Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Affair

This is my reply to the Facebook comment thread linked to here:



Thanks to all of you again for taking the time to engage, and the length of this post reflects the seriousness with which I regard this subject. First, a disclaimer: I’ve never read an entire Charlie Hebdo issue in my life, or indeed heard of it before this incident. I am largely unfamiliar with French culture and the reality on the ground in France; I don’t know how widespread racism is there, whether immigrants are truly accepted in society (and I think this is a question for many European countries at the moment), etc… so this is why comparing different viewpoints like this article, over the past several days, has been very important for me.

One of the things that interested me most about this article in particular was that it was mainly discussing not just Islam itself but also the experiences of people of color in France (linking it to the author’s recent trip to Paris to discuss just that with Parisians of color). It’s very important to emphasize that for me, questioning this kind of content is not about making a “special excuse” for Islam, or encouraging double standards. Cartoons that peddle racist stereotypes about black people, Chinese people, and Buddhist people, as Alexandre mentioned, would be just as unacceptable for me as those that depict Islam and/or Muslims – and just as I would be vehemently against the kind of anti-Semitic cartoons that are already stringently banned under French law, as they should be. (A fact that calls into question double standards of a different nature, as many commentaries have already pointed out.)

First and most important: we can all agree that there is such a thing as racist, offensive and xenophobic speech. The tricky part is that, of course, everyone’s standards for what constitutes “offensive” are different, both on an individual and a cultural level. For example, in the US, these kinds of cartoons would NEVER be published (even newspapers that are reprinting them in solidarity blur out some of the more controversial ones). This has to do with the history and culture of the US, which has had to try and move beyond a very fractious and still-dangerous “race problem”. This is also the angle from which the author of this article, who apparently lives in the US, views this subject by. As a dual citizen of Saudi Arabia and the US, I also am definitely more on the side of the US in how I interpret speech as offensive or not. So our standard of judging certain kinds of speech as unacceptable is pretty low.

However, what would never be acceptable in the US would in fact be acceptable in France; as I’ve learned through my research over the past several days, France has a tradition of no-holds-barred satire that dates back to the Revolution. As a result, the standards for offensive speech for the average French person is much higher – which might result in someone French considering what I think is a tasteless joke as pretty funny; so we can’t automatically say “oh the French are racists!” just because they might appreciate a different type of humor than we do. Also, thank you Alexandre for explaining the cartoon, I see now that it can’t be fairly described as “racist”. I’ve done some more research and apparently even the cartoon of the woman as a monkey was also a comment on HER being described as a monkey by racists. So yes, just calling something racist doesn’t automatically make it so, and there are multiple ways to read different cartoons. What pushes someone’s buttons might be absolutely fine for others. (An article that helped me to digest this: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/01/11/1356945/-On-not-understanding-Charlie-Why-many-smart-people-are-getting-it-wrong#)

If I understand you correctly, Ejmin, your main point is that no one has the right not to be offended; freedom of speech means allowing disrespectful and provocative language, attacking the holiness that surrounds certain concepts; ‘thumbing it to the man’, so to speak. While you are absolutely correct, I’d like to question the occasional intentions behind such speech… I don’t think it can ever really be chalked up to “just for fun”. You point out just a few comments later (lol) that “satiric expressions reflect utterly the imagination of the society from the concepts that matter, so they are good ways of evaluating what's going on in the main stream”. So framing it as ‘just for fun’ isn’t doing it justice; there’s always reverberations and repercussions that can’t be immediately detected in these issues. (Also, I think the point of linking to the CNN report was just to point out that this kind of talk is becoming more and more widespread).

When ‘humor’ is based on peddling harmful and negative stereotypes, that’s when it starts being problematic – but then again, it’s not about what I or anyone else finds tasteless, is it? However, what I feel clinches the issue for me is not the question of disrespecting certain minorities over others, but in that it’s a way for the ‘strong’ to clobber the ‘weak’. When ‘poking fun’ is actually ‘consistently targeting a certain minority’. And while I’m not familiar with the legal definition of “hate speech” (thank you, Saudi legal education, for not having a class on freedom of expression :P) I don’t agree that the only standard to judge hate speech should be “proving that people were motivated to conduct hate crime” as a result. Hate speech should also be understood as maliciously propagating stereotypes that take away from people’s dignity and can actually result in a subliminal, unconscious erosion of their sense of respect by the majority, and leads not only to condescension but also to denigration on a wider scale. Which is arguably what’s happening here.

The fact that ‘Charlie Hebdo made fun of white people too’ doesn’t really resolve the issue at hand – as pointed out in this article (http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/why-i-am-not-charlie/), “Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.

Just a quick example – would a strong, loud bully on a playground be allowed to mercilessly taunt a short quiet weak kid, or would he be stopped? This is the main reason why I feel like there should be limits; not because some people are more likely to get offended than other, but because power dynamics in a society are real and because encouraging widespread stereotypes about people can be very harmful. Not just because it offends them personally, but because propagating these stereotypes is always negative, and because, come on – much of this is not intelligent humor that’s making a point in any way. Maintaining people’s rights to be provocative is one thing, but also acknowledging that sometimes these provocations are based on nothing more than childish and immature ways to express oneself, like an annoying kid sticking their tongue out and going “nyah nyah nyah!”. As the New York Times put it, ““We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/charlie-hebdo-cartoon-publication-debate/?_r=2

So: I guess the takeaway from all this is that, while I am not going to presume to advocate for more stringent laws on freedom of expression, nor am I going to try and condemn the French mode of satire from the outside, I am against lionizing these cartoons and trying to make them out to be some kind of heroic statement for freedom and liberty. Regarding the way that some media outlets have reacted to the massacre, the always-incredible and on-point Glenn Greenwald expresses just what I want to say on the subject: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/
 I’m also reminded of this thoughtful comic on the subject by an excellent cartoonist:

To be honest, my own attitude regarding these kinds of cartoons is to ignore them. They’re not hurting me, and they’re certainly not hurting the Prophet. I couldn’t care less what a bunch of people, who are utterly ignorant about what Islam stands for, think about it. I highly doubt that these cartoons can be blamed for persuading anyone who is not aware of the subject that Islam or the Prophet advocate violence. Humor doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and we need to allocate blame where it is due. I think the cartoons are tasteless and I don’t agree with them, but realistically, especially in this day and age, I think it’s going to become less and less likely that my objection to them is going to lead to them being banned. In the end, the only thing we Muslims can do is to fight against these stereotypes so that they make no sense anymore. So that referring to the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist would be considered an oxymoron that makes no sense, not something that would make anyone chuckle in recognition. And that is what, largely, we have failed to do. We do carry the burden of representing ourselves; a demonstration by Muslims is the one thing I would’ve wanted to see as well. If I lived in a place where I could organize one myself, believe me, I would. As it is, I hope and pray that my actions and words in condemning these heinous crimes can be enough.

In the end, what did those terrorists accomplish? Their disgusting attempt at “defense” of the Prophet, if it really was “defense”, just led to the propagation of more of these ludicrous cartoons around the world. To stepping up the attempts at blasphemy, to enforcing the terrible stereotype of Muslims as terrorists, to increased actual hate crime against Muslims who are identified with these awful crimes, and on and on… Here in Saudi Arabia people are actually calling into question that Muslims did this (though I don’t like engaging in conspiracy theories), since they couldn’t have harmed Islam more systematically if they tried!!! That’s why, in conclusion, this cartoon by Carlos Latuff, which I have linked to before, is so apt: https://www.facebook.com/aljazeera/photos/pcb.10153092512528690/10153092508728690/?type=1&theater

Peace be with us all.