetuate racist memes and institutions with legacies of hurting people who are disadvantaged effectively on account of their ancestry or their general foreignness, then we risk hurting people even if we mean something entirely different via those memes or institutions. In this way, there are systemic harms that we have to be alert to.
So, while I will defend Charlie Hebdo‘s legal and moral rights to satirize Muhammad in the vulgar ways that it has, I am not doing so by flippantly dismissing the idea that criticizing Islam could ever take a form that reveals racist bigotries or has racist effects on those people from ethnic groups (including the ex-Muslims among them!) which are highly associated with Islam. (More on these themes.)
“Almost no Muslims support assaults on conscience so it’s unfair to blame Islam itself for theocracy or terrorism.”
Actually, too many Muslims in recent years have supported punishments for either apostasy or blasphemy. Hypocritical denunciations of these particular attacks aside, members of the Muslim faith need to continue their serious dialogue about respecting the rights of conscience of those who leave the faith and/or those who disrespect it. It’s a religious issue. And we non-Muslims are entitled to put some pressure on Muslims to get their house in order. This is not to deny the fact that many Muslims are vigorously opposing violence already. It’s to say that these chilling stats that Kaveh Mousavi brings to our attention are undeniably serious and must not be swept under the rug as irrelevant:
Policy Exchange: One third of British Muslims believe anyone who leaves Islam should be killed
NOP Research: 78% of British Muslims support punishing the publishers of Muhammad cartoons;
Pew Research (2010): 84% of Egyptian Muslims support the death penalty for leaving Islam
86% of Jordanian Muslims support the death penalty for leaving Islam
30% of Indonesian Muslims support the death penalty for leaving Islam
76% of Pakistanis support death the penalty for leaving Islam
51% of Nigerian Muslims support the death penalty for leaving Islam
Die Presse (2013): 1 in 5 Muslims in Austria believe that anyone wanting to leave Islam should be killed.
I wholeheartedly support the efforts of Muslims who respect freedom of conscience to get their more tolerant interpretation of their faith to prevail. Saying that Muslims in sizable numbers are at present not interpreting the faith nearly enough in ways that respect dissenting conscience from Islam is just demanding Muslims be accountable to take responsibility and do better.
“But why is it that if a Muslim commits murder an entire religion is blamed, if a black person does an entire race is blamed, but as soon as it’s a white male he’s just a random “psycho”? Blaming Islam for the actions of these terrorists is clearly just racism.”
I agree that the prejudice against blacks that treats the wrongful deed of any one black person as evidence against black people generally is flat out racism. It’s basically as definitionally racism as racism gets!
And similarly, the fact that in America white culture generally is not pathologized the way black culture is when a white person commits a crime is the flip side of that racist prejudice. Bad white people are judged on their merits as distinct agents who can be either immoral or psychologically damaged in a way that makes them prone to violence. Whereas black people are supposedly inherently flawed (whether by race directly or the “pathologies of black culture” whereby black people are supposedly to blame for their own depressed economic realities and the structural problems in black communities even though white people were the ones who first systematically enslaved, then segregated, and now routinely legislate against black interests.)
Claiming that is mostly false because, by their own admission, all the Muslim terrorists I know of had expressly religious motivations. Whether or not those motivations represented the majority of Muslims’ desires or ends or motives is a different question than the thinking of the perpetrators. And it’s ludicrously conspiracy-minded to imagine no Muslim claiming religious motivation is sincere but that every violent or theocratic Muslim leader is a malevolent mastermind atheist “hijacking Islam” in order to manipulate true believing dupes into doing their violent will. Or that, even better, every Muslim extremist from the leaders to the rank and file is insincere!
Clearly they think that Islam is motivating them. Now, we might be academic about them, disregard what they say is going on in their minds and cultures and instead say that deep down other economic, psychological, sociological, and political forces are at work making them adopt these kinds of beliefs and behaviors. It’s really post-colonial struggle, or they’re the oppressed proletariat, or they’re a bunch of psychopaths and Islam is merely the surface expression and vehicle for their psychopathy.
Now, I agree that those other factors are always intermixing with distinctly religious influences–and often in decisive ways. But nonetheless, distinctly religious influences are also at play. And it snobbishly robs religious people of agency and the ability to act from sincere beliefs and values to never acknowledge that their behaviors can ever stem with any directness from their stated beliefs or values. While all of us are less cognizant of our own motives and social conditioning that makes us the way we are than we like to think, treating religious people (or even just the extremists) as so deluded that their explicit theological thinking can be utterly and categorically dismissed as never what’s really what’s motivating them is profoundly condescending.
