Friday, 16 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo: real fight is over who controls the terms of debate

So, Charlie Hebdo releases its much-awaited 'edition of defiance', hailed by much of the political elite and liberal media.

Is this latest depiction of the Prophet - now shown weeping, and holding a "Je Suis Charlie" placard, below the Hebdo message "All is forgiven" - intended as a firm 'rebuke to terrorism', the telling of Muslims that 'these killers don't speak for Islam', or even, as suggested by some, a statement of 'forgiving outreach'?

Interpretations abound. But it's significant that we're expected to approach and answer these questions through a dominant filter of liberal understanding, most of which complies with a 'Voltarian' default-type idealism in support of Charlie.  

Yet, claims over the sacrosanct status of 'free speech' and its expression as 'satire' cannot elide the more elementary issue of human consideration and social responsibility. As cartoonist Joe Sacco observes, Hebdo's output is a "vapid way to use a pen." One might also add, pernicious, vulgar and racist.

Is this latest cover any less offensive, not only in proclaiming such caustic messages, but doing so now, apparently, 'on behalf' of Muslims? 

The argument that, content aside, they should still have the right to publish such material seems an even more diversionary trope. 

Besides Sacco, I'm with Will Self, who said that: 'If I were a satirist the people I would be attacking are the security state.'

Which, beyond liberal issues of 'satirical taste', suggests more substantive questions about the relative value of 'free speech' set against how that speech is used to explore more pressing, yet conveniently concealed, issues of power and powerlessness.

Here, as Self also reminds us, lurks the dark paradox that the much-proclaimed 'imperatives' of 'secular democracy' and 'free speech' are being stated in similar quasi-religious tones to that of those 'Islamic' fundamentalists.

And this brings us to the essence of what's so crucial in this debate: that the issue is not, essentially, about 'free and universal speech'. Rather, it's about the determined power to control popular narratives; to direct the very ideological-cultural terms of that debate.

It's what Edward Said wrote so incisively about in Culture and Imperialism; how the ability to conquer, control and render the 'other' subservient was achieved not only through the dominance of weaponry, but also through the messages, latent or overt, flowing through imperialist text and image.

It was, for Said, about the removal and marginalisation of that 'other' voice, the all-important negation of independent agency.

Simply stated, it was, and still is, about power getting to call the shots, both through imperialist violence and narrative-laden denigration.

Much of that same intent and subtext can be seen in the Charlie Hebdo case, both in this latest appropriation of the Prophet, and in how that choice depiction has been hailed as yet another instance of 'our' 'higher authority' and 'sacred' Western-liberal narrative of 'truly civilising free speech'.  

As Jonathan Cook concisely puts it:
For me the Charlie Hebdo cover precisely embodies the very problem it thinks it exposes: not of a clash of civilisations, but our desperation to control the narrative to our advantage. It is telling in my view that the cartoonist says he cried at the moment he came up with the idea. The cartoon is not cheeky or subversive, as Western critics would have us believe; it is hugely sentimental while being at the same time presumptuous and racist in the deepest sense of the word. What it does is to strip the Prophet, and by implication all Muslims, of any agency or voice. A white cartoonist gets not only to speak for them, but to impose on them – as Muslims – an apology. To implicate them all – through those three words – in a crime committed by two gunmen.

Yes, the cartoon is offensive, but not in the clash of civilisations sense – one that leaves us in the west feeling vindicated and self-righteous. It is offensive because it offends against history, offends against the self-determination of peoples long colonised by us, offends against the values we claim for ourselves as enlightened beings.
Backed by liberal outpouring on the War for Civilisation, and the barbaric Western crimes this helps disguise, that sense of 'superior enlightenment' permeates the political and cultural discussion. 

It ranges from approving Guardian reporting of Hebdo's latest cover, to George Clooney and other celebrities sporting Je Suis Charlie badges at the Golden Globe film awards. 

