Can Europe Make It?

To be or not to be, Charlie?

Three questions not to discuss under this heading, and four more that strike uncomfortably near the heart of the matter.

Albena Azmanova
2 February 2015

The “I am Charlie” demonstrations have, thankfully, transformed into an “Are We Charlie?” debate. Indeed, what we owe freedom of speech is not declarations of allegiance, but a good, preferably impolite, dispute. Otherwise we risk turning free speech from a tool of liberation into yet another oppressive dogma.

I hope, however, this debate does not get sidetracked by three issues that have dominated commentaries circling in the I Am Charlie mobilization. These issues do not belong to the debate because the answers are obvious: (1) Is it acceptable to respond to verbal offence with physical violence? The Thou Shalt Not Kill rule is non-negotiable. No need for debate there. (2) Should free speech be selectively applied? Commentators have pointed out the double standard of free speech in France, as anti-Semitic and anti-Republican pundits and comedians in France are much more severely sanctioned than their anti-Islamic brethren. Not a good thing, and nothing much to argue over there. (3) Are the vulgar depictions of the prophet Mohammed distasteful?  They surely are. But rules of aesthetic justice are out of place in matters of free speech.

Leaving these three non-issues aside, I propose we focus on four questions that strike, uncomfortably, at the heart of the matter. My goal in what follows is to discern the contours of a meaningful debate, not to state and defend a particular position.

Issue One: should hate speech set limits to free speech?

Where hate speech starts, free speech ends: this is how typically the line has been drawn. Yet identifying hate speech keeps infringing on the territory of free speech, especially when satire is deployed. Wit, though having its etymological origins in archaic forms of the verb ‘to know’, has existed in the shape of ‘intelligent insult’ more than as polite displays of wisdom. Take away the right to insult and the talent to insult intelligently, and you deprive wit of its most befitting attire. It is thus that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo explain the often offensive attitude their paper is known for: “we were drawing pseudo Mickey Mouse… sometimes goofy, other times crass, punk for sure… we were simply joyful unbelievers” (in the words of Renald Luzier, “Luz,” who has been a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo for twenty years, in an interview he gave after the massacre of his colleagues, explaining the Mohammed cartoons). The images and language deployed, in the process, have been often qualified as ‘hate speech’ instigating violence.  Similarly, when the French comedian Dieudonné (known for his anti-Jewish sarcasm), was arrested for making a joke that appeared to sympathise with the extremists; he justified himself: “I was only trying to make people laugh”.

It is true that the process of sarcastic exchange can even represent a form of recognition that the participants are equals, and thus enact a mutual empowerment – as they share a code of witty dialogue which turns them into partners rather than enemies in certain contexts. That is, provided that the participants are social equals. Take the fabled exchange between Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor (the affluent American socialite who was the first woman to be elected to the UK Parliament): At a garden party, she can no longer suppress her indignation at his poor manners and exclaims: “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” To which he is known to have retorted: “Nancy, if you were my wife I’d drink it.” Insulting, openly hateful? Surely. But also -- a sparring exchange among equals, in which the mutual ridicule is a display of intimacy. Invigorating for the participants, amusing to the viewers.

So, is it only when the indirect witty exchanges between a ‘Luz’ and a ‘Dieudonné’ in France become an innocent interaction between social equals (with the requisite social reforms well in place) that we are to allow them to deploy their gift of intelligent insult against each other? Of course, there is an enormous difference between witty banter and hate speech as a public act potentially provoking violence against an oppressed group. But isn’t exactly the irreverent de-crowning, through sarcasm, of the taboos and symbols that oppress – isn’t this one of the most effective means for fighting oppression? It is here that hate speech and free speech dispute territory.

And here is how we arrive at the second question I deem important for our “Are we Charlie?” debate:

Issue Two: What is the point of free speech?

Free speech gained its validity (already in ancient Athens and the Roman Republic) not as a tool of information, but one of liberation; it still acquires its significance as such a tool. That is why the question of defining its range of operation should be approached not as a matter of horizontal delimitation of boundaries (by excluding issues as inappropriate or dangerous), but as a matter of vertical distribution of power.