It’s also patronizing and potentially racist to assume that only post-colonialism can ever be to blame for anything bad that comes out of post-colonial regions of the world. While it’s vital we as Westerners turn our attention far more often to taking responsibility for our own countries’ roles in creating bad situations everywhere we once colonized, and to own up to the ways that lingering structural injustices from those oppressive periods still advantage us today, it’s also vital that we not erase the agency of the people in these regions entirely. It’s not fair to them to treat them as though they have none of their own sources of ideas or motives or social dynamics or religious ideas that are not merely the effects of the behavior of Western nation states or global corporations. Islam can function somewhat autonomously as a juggernaut religion in ways that are not wholly accountable for by Western colonialism or neo-imperialist global capitalism. People in Muslim countries can think and value for themselves (and have a responsibility to do so).
“No True Muslim Would Be A Terrorist.” Or, its evil cousin, “Muslim terrorists are the true Muslims.”
No, not all Muslims are terrorists. They’re relatively a miniscule minority of Muslims. And, from my atheistic perspective, there is no such thing as a “true Muslim” or an untrue one. There are just people who identify with a religion. As far as I can tell there is no truth to any supernatural claims of any religions. They’re all equally false in that regard. Muslims don’t have to be consistent with their own Qu’ran or read it in a literal way or in any kind of plausible way at all. They don’t need to be beholden to the Hadith. They don’t need to keep customary interpretations or practices of the faith. If it turns out that they really want to, Muslims can change their religion in drastic ways. Religions do that. There’s no law of the universe stopping them any more than there is one that stops nations and cultures from evolving themselves.
And, in fact, as far as I’m concerned, morally and politically, any given religion is only justified in evolving in ways that make for moral improvement rather than moral stagnation or moral regression. So, by all means, my religious friends, reinterpret your texts and other traditional sources of authorities however you can so long as it makes your religion as humane, egalitarian, and genuinely empowering and tolerant as possible for both adherents and non-adherents alike. I’m not going to stop you. Religions have been reinterpreting themselves and readapting themselves for as long as there have been religions. And I for one am fully in favor of updates that are morally for the best.
We can argue about the intellectual coherence of your claims if you try to claim your religion is true–but that’s another issue. And I really think that you’d be better off just thinking free of the burden of having to always read your values back into the tradition instead of unequivocally admitting you are advancing over its limits when you are. And I think the burden of so many people feeling the need to get their religions’ permission to accept their improving beliefs and values is a disastrous impediment to rapid and efficient moral and intellectual progress. But for all that I just hope you make your religion better if you are going to insist on staying in it. And I acknowledge that in many ways, all religions have already advanced on previous iterations (despite having also, sometimes, among some segments, gone way backwards).
In this context, I understand statements about what Islam “is” that are aspirational in character as normative statements, rather than simply descriptive ones. They’re essentially attempts people are making to say “This is what Islam should be.” They may think (or want to think) that that’s because their ideas are the “true teachings” of Islam. But all that matters to me, insofar as this is a normative and aspirational utterance, is that this is what they want Islam to be interpreted as, at all costs. So I am on board with that sense of saying what “Islam really is”.
It’s like when I’m inclined to say that America is really a place where absolute freedom of conscience, diversity, freedom of individuality, radical separation of church and state, industriousness, egalitarianism, true meritocracy (rather than the sham kind that spawned the creation of the word), innovation, and artistic creativity all thrive. What I mean by that is that these sorts of values have been prized in America for centuries and we’ve been at the forefront of some of them and we aspire deliberately to embody them.
But here’s the thing. America is also a land with a horrific history that involves genocide of the Native Americans, lack of equal rights for women and gays, and one of the most brutal and dehumanizing slavery systems in world history. It’s a place with problems of systemic racism that’s long outlasted the end of the Civil War. It’s a place where jingoistic militarism and theocratic authoritarianism appeal on populist levels and where the former has ugly sway over our foreign policy at times and the latter threatens social justice over and over again.