In serving to reaffirm cherished notions of 'unfettered expression', both are pertinent examples of what Said had in mind when he wrote about populist propaganda and cultural hegemony.

Indeed, would-be advocates of 'inviolable speech' like Clooney are actually the worst kind of apologists for power. As safe voices of boundaried 'dissent', they provide, unwittingly or otherwise, an easy 'standard' around which people often unsure of the issues will readily rally.

If Said were alive today, he'd likely be making this very point about how the establishment and its liberal-serving agencies greatly approve and promote such calls and shows of support; how such declarations work as reinforcement of dominant interests through the comforting illusion of 'hard-won freedoms'.

For, after all, don't we already, here in the West, live in an already benighted liberal democracy, where we get to vote for real choice parties twice a decade, and hear our most radical views aired on Question Time? Or are we really now slipping into satire?

As part of this 'great open debate', we also see much pandering to the sensibilities of 'the Muslim community', helping to instil the idea of 'tolerant,' 'dialogue-willing' liberal engagement. Yet this only further consecrates the notion of a 'freedom-defining us', bestowing noble legitimacy on liberal vanguards as the ultimate arbiter of 'how to best help them'.  

Much of that liberal-speak, of course, includes Islamic voices. And many liberal-minded Muslims have adopted the same agenda-setting narrative, feeling compelled to 'deny terrorism' and engage in foisted forms of 'self-examination'.
Others, however, appear to be denouncing the narrative, like left-liberal Muslim Mehdi Hasan, Political Director at the Huffington Post, who, "fed up" with their hypocrisy, has turned on the "Free Speech Fundamentalists":
Let's be clear: I agree there is no justification whatsoever for gunning down journalists or cartoonists. I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility; and I do not believe that a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend. When you say "Je suis Charlie", is that an endorsement of Charlie Hebdo's depiction of the French justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is black, drawn as a monkey? Of crude caricatures of bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave? Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic. 
Hasan also includes here: 
the liberal-left pin-up Jon Snow, who crassly tweeted about a "clash of civilisations" and referred to "Europe's belief in freedom of expression".
All good comment. Yet, how ready is Hasan himself to criticise much more directly his HuffPost host, or other liberal media like Channel 4 News and the Guardian, as key purveyors of that dominant narrative? 

Consider this, also, from Huffington Post Assistant Editor Jessica Elgot, who tweeted on Hasan's piece: 
I don’t agree with ’s column. Isn’t that the great beauty of free speech?
Again the liberal conceit; another neatly-revealing example of how such voices view 'other' speech, even that of a journalist colleague, as though inclusion of Hasan's opinion as a liberal-left Muslim at the HuffPost is some major proof of the sacred liberal munificence which people like Elgot have the 'much higher responsibility' to uphold.

I wonder if Hasan can see the ways in which that dominant, 'assumed right' to the narrative is being played out, just as Said would have understood it.

It's also worth noting here that the Huffington Post recently called upon readers to 'unfollow' various Twitter sites like Wikileaks, Media Lens and George Galloway, a reminder of how many liberal-left figures and platforms are themselves so often hostile, protective of their status and closed to free, fair and critical engagement.

For all that, Hasan's key charges on the hypocrisy of 'free speech' fundamentalism, and objection to the Hebdo depictions, remain. And state intolerance of that dissent in France is helping to show just how efficiently that counter-narrative is being demonised and suppressed.  

There's deep resentment over the prosecuting of anti-Hebdo dissent, while French politicians and media defend the paper as a paragon of free speech. 
Though decrying the Paris killings, many French schoolchildren also feel deeply affronted at being compelled to partake in 'Je Suis Charlie' acts of 'unity'. Alongside the selective attention they see over the Hebdo deaths, compared with killings in, say, Palestine or Syria, many resent the social discrimination they're experiencing as 'equal' French citizens:  
 “You go to a nightclub, and they don’t let you in,” said Binakdan, a transit worker in Paris. “You go to a party, they look at your beard, and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is a part of that, too. Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. This is sacred to us. And yes, we have a hard time laughing about it.”
Again, it's all indicative of who is trying to drive the public narrative, and how the political class and its supportive media is using manipulative 'moral' argument to control that agenda. As the shameless stage gathering of leaders in Paris showed, this is the calculating opportunism of repressive state forces posing in liberal garb. 

