Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

By Finbarr Curtis

In the wake of the recent mass murder of the contributors to Charlie Hebdo, we have been awash in calls to decry violence and affirm commitments to free speech.  These sentiments are reasonable and should be widely embraced.  But one notable feature of this discussion has been the rise of the affirmation: "Je suis Charlie." This slogan asks us not only to denounce violence, but also to sympathetically identify with the writers of Charlie Hebdo. We are asked to applaud their heroism and courage in the face of extremism.  This sympathetic identification is remarkable in that people in democratic societies do not usually need reasons not to be murdered. Furthermore, identifying with Charlie poses a challenge because the publication's cartoons gleefully traffic in bigotry. In particular, the murderers took offense at insulting portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad.

Many defend such bigotry, however, on the grounds that Charlie Hebdo was an "equal opportunity offender." These defenses have insisted that the cartoons in question were not Islamophobic because they also insulted Catholics, Jews, and everyone else. Furthermore, images that appeared to be patently racist were really just profanations of religious figures.  Whereas racism would be unacceptable to secular liberals, anti-religious invective is okay.  In this way, the label "religion" performs magical work. Comparisons between religions take disparate images and transform them into the same thing.  A caricature of the Pope becomes no different from an stereotypical image of the Prophet Muhammad.

Such magical thinking, however, forgets that the intelligent use of comparison depends upon discerning differences.  In his classic essay "In Comparison a Magic Dwells," Jonathan Z. Smith reminds us:
Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the "gap" in the service of some useful end.
The apologists for Charlie Hebdo who celebrate equal opportunity offenders offer comparisons that make no difference. By accepting that anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic slights are the same thing, this rhetoric asks us to forget everything we know about European history and politics.  Rather than a form of social criticism, Charlie Hebdo's habit of offending everyone in the same way marks the absence of intelligent analysis.

Instead of speaking truth to power, equal opportunity offense erases the realities of social power. This is partly why the role of equal opportunity offender appeals disproportionately to white men. Charlie Hebdo's cartoons voiced white Frenchmen's sense that their political and aesthetic freedom was under threat by a Muslim minority. Consistent with calls for race or gender neutrality, equal opportunity offense celebrates its commitment to equality and freedom in ways that distract attention from existing social inequalities.

If we were to follow through on the business of making comparisons, we could ask if someone were to kill a dozen members of a white supremacist publication, would we proudly identify with them?  To be clear, I do not think this comparison makes Charlie Hebdo and white supremacists the same for the reason I do not think comparisons between anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic invective makes them the same.  But this comparison would help us to think through some telling differences between what is labeled as a hate group and what is labeled as a satirical publication. In this case, the salient difference between hate speech and satire is that a satirist went to college. We are told that Charlie Hebdo is not itself bigoted; it is left-leaning satire that merely makes fun of the bigotry of other, less sophisticated people like the overt racists and Islamophobes of the National Front.  It is, however, a profound privilege to laugh at other people's bigotry as if it were harmless fun.  As Jacob Canfield argues, the unexamined social privileges of Charlie Hebdo's contributors allow them to cite their own immunity to offense in order to demonstrate their moral and intellectual superiority over others who need to "lighten up":
They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong. White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.
None of this is to say that there are not often good reasons to offend. It is true that tasks like making art and writing social criticism often require us to risk giving offense. Indeed, I am risking offense in writing this essay right now.  This does not mean, however, that giving offense itself amounts to good art or intelligent social criticism. This is a point well made by Wendell Berry.  While I do not share all of Berry's views, I think his distinction between the willingness to risk offense and the intent to give offense is instructive here.  For my part, I do not intend for my arguments to cause offense. Charlie Hebdo's imagery, however, has no purpose other than to give offense and therefore depends upon a public that will take offense.  As Berry explains:
I know that for a century or so many artists and writers have felt it was their duty - a mark of their honesty and courage - to offend their audience. But if the artist has a duty to offend, does not the audience therefore have a duty to be offended?
As I see it, my responsibility in the wake of the horrors of recent events in Paris is not to identify with Charlie Hebdo but to continue to take offense at Charlie Hebdo even when it might seem offensive to do so. I take offense not because I am against free speech but because I value speech and I see Charlie Hebdo's imagery as a gratuitous waste of a precious resource.  Furthermore, our current discussion about free speech is distracting from more pressing questions about what happened in Paris and what will happen in the future. As Fredrik deBoer notes, we have recently focused on what he calls dead moral questions:
We are having a series of loud, impassioned, righteous conversations about questions like “Should people murder?” and “Should we have the right to publish cartoons?” We’re debating, in other words, dead moral questions, and for the same reason we always do: because that debate allows us to ignore the ones that might lead us to a different place than the celebration of our own liberal righteousness.
Rather than call for celebrations of secular superiority against the forces of barbaric extremism, I would call for a resistance to such simplistic identifications. Charlie Hebdo's brand of heroic secularism is appealing because it offers an aesthetically satisfying release to a sense of wounded nationhood that feels oppressed by having to consider other people's sensibilities. This is why it is particularly pressing not to give into the visceral urge to identify with Charlie's bigotry.  People are not bigoted for no reason. People embrace bigotry when their imagined identities are under threat. Therefore, I am not Charlie.

*A follow-up to this piece can be found here


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Indeed. To dignify Charlie Hebdo's brand of humor as "satire" cheapens the term. Satirists are moralists. Moralists are not bigots. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are boors. One can deplore criminal homicide (what decent human being doesn't?) and, at the same time, refuse to lionize those who indiscriminately purvey their bigotries while claiming title to an honorable profession (i.e., that of satirist) that they have not earned.