To be honest about my country is to own its flaws. I can say both normatively what I want America to be as a matter of morally justifiable ideals. And I can point to our history to say descriptively we indeed have many of the resources within our tradition to advance those normative ideals. But I also can’t shirk the fact that the real history (and ongoing present) of my country is littered with betrayals of those ideals. And I can’t just wash my hands, say that I am not responsible, and leave it at that. I must take responsibility for owning up to our crimes against humanity and being vigilant about actively countering any ongoing legacies of our systemic injustices. That’s what being a responsible American entails. It requires owning America’s failures and not just its successes in the sense of not whitewashing America’s fallibility and in the sense of taking responsibility for persuading my fellow citizens rather than just disclaiming them as miraculously having nothing to do with me. As a group Americans must take responsibility for what we collectively think and do. We must be introspective when one of us fails in a way that embodies a regular pattern that we can trace to cracks in our culture, our laws, our beliefs, our values, etc.
And it’s this mindset that I want religious adherents (and organized atheists too!) to adopt. One that does not whitewash the descriptively ugly truths about what people who think like you, and who are enculturated like you, and who are part of your basic social grouping, think and do. Only Muslims can win the fight for the soul of Islam and make it a just religion–just the same as only Americans can fight for the soul of America and make it a just nation.
Again, this is not to minimize the existence of countless millions of Muslims who are fighting on the right side of this fight. It’s to say that it’s too easy for those who are defending Islam against bigotry or embarrassment to simply say Islamic terrorism or Islamic theocracy or Islamic hostility towards consciences of non-Muslims are not Muslim problems at all.
They are Muslim problems because Islam is, like all other human institutions, flawed. And it’s too simple to say, “religion doesn’t cause evil, people do”. It’s a cop out. Those same people won’t turn around and say, “religion doesn’t cause good, people do”. Religion is an ambivalent form of human institution. It can shape preexisting human evils and goods into unique forms. It can exacerbate the awful in some cases or mitigate it in others. It can cause distinct flourishes in the good in some cases and uniquely thwart the good in others. Religions are made up of people, so they are as good and evil as people make them.
And the good news is that there are countless Muslims out there taking responsibility to fight for their faith to be as good as it can be.
There is no reason to falsely define Wahabbism as “true Islam” and read terrorism that reflects its values (or comparatively awful forms of Islam’s values) as a more authentic Islam than modern and progressive kinds. Doing that is unfair to the hundreds of millions of Muslims who disagree with Wahabbism. There is no reason to bolster Wahabbism’s claims to legitimacy and play straight into the hands of the likes of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They want backlashes of anti-Muslim bigotry when people think “Islam itself” is uncomplicatedly to blame for every evil manifestation the religion ever takes. Juan Cole argues that flourishes of such anti-Muslim bigotry would be Al-Qaeda’s dream because they’d be their best hope to radicalize a mostly secularized and religiously complacent French Muslim community. There’s no reason to push more Muslims into extremists’ arms by Othering them in the West and by arguing on Al-Qaeda’s behalf when it comes to what the “right” hermeneutics are.
“Aren’t the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo generally racist, sexist, and homophobic even when not portraying Muslims?”
Undeniably, when taken at face value, Charlie Hebdo‘s images are often extremely bigoted. In fact, when publishing the images the day of the massacre I was not happy in particular to be posting caricatures of Jews that are on a purely formal level identical with anti-semitic ones. While I feel little compunction about reposting skewerings of Muhammad (as a massively influential world historical figure and religious authority) or anything to do with Christianity (as a former Christian), I am much more afraid of the legacy of anti-semitism and was myself reluctant to reprint anything even resembling it.
But, in the context of Charlie Hebdo’s standard, clear left-wing editorial voice, I may have found the cartoons as unobjectionable as I found nearly every minute of Stephen Colbert’s performances as a right wing blowhard on The Colbert Report (almost every word of which would be offensive out of context). And I often laugh heartily at South Park’s representations of Cartman as an anti-semite since I get that it’s antisemitism itself that it is the target. And South Park is one of countless cases of Jews claiming the right to play with Jewish tropes for laughs. I wouldn’t feel comfortable publicly making such jokes outside the understanding I have with my closest Jewish friends where it functions like an inside joke between us. But I get that comedians (and satirists in particular) are doing something different and so I accept that stuff. And, to the point of stereotypical depictions, Ashley Miller has made the important point that the medium of political cartoon inherently plays in caricature. It plays on over-exaggerated imagery. It’s a stylistic element of the medium. Everyone usually looks awful or stereotyped in a political cartoon. That’s usually the point.
