Guest post by Salty Current
I posted the other day just after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, referring to a film I’d recommended back in 2011 – It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks.¹ It was a documentary about Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish the Danish cartoons and the court case that followed. What was clear in the film was that the staff at CH, a leftwing, antiauthoritarian publication, were very concerned that their publishing the images not contribute to racism or be seen as supporting the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant Right. The choice of cover, with Mohammed in despair saying “It’s hard being loved by jerks,” was quite brilliant, targeting the Islamists and separating them from the Muslim community.
CH was almost uniquely in a position to print the images as a defense of free expression and the right to blaspheme, because over the years they’d targeted the sacred figures of numerous religions as well as atheists and all sorts of political leaders. They had also openly targeted racism in French society. They had been sued by the Catholic Right more than a dozen times in recent years. This history made their argument in court ring genuine: in addition to considering the right to blaspheme as fundamentally necessary to their art and journalism, they regarded targeting Islam’s sacred cows as a gesture of inclusion. They were saying they lampoon everything held sacred and lampooning Islam’s sacred symbols meant that they see Muslims as part of the French community, the community of the potentially mockable.
As Claire Jean Kim wrote in 2007,² referring not to mockery but to criticism:
Immigrants need protection from cultural imperialism and nativism, but receiving and giving moral criticism and engaging others on issues of moral concern are important parts of membership in a moral community. The risks of being seen as outside of this community may well be higher than the risks of being included. [emphasis added]
Even if you don’t believe that Charlie Hebdo was entirely effective in making their satire bulletproof in every case, such that it could never be seen or used to promote racism, this understanding of their motives shows them to be radically different from those of, for example, the FN.
I wanted to share this information for a few reasons. First, I didn’t want to see CH misrepresented, much less celebrated, as thoughtless or intentionally baiting or trying to marginalize Muslims. Second, because I didn’t want that fake-Voltaire defend-to-the-death narrative to take hold about respecting the freedom of speech of even the worst ideas, as if CH represented something we on the Left would find appalling. It doesn’t matter to the question of whether they should be murdered, but it matters to the shape our response takes: if they really were a racist publication, declaring “Je suis Charlie” would be considered inappropriate by many of us. We don’t have to agree with everything someone says to support their right to say it and condemn violence used to silence them (I’m sure many of the people in Muslim countries for whom we’ve expressed support have ideas I’d disagree with, and vice versa), but we can certainly have solidarity standards. Finally, I thought it was relevant to our understanding of just how tragic this attack was that they murdered people who were actively opposing racism and working to avoid promoting it.
Yesterday, I started to see comments asserting that CH was a racist and misogynistic publication. Since the film I’d recommended had been made in 2008, I considered the possibility that the paper had changed dramatically since then, and was open to evidence that this was the case. But these comments seemed to cite nothing, or only a single cartoon image devoid of any context or explanation. What surprised me most was the response to people providing the relevant context: without missing a step, the critics moved on to looking for other “evidence” of racism, to speculative hyper-parsing, to handwringing about imagined splash damage, and to reciting “Intent isn’t magic” and “hipster racism” like some sort of magical incantations, with apparently no concern that they were participating in smearing people who were just massacred for their courage in defending human rights.
The idea that the facts that CH self-identifies and is known by others to be an antiracist paper, that their intent, in one image cited, was to attack the racism of a rightwing publication, or generally that they’re engaged in satirical commentary on specific people, statements, or events about which we lack knowledge are somehow negligible factors in assessing the publication’s racism is bizarre. When I first posted links to videos of Stephen Colbert at Pharyngula, some people who weren’t from the US didn’t recognize it as satire; some people even in the US probably still don’t. But if Colbert were murdered like this, it would be atrocious to attack him in this way.
People have posted claiming that CH “was a publication that produced and distributed vile, racist material in the guise of satire. Unlike any satire worth the name, it punched down at already-marginalised minorities in an environment that just encouraged an intensification of preexisting anti-Muslim sentiment,” and that “When you say “I am Charlie Hebdo” and repost their racist, islamophobic (and most importantly inaccurate) cartoons, you’re not standing up for freedom of speech. You’re valorising hate speech and bullying of oppressed groups.” They’ve linked at FTB to posts calling the people at CH “a bunch of racist, sexist, shit-stain hacks” based on a few images with no context.
We owe these people better than this. They don’t have to be perfect in intent or effect to deserve some basic respect and fairness. Fair criticism of the publication and its successes and failures based on much more complete knowledge and a sympathetic understanding of the complexities of sharp political humor is fine, but probably can wait. But the vicious evidence-free attacks, the speculative hyper-parsing used to try to shore up preformed characterizations, and the willful ignoring of relevant factors look less like careful vetting than like thoughtless self-righteous posturing.
¹ Unfortunately, I no longer have it recorded, and I’m not finding it available anywhere. I hope Sundance or the filmmaker decides to replay it or make it available online.
² “Multiculturalism Goes Imperial: Immigrants, Animals, and the Suppression of Moral Dialogue.” Du Bois Review 4: 1, 233-249.