Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Trouble with Charlie

The attack on the premises of the Paris-based satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was a clash of two forms of absolutism. On one hand were the gunmen who claimed the right to summarily execute those they believed had insulted their faith. On the other hand were the artists of Charlie Hebdo who reserved the right to satirize whatever caught their fancy in an uncompromising exercise of their freedom of speech. From Islam’s founding prophet and Christianity’s holy trinity to France’s black female justice minister and the Chibok girls, no one has escaped the magazine’s irreverent depiction.

Without question, the murders were self-evidently wrong. The attack has been portrayed as an extremist assault on freedom of speech. Worldwide, there have been declarations of solidarity with France and affirmations of the sacredness of free speech.

The problem is that absolute free speech is a myth. If it truly existed, countries would not have laws against incitement, sedition, libel, defamation or slander. A world of such boundless liberty would not need Official Secrets Acts. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Mordecai Vanunu and Wikileaks would be garlanded for liberating information.

In this parallel universe, racist chants by European football fans would be unobjectionable. There would be no need for censors and artistic license would be completely unfettered. There would be no laws protecting public decency or religious sensibilities from the travesties of the irreverent. Charlie Hebdo would not have fired a staffer in 2009 for anti-Semitism. It would be acceptable to scrawl swastikas and choice portions of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on synagogues. People would not be prosecuted for homophobia, holocaust denial or anti-Semitism. Xenophobia and racism would not carry the whiff of moral odium.

Ironically, barely a week after the Paris attacks, French authorities arrested and charged the comedian, Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, for a Facebook post “glorifying terrorism”. The contradictions and hypocrisies are obvious enough and if prosecuting a comedian for a facebook post seems inconsistent with the odes to free speech that have emanated from Paris in recent days, it can be easily explained. Freedom of speech is a relative term entirely dependent on national experience, the evolutionary trajectory of political institutions and the distribution of power among various classes and interests.

The French Revolution was a revolt not only against the corrupt Bourbon monarchy but also its ally, the Church. It was the insurgence of enlightenment values against the medieval horrors of a religiously-backed tyranny. The 19th Century French historian Jules Michelet believed that the French Republic would “take the place of the god who escapes us.” Thus, France is a fanatically secular realm whose Muslim population – the legacy of its imperial hey days – poses a particular challenge. Because of its history, France entertains a socio-cultural bias that enables a satirical magazine to caricature its religious and racial minorities (Muslims, Christians and those of African and Middle Eastern descent) under the cover of free speech while a comedian of colour who attempts to exercise the same right is charged with “glorifying terrorism.”

The West sees itself as the last outpost of rationality threatened by the superstitious idiocies of religion. In reality, when the nation-state supplanted religion as the West’s core communal principle, power and violence discarded their overtly religious vestments for secular garments. Secular ideologies appropriated popular devotion. As the English philosopher C.E.M. Joad observed, “Political doctrines such as fascism and communism assume for the twentieth century the status which religious doctrines possessed in the nineteenth.”

Our inherent blind spots prevent us from discerning the secular dogmas which approximate religion’s much vaunted irrationality. Consider Marxism’s assumption of the infallibility of an omniscient proletariat, capitalism’s assumption of the inerrancy of market forces and its veneration of the invisible hand, a metaphor of Calvinist origins that conflates an unfettered free market with providence; fascism’s deification of the state and secular liberalism’s divinization of the self and its sacralization of individual liberties including free speech.

Both religious and irreligious societies maintain speech codes. In the former, they may take the form of blasphemy laws and in the latter they take the form of utterances deemed threatening to the sociopolitical order. In secular France, cartoons that mock religion are not deemed dangerous to public order. Anti-Semitism is treated differently perhaps because of Europe’s lingering guilt over its complicity in the Nazi holocaust. Religious sensibilities are not protected from deliberate offence. Every society has its pet prejudices. France’s Muslim minority appears to be the convenient guinea pig for free speech absolutists but this trend also reflects France’s problem of racial and socio-cultural integration, European uncertainty about what multiculturalism and growing pluralism mean for national identity and coherence, and (largely Islamophobic and xenophobic) fears of a jihadist fifth column in Europe.

Absolute freedom of speech is a myth. There is no individual liberty that is not bounded by the responsibility of competent social being. It is impossible to simultaneously sustain absolute individual freedom and social cohesion. Our freedoms, even when not legally circumscribed, still need to be exercised with reason, empathy and responsibility. At what point does free speech morph into hate speech? This controversy is really about drawing the line between liberalism and extreme licentiousness and radical libertinism. How do we strike a fair balance between artistic license and decency, order and respect for all sensibilities? Isn’t such moderation the truly rational path in a diverse world?

It is possible to deplore the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and concurrently condemn the magazine’s heedless worship of bad taste. It is also possible to support freedom of speech and also advocate using it responsibly.

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