So without any hope of becoming an expert in French culture and politics overnight to determine whether these ostensibly racist images are being presented in a racist way or being subverted in a leftist way akin to Colbert, I recommend to you the website Understanding Charlie Hebdo as a primer for analyzing particular incendiary cartoons in their context to understand what they would mean to French people and whether they would have racist effects or their opposite. I won’t pretend to authoritatively know. But here, at least, is the overview defense of the magazine they start with before getting into breakdowns of particular cartoons. I find it extremely reassuring if accurate:
The brand of humor in Charlie Hebdo is very particular, and somewhat unique to France. It is absurdist (in the tradition of Rubrique-à-Brac), a type of humor only comparable to MAD magazine in terms of anglo-saxon publications. It is also extremely satirical, comparable toThe Onion and the The Colbert Report, e.g. saying Charlie Hebdo is homophobic is as absurd as saying Stephen Colbert is right-wing, or that Ali-G is racist. Charlie Hebdo is crass and shows a complete lack of respect for many institutions, à la South Park.
Charlie Hebdo employs their rather brutal satire against dogma, hypocrisy, and hysteria, regardless of its source. Satire works by toying with different levels of interpretation (irony) – a fundamentally subjective endeavour which in the hands of Charlie Hebdo is sure to leave bitter aftertastes. Humor is not a requirement.
The cartoons shown below are a small selection of the broad range of topics that Charlie Hebdo covers. There are plenty of cartoons that are simply making fun of Francois Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy. It’s important to keep this in mind, as otherwise it is very easy to conclude, when only presented with a handful of cartoons, that Charlie Hebdo covers only the topics below. In reality the cartoons touch upon a wide variety of topics, but always play stupid and mean with them (« bête et méchant »).
My closest guess is that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are routinely like this controversial New Yorker cover that, given the New Yorker’s reputation and editorial context, meant to show the absurdity of right wing attempts to mischaracterize Obama:
Are you willing to take that cover as a send up of the right wing if you know the left wing orientation of The New Yorker? Or do you think the effects of the cover will be more racist than anti-racist? Does it help if you know The New Yorker has published an article taking a stance critical of Charlie Hebdo’s use of Muhammad, just a couple days after the massacre? Do you think if someone massacres numerous of their employees they’ll apologize for this 2008 cover? You think they should? Do you think that should be the main focus of discussions about The New Yorker? I can understand disagreeing with the cover but is The New Yorker racist? And if not, why? Are black Americans somehow not as in need of respectful media treatment as French Muslims? And why doesn’t anyone look into which major news outlets that are refusing to reprint Charlie Hebdo covers because they allegedly refuse to show any offensive material were okay showing that New Yorker cover. Again. Why are cartoons potentially offensive to blacks less important than ones to Muslims?
“Are the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo examples of ‘hipster racism‘”?
This is a subtler objection. The point here is to acknowledge that Charlie Hebdo didn’t mean to be bigoted but smugly thought that they were so progressive that nothing they did could be racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., even if it actually was (either in intents or effects).
All I can say is this: I do think hipster bigotry in general is a real problem. I think really bigoted and offensive jokes and ideas are perpetuated constantly by people who are way too puffed up on their own arrogance to recognize the difference between just pretending to be bigoted and pretending while actually, as a matter of fact, being bigoted in intentions or effects. And there are a lot of bigoted jokes whose whole appeal involves people deep down really believing what they think is merely “too politically incorrect to say straightforwardly”. In those cases, people are trying to pass off their “honesty” as a “joke” so that they won’t be held accountable for what they really think which is bigoted but which they think will get unfair censure if they say it straightforwardly. Then they gaslight the people more genuinely sensitized to these issues as just having no sense of humor instead of taking responsibility for the fact that their joke had an insulting connotation that was literally believed by them. It was a way of literally insulting the target of the joke and not just pretending to.
Now to gauge Charlie Hebdo’s guilt or innocence on this level would require some fine grained understanding of the line between genuinely skewering a stereotype and adopting it in French culture. And I just can’t do that. My best guess is that since these jokes are, I am told, constantly aimed in their clear target at the powerful and at authority figures from a left wing perspective I don’t get the impression they’re just chances to take bigoted shots at the bigotedly drawn people. My guess is they are using the surface bigotry consistently in the way Colbert does, and that is to really just use it as a way to get at their real targets, who are far more deserving subjects of ridicule. Do they pull this off as well as Colbert? I couldn’t begin to guess. That’s up for the French who take bigotry and “hipster bigotry” seriously to think about.