Let me explain. I grew up in a society (under the communist regime in my native Bulgaria) where sarcasm could freely be targeted downwards, at the Islamic minorities of ethnic Turks and Romani, but could cost you your life if directed upwards, at the ruling elites. Yet, jokes against the communist regime were in abundance. (We called them “the golden grid” jokes, as they sent you behind bars. Here is my favorite one -- Question: “What is the difference between a racist and a political joke” Answer: ”Ten years” – that is, ten years behind bars). When used for its intended purpose – to liberate, sarcasm is a form of free speech only when targeted at oppressive ideas and institutions, which sarcasm dethrones. This has hardly been the case with the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo.

I personally would tend to err in favor of free speech (and thus maximize the scope of critique of religion), because I believe that the primary vocation of free speech is to defend against and attack domination. I would do that also for the sake of free speech’s second most important task, as per Mill’s argument – to get us closer to the truth of an issue. When limiting free speech to where supposedly hate speech begins, by the very logic of this move we reduce the right to free speech to a right to polite conversation (and as I’ve made it clear I do not care much about that). Much is lost in that move: both the capacity to attack domination in all its forms and the chance of getting closer to the truth of an issue. To me, it is more important that freedom of speech is deployed to its proper purpose — to protect against, and fight, oppression. If we forget that freedom of speech has a purpose, we turn it into another oppressive dogma, as Luz, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, put it so well in an interview he gave after the attacks.

Let me clarify my point by attempting an experiment. Remember that splendid quip Mahatma Gandhi made about Western Civilization? (When a journalist once asked him “What do you think of Western Civilisation?”, he replied “ I think it would be a good idea.”) Replace “Western” with “Islamic” and the joke is no longer funny, as its purpose would be “to offend what we already know is a wounded civilization” (as the commentator Patrick Smith aptly put it in a recent piece). True, a lot of the wounding has been done by that civilization’s own religious and political leaders, but the west is very far from innocent.

The events in France are an urgent invitation to call the problem by its proper name – ridiculing Islam in a country where the predominantly Islamic population of Maghreb origin has been denigrated as second-rate citizens (On this, see the recent Stanford University study on Muslim job discrimination in France.) This amounts to exercising oppression on those in need of emancipation – thus, de facto going against the political project which gave freedom of expression its raison-d’être.

And the last uncomfortable question:

Issue Three: What is the proper object of satire?

Does anything go?

A joke might indeed be a serious thing (an observation attributed to Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill), and the gravest thing about joking is that not everything is a laughing matter.

That great wit, Voltaire -- the human embodiment of the gutsy spirit of the Enlightenment, most ardent advocate of the freedom of religion and of expression, known for targeting his irreverent satirical attacks against all the powers of the day – from the monarchy and the church to popular superstition – did write a play about Mohammed. That play, however, was not a comedy, it was a tragedy.

Frontispiece of the 1753 edition of Voltaire's play, Mahomet.

Frontispiece of the 1753 edition of Voltaire's play, Mahomet. Wikicommons. Public domain. Religious fanaticism (what stands behind beheadings, sex slavery, depriving children of education, killing a religion’s critics) is surely not a laughing matter, but this does not mean we should be silent about it. Voltaire himself spoke highly of Islam’s civil laws and even praised Mohammed as a legislator who brought his contemporaries out of idolatry; what he objected to were the means deployed in the process -- “deception and murder”, in his words.

Issue Four: to be left out  

I would deliberately leave out of the Are We Charlie? debate on free speech the big, grave, most urgent of questions: How did we manage to get here? How did Islam become so radicalized and how come our allegedly progressive societies are failing to grant equal citizenship to the members of the Muslim communities who find themselves increasingly the losers in the distribution of life-chances. This is a debate that needs to be held in its own right. It will require an Islamic Martin Luther and an islamic Martin Luther King Jr., as well as democratic governments willing to do the right thing — undertake social reforms rather than take the short cut of increasing anti-terrorism budgets.

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