And what ultimate purpose does public association with deep authority serve, other than gifting greater powers of state control? Why isn't this much more problematic incorporation of the populace and subversion of radical speech, in the 'land of liberté' and beyond, not being seriously discussed, exposed or satirised? Largely, because that more vital power narrative of 'liberal rights' is serving to draw an expedient voile de l'illusion around it.    

Yes, we may all have those notional 'liberal rights' to criticise and even offend. But how much does the idealisation of such really advance our true and realisable freedoms? And does it supersede serious empathy, social manners and compassionate concern for others' sensitivities, particularly the sensitivities of an already deeply marginalised community?
Beyond the standard liberal narratives and terms of debate, some writings and commentaries containing more critical observation, free thinking and human understanding: 

Nadine El-Enany and Sarah Keenan
“I am Charlie and I guard the Master’s house”
Media Lens
Charlie Hebdo and the War for Civilisation

Mehdi Hasan
As a Muslim, I'm Fed Up With the Hypocrisy of the Free Speech Fundamentalists

Glenn Greenwald
France arrests a comedian for his Facebook comments, showing the sham of the West's "free speech" celebration

Seumas Milne
Paris is a warning: there is no insulation from our wars

Ali Abunimah
Who’s a Charlie? France cracks down on free speech in order to defend it

Chris Hedges
A Message From the Dispossessed

Joe Sacco
On Satire – a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks

Tariq Ali
Maximum Horror

Corey Oakley
Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils

Will Self
Speaking on 'Should satire only target people in power? - video'

Russell Brand
Charlie Hebdo: Whose Fault Is it?


Julian said...

I assume you would allow individual editors or bloggers, or whoever, the right to decide to publish stuff others might find offensive in this way? Or would you support a blasphemy law?

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Julian. It's not really about me or anyone else allowing or disallowing it. It's about asking people to think about why they might wish to publish such material, to understand the context, and to consider whether the deliberate hurting of others' sensitivities is really much more important and gratifying than refraining from it as a gesture of humanity. And, no, I don't support the idea of blasphemy laws. There are already various laws on hate-speech. But, overall, it's generally better to think about these things as measured individuals. It's not to say that religions or religious ideas can never be criticised. It's more about encouraging respectful comment and exchange on such matters rather than narrow insistence on 'my right' to wield slurs and insults.

Hope that's of help to you.


Rose said...

John - you are sane voice in a mad world - thank you.

I liked the penultimate paragraph particularly.

The Nazarene nailed it: Love one another.

Anonymous said...

Do you think satirical films such as 'Life of Brian' ought to have been banned on the grounds that many Christians found the content offensive?

John Hilley said...

Many thanks, Rose. Russell Brand says much the same:)

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Anon.

The basic answer to your question is no. Again, it shouldn't generally be about banning things, more about having thoughtful regard for others. You will almost certainly never be able to avoid offending some people when expressing a view or artistic content. The real question here, I think, comes down to issues of intention to offend, or whether you produce such content with only individual, selfish or malicious interests in mind. Humour, including the often dark variety, is a beautiful thing, always, subjective, of course, but part of our core being. Even if there was a will to ban certain forms of satire, I'm far from sure you could ever do it in a way that satisfies all or most people. Yet, always bear in mind here that the Charlie Hebdo issue isn't just about a vulgar image, it has a much deeper political context involving very real problems of Muslim peoples being oppressed, colonised and murdered. The terrible killings in Paris must be seen in that context too. It's always about power, and how we can show meaningful compassion and responsibility rather than gratuitously producing or defending potentially hurtful comment or images.

Kind regards