Sally Current, argues at the social justice-heavy blog Butterflies and Wheels that a documentary about Charlie Hebdo makes a strong case against underlying sincere bigotry motivating their work:
I posted the other day just after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, referring to a film I’d recommended back in 2011 – It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks.¹ It was a documentary about Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish the Danish cartoons and the court case that followed. What was clear in the film was that the staff at CH, a leftwing, antiauthoritarian publication, were very concerned that their publishing the images not contribute to racism or be seen as supporting the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant Right. The choice of cover, with Mohammed in despair saying “It’s hard being loved by jerks,” was quite brilliant, targeting the Islamists and separating them from the Muslim community.
CH was almost uniquely in a position to print the images as a defense of free expression and the right to blaspheme, because over the years they’d targeted the sacred figures of numerous religions as well as atheists and all sorts of political leaders. They had also openly targeted racism in French society. They had been sued by the Catholic Right more than a dozen times in recent years. This history made their argument in court ring genuine: in addition to considering the right to blaspheme as fundamentally necessary to their art and journalism, they regarded targeting Islam’s sacred cows as a gesture of inclusion. They were saying they lampoon everything held sacred and lampooning Islam’s sacred symbols meant that they see Muslims as part of the French community, the community of the potentially mockable.
“All good satire punches up, rather than kicks people who are down. Mocking the marginalized is not funny, it’s kicking people who are already down. It’s one thing for French satirists to go after the Pope (he represents the putative majority religion in France, so that’s punching up) but it’s qualitatively different to go after the founder of a minority religion (that’s punching down).”
If Charlie Hebdo was using Muhammad as an avatar for all Muslims and either intended to or had the significant effect of ginning up racist hatred against Muslims as people, then I would not be on board with their cartoons, but merely defend their right even to racist speech. But from what I can tell they’re attacking Muhammad consistently as the revered founder of a religion. They’re puncturing his authority in defiance of religious extremism rather than as a gesture of political intolerance of Muslims. Attacking Muhammad out of a consistent spirit of anti-clericalism, one with a long and rich history in France and at the magazine, is qualitatively different than trying to demonize Muslim people. Muslim people in France are marginalized and suffer oppression. If satirical attacks on Muhammad are thinly veiled ways of adding to that economic and social and political abuse, then they’re racist.
But I am told Charlie Hebdo argues vigorously on behalf of Muslim immigrants’ rights. And the cartoons I’ve seen show them clearly going after Muhammad’s religious authority and trying to knock it down some pegs and conveying to those trying to exercise religious privilege that they will not be cowed into deferring to a religion they don’t believe in. And that’s fair game.
Even though Muslims are a minority in France, religious people, worldwide, are clearly privileged over avowed secularists. Theism is far more powerful a world force than atheism. And in the wake of the homicide of Theo van Gogh and threats of murders over cartoons in 2006, Charlie Hebdo was putting the lives of everyone who worked for them on the line by engaging. That’s not offending from the lap of luxury.
For all the marginalization of Muslims in Western countries, Muhammad is not a marginalized person. He was the founder of the world’s second largest religion and his words hold sway over billions of people’s lives. His personage and his words must be open to vigorous critique. He does not belong to the Muslims alone. He is too influential for that. The great world religions’ founders and present day authorities affect all our lives through their influence on their adherents. They are authority figures that we should seek to undermine when we disagree with them just like any other powers. In the global discussion of ideas that we are all engaged in, no religious figure or authority should be granted a pass.
So, yes, don’t pick on Muhammad as a way of being bigoted towards Muslims. But if you are pushing back against violent religion done in his name? If you are criticizing Islamic ideas traceable to his Qu’ran or the Hadith or to widespread Muslim practice? Then Muhammad is not a wilting flower who should be off-limits to rough treatment. Even if it’s just part of your general anti-clerical thumb in the eye to the pretensions of supposed religious authorities in general, it’s fair game. I don’t care whether the religious ideas or powers you happen to be skewering happen to be ascendent where you live or not. As ideas and people with influence, no one is sacred against the moral right to be treated with criticism–even harsh kinds if you deem necessary.
