Judicious use of “controversial” plus scare quotes

The Guardian’s report on the PEN gala and the award to Charlie Hebdo is – predictably – much nastier than the Times’s. The Guardian throws them under the bus in the first sentence.

Charlie Hebdo magazine received a controversial freedom of expression award from American PEN on Tuesday night despite the vocal opposition of many of its own high-profile members.

That’s not only nasty, it’s bad writing – it sounds as if “members” of Charlie Hebdo vocally opposed the award. Hacks. But let’s focus on the nasty – they have to inform us instantly that the award is “controversial” and that many important people were vocally opposed. They have to load the dice, poison the well, frame the story.

Accepting the award, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard said that the magazine’s shocking and sometimes offensive content helped combat extremists who would limit free speech. “Fear is the most powerful weapon they have,” he said. “Being here tonight we contribute to disarming them.”

Nicely done, Guardian.

The decision to honour Charlie Hebdo has bitterly divided the literary community, with over 200 members of PEN signing a letter that said: “there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.”

The magazine’s critics, including Peter Carey, Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner, who led a boycott of Tuesday’s event, said it that used racist stereotypes against the most marginalised members of French society, an accusation the editors reject.

But the Guardian, it wants you to know, doesn’t.

Biard and Congolese author Alain Mabanckou told the audience that Charlie Hebdo was and always had been “anti-racist”, a reply to the criticism that the magazine portrayed French racial and religious minorities in a stereotypical way. “Charlie Hebdo has fought all forms of racism since its inception,” Biard said.

Mabanckou also argued that the magazine was simply received in France differently than in the US, and that misunderstandings had resulted from “cross-cultural exchanges: we all belong to one family and we’re all committed to freedom of expression”.

I wonder what the scare-quotes on “anti-racist” are for. To nudge us into thinking they’re lying, perhaps?

Mostly, gala guests defended the award on principle – a point that the dissenting writers also believe in, if not to the same degree. All agreed that writers, artists and people everywhere should be able to speak freely, even when that their words may shock or offend. PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel reiterated this point, and called for all members and writers to “move on together in defence of freedom of expression”.

And the Guardian sincerely hopes that we will be left with the impression that the protesters were and are right, that Charlie Hebdo really is racist, and that the only reasonable defense of the award is based on the principle of free speech regardless of content.


  1. says

    That Guardian article was the first news about the ceremony that I read this morning, and I was fuming. It now ends “The gala also honoured Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist imprisoned in Azerbaijan for her reporting on government corruption.” There’s a note that an unedited version – presumably the one I read this morning – had been posted “in error” and has now been “corrected.” I don’t know if you read that version as I did, but they’ve cut quite a bit off of the end there. Had I known they were going to bury the worst parts, I would’ve copied the text. (I’m sure it’s retrievable somehow.) It’s more than a little disturbing that the unedited version was so blatantly biased, to the extent that even the “corrected” version retains strong traces.

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