Finally, while considering whether a joke is punching up or punching down is one valuable rule of thumb for understanding whether it’s a good idea or not, it should not be applied as an absolute rule. That would strangle a lot of valuable criticism. Satire should be concerned with what is true and what is good. And the truth is that all humans are absurd and deserve to be poked fun of. And not all humor is punching, some of it is just poking.
I appreciate South Park’s equal-opportunity attitude about that. No one should feel immune from satirization. The problem with bad satire is that its ideas are false. Its intended or effective criticisms themselves aren’t true or fair but rooted in the same pernicious stereotyping that unfairly oppresses people. And yes, in that vein, South Park sometimes does go too far over the line into merely trivializing and hurtful cruelty (in particular, I think transgender people are treated heinously by the show–episodes about Mr. Garrison’s gender and sexual identities are unwatchable for me). I’d understand criticisms of the show that its ideas are false or harmful or bigoted in this or that instance.
Just making jokes doesn’t make you immune from criticism about the content of what you’re saying through your jokes when your jokes are clearly about conveying ideas or have that effect.
Again, context and intent and actual effects all need to be taken into account. Stephen Colbert may have made fun of everyone with The Colbert Report, but anyone who didn’t come away clear that the point of it all was powerfully on the side of the marginalized and primarily skewering incoherent, authoritarian, self-serving right wing demagogues simply wasn’t paying attention.
While I wouldn’t doubt it’s possible to raise a complaint against some joke he made here or there, to call his efforts racist or sexist or homophobic for 99% of the absurd or awful things he said as the character Stephen Colbert is simply to evince either no grasp of humor or of American politics and culture.
“But Muslims have no choice but to be offended since their religion requires that there be no depictions of Muhammad.
1. Muslims themselves have depicted Muhammad for centuries. It has never been unanimous among Muslims that he can never be depicted.
2. The purpose, as far as I understand it, of the prohibition of depictions of Muhammad is to make sure that they not be revered to the point of becoming graven images. Satirizations of Muhammad by non-Muslims hardly run the risk of turning into idols. If anything a case could be made that they fulfill the spirit of the injunction not to worship him.
3. Muhammad does not merely belong only to Muslims. As a world historical figure and one with massively influential ideas and centuries of religio-political influence that endures through today all over the globe, he must be fair game for as vigorous criticism as any other world historical figure or contemporary politician. To demand that anyone with that kind of outsized influence be treated as sacrosanct because he happens to be revered as a prophet is to be obsequiously deferent to domination. As a matter of course being treated like a prophet itself should exempt you from all protections against mockery because of the chilling degree of power it gives you over people’s minds.
4. The relatively marginalized status of Muslims in the West is irrelevant to the fact of Muhammad’s status as a decidedly privileged figure. Non-Muslims are entitled to unfettered expression about our own feelings about someone who has so much effect on the world overall, be those opinions positive, negative, well-versed, ill-informed, reverential, or irreverent, and whether or not those expressions of our feelings about him come verbally, in writing, in interpretive dance, or even in some pictorial form.
5. It’s not Muslims’ place to insist non-Muslims only treat Muhammad as they claim a Muslim is required to. We have our freedom of conscience too. Not belonging to Islam means not deferring to Islamic prohibitions about what one can say or do with respect to the founder of Islam.
6. Muslims have a choice whether they will respect the freedom of conscience of non-Muslims to express our antipathies or ambivalences towards Muhammad or whether they will hypocritically decide that we must be revere their spiritual leader even though we do not acknowledge him as a legitimate spiritual leader. I’m not asking them to revere my favorite philosopher (Friedrich Nietzsche) and threatening to call them bigots if they don’t. They have no right to demand I revere Muhammad on pain of being called a bigot.
“Is it racist of the media to pay so much more attention to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo than the Nigerian massacre by Boko Haram
No, I don’t think that’s because of racism. It’s not like the American media, for one, is allergic to covering issues related to racism. The last five months of intense coverage of Ferguson and the Eric Garner case are clear evidence that these stories are not merely invisible. And in 2011 when Charlie Hebdo‘s offices were firebombed, we didn’t get round the clock coverage of that event either. In the cases of the NAACP and Charlie Hebdo‘s victimization in 2011 no one died. And while it may be irrational, human brains are wired to pay vastly more attention to actual harm than theoretical harm. Philosophers study this as the problem of “moral luck”. Identical actions are judged more harshly when they cause harms than when they fail to. It’s more psychically damaging to us to incur a real tragedy than to learn someone escaped one but everything’s fine. Had nine people at the NAACP been blown up, it’s inconceivable that America would collectively yawn. This is a racist country but it’s not that racist.
As to the horrors in Nigeria? They’re monstrously evil. And plenty of monstrous evil perpetuated by ISIS and Boko Haram has been central in international news the last half year. No one’s ignoring them.
But there are reasons this story is being focused on intently. It is one moral evil (which is, tragically, ordinary) that also kicks up huge, distinctive controversial fault lines in opinion on crucial matters. It has distinctive symbolic value that stands out and brings into sharper focus central issues of conflict. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo raises the vital questions of whether terrorist acts are going to once again cow Western media. It raises questions about whether the free press can continue when extremists try to intimidate us to this extent. It kicks up intense conflicts over acceptable criticism of religion and censorship of speech. It leads to a lot of outrage from some of us at those who would dare engage in victim blaming towards murdered cartoonists for exercising their human rights to free expression.
If I wrote about the Nigerian massacre, I wouldn’t have my loved ones pleading with me not to out of fear for my safety. When I published the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, I had that happen. That’s morally significant. Our feeling of freedom to express ourselves or publish cartoons now comes with an increased cost. We have to make risk calculations.
The potential psychic devastation to free speech is massive. The need for us all to stand up and steel ourselves against being terrorized and to press on expressing ourselves is a huge issue. All of us doing this in solidarity and feeling the strength of numbers and the shared defiance is vital psychologically on a worldwide level.
More massacres worth mourning grievously will continue to happen daily. Our brains will not be able to process all of them with the same equal intensity of deserved grief — or we wouldn’t be able to function. There are reasons that the ones that have distinctive negative psychological effects and open up controversies and wounds and risks for Westerners get disproportionate attention from Westerners.
“If the West truly cared about free expression it would be equally up in arms about all its own human rights abuses.”
This is an insincere minimizing and derailing tactic you’d never accept on any other issue you took seriously. You can call for people to care about a plethora of other issues without trying to minimize their concern for this issue. If you were outraged about the police killing of Eric Garner you wouldn’t stop to chastise a writer who was expressing such outrage because that writer also failed to take a stand against George W. Bush’s torture regime. You wouldn’t try to invalidate the outrage over Eric Garner’s death by saying that unless people give every other issue the attention it deserves they are hypocrites who should shut up or start paying attention to those other issues first.
Distracting the conversation about these very real violations of free expression by complaining about how people are talking about them instead of the West’s own crimes against free expression is basically trying to minimize the importance of the massacre of Westerners because apparently the West has lost its right to complain about assaults on Westerners because of the actions of Western governments. That’s remarkably hypocritical. It’s a massive failure of concern for free expression. It’s an us vs. them, marginalized vs. oppressed, false dualism of good and evil that loses the ability to adequately feel for anyone from more privileged classes or to adequately take the abuses they suffer seriously.
You do not have to be marginalized to suffer violence, terror, threat, or injustice. And violence, terror, threat, and injustice against anyone is a problem.
So, as a white western left winger who passionately speaks out about torture of Middle Eastern detainees, about racist policing in America and numerous other human rights problems in the West, I don’t appreciate those who try to appeal to the seriousness of those issues to try to minimize the utter and complete seriousness of the violent massacre. You are not allies to free speech. You are attempting to silence the kind of free speech you don’t like. You are apparently so ideologically partisan to whoever you simplistically see as marginalized and against whoever you simplistically judged as privileged that when innocent privileged people are massacred your knee jerk reflex is to minimize the importance of the injustice done to them however you can. That’s more offensive and insulting to humanity than anything I’ve seen from Charlie Hebdo.
Following this article, I appeared on The Reasonable Doubts podcast (which is, hands down, my favorite podcast) to talk about #JeSuisCharlie. The doubtcasters dealt with more aspects of the issue than I did and my interview includes some more arguments missing from this piece, along with restatements. I highly recommend checking it out.
To give Your Thoughts, comment here.
If you support independent media committed to freedom of expression and independent scholars committed to using their knowledge and skills in the public sphere beyond academia, please commit to financially helping me do this for a living by making a one time donation or subscribing. For information on my philosophy classes read this general overview of how they work and click on any of the banners below for details about the specific classes and their topics! New classes are starting up this month!