The writer Monica Byrne presents us with an example of well-meaning but confused reasons for objecting to an award’s being given to Charlie Hebdo. The example is interesting because I keep finding the objections and protests under-explained and under-motivated, so I remain curious about what exactly the protesters think they’re protesting.
She titles her post “The PENAmerican award I wish I could give tonight.” Ok, but wishing you could give a different award is nowhere near a reason for protesting one actually being given, especially under these particular circumstances.
If you missed the news, here’s a summary: PENAmerican, an organization dedicated to free speech in arts and literature, is awarding French magazine Charlie Hebdo for “freedom of expression courage award,” for continuing to print after their entire editorial board was assassinated by extremists. Given the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s content—and the conspicuous attention the assassinations received all over the world, even as journalists are killed daily by their own governments in the countries whose presidents showed up for “solidarity marches” in Paris—several writers (including Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner) resigned from being table hosts at the awards gala. Salman Rushdie excoriated them in The Guardian. Other writers have stepped up to take their places.
“Given the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s content” with no elaboration on what that nature is conveys the impression that Charlie Hebdo’s content is self-evidently pernicious in some way. The part about conspicuous attention just dangles there, unexplained. How is that any kind of explanation for what follows?
However, she says she gets both sides.
But here’s the thing I wish PENAmerican would get: claims to “freedom of expression” are a mark of privilege in places where oppressed populations are struggling merely to be allowed to live as themselves. For them, freedom of expression is a myth. The very existence of Charlie Hebdo is a manifestation of gross privilege bestowed on one segment of the French population and denied to another.
Well of course it is (except for the word “bestowed”). That’s always the case. It’s a privilege to have readers, it’s a privilege to write or draw for a satirical publication, it’s a privilege to sell copies. But what follows from that? That we should just stop having any writers and cartoonists, magazines and newspapers and books? Should we all be restricted to Twitter?
But you know what, even if we were all restricted to Twitter, privilege would still emerge, because some people would be more interesting or amusing than others.
Obviously an award to writers or cartoonists is not an award to factory workers or domestics. Maybe awards are a bad idea in general. There are plenty of arguments for that idea; I’m pretty sure I’ve made some of them at various times, especially around the Oscars and the “Super Bowl.” But that’s not a reason to withdraw from one award out of many, especially when the people being awarded are survivors of a bloody massacre during an editorial meeting about an anti-racism campaign.
It’s far easier, and far more lazy, to recognize The Organization That Had a Very High-Profile Awful Thing happen to them, than to, say, recognize that the entire Muslim population of France continues to live in the place they call home despite constant state-sanctioned hostility to their rights to life, livelihood, religion, and yes, freedom of expression.
Is it? How much effort was it for Byrne to type that sentence? Not much.
This is, frankly, just more Dear Muslima, albeit for very different reasons and aimed at a very different kind of people. It’s another fallacy of relative privation. There are all sorts of awful things happening all over the planet – Nepal, Nigeria, Syria, North Korea, take your pick – that PEN wasn’t talking about last night because it was talking about other things. But we are allowed to do different things, as our talents and interests suggest. We need writers and cartoonists too, along with aid workers and activists. And in any case Charlie Hebdo is on the side of the marginal and despised, so there’s even less reason to single them out for having privilege “bestowed” on them by fuck knows who.
Anne Fenwick says
This is where some people go wrong in assuming that ‘privilege’ necessarily means something unfair that should be taken away pronto, as opposed to something good that should be disseminated as widely as possible, preferably to everyone. And I say that as someone who’s about to enjoy the related to free expression, and no doubt equally ‘gross’ privilege of voting.
Anne Fenwick says
Oh, yeah, and this:
Ophelia Benson says
Plus there’s the fact that some forms of privilege are just part of doing anything at all. Some people are better at X than others. The good news is that there are many many many things to be better at. There’s way too much bad news, about obstacles to being better at something, and unfairness in systems of deciding, and on and on. But it’s complicated, and Byrne’s version…isn’t.
Anne @2- Really? Citation needed? 2 seconds of googling produced the following:
“In 2008, a French court denied a Moroccan woman French citizenship on the grounds that her veil and her submissiveness to her husband were ‘assimilation defects.'”
“A 15-year-old French Muslim girl has been banned from her classroom for wearing a long black skirt, seen as going against France’s law guaranteeing secularism.
“She missed two days this month in a dispute over her skirt, French education officials said Wednesday, and the issue remains unresolved.”
“The millions of Muslim residents in France pose a danger to public safety and national security, so the imported enemy within requires extra attention. A country cannot indulge in extreme diversity that includes historic enemies and still maintain a high level of freedom from government intrusion.”
“More anti-Muslim acts have been reported in first quarter of 2015 than in all of 2014, says head of French National Observatory against Islamophobia.”
Of all the things to criticise, that particular statement is non-controversial.
No no wait, that’s it, I’ve got it! It’s all clear to me now — they are afraid of Charlie Hebdo, because they think Charlie is Harrison Bergeron!
So the award should have gone to the Muslim population of France? What a ridiculous statement in the context.
Inconsistent, self-defeating rubbish!
Generally, privilege is linked to the unequal distribution of something positive, something which people would like to have, something which Rawls might have called a primary good or Sen/Nussbaum would have called a capability. In this regard, free expression could indeed be a privilege if it is unequally distributed. However, given its nature as an universally-desirable good, people cannot be blamed for wanting it and using it. Privilege is always a problem of the distribution of a good and not of the good itself. Therefore, CH could only be criticized for their privilege if they exploited it to contribute to the unequal distribution of said privilege – i.e. by suppressing the free expression of others. This is certainly not the case. It might be true that CH had a larger capability of free speech/expression than the French Muslim population. However, the attacks on CH were not motivated by the desire the redistribute free expression – they were motivated by an ideology which fundamentally denies the desirability of free expression. Those who deny other people’s free expression can hardly ask for it themselves.
Furthermore, the author ignores the global context. Free speech in the MENA region is severely (and increasingly) curtailed by authoritarian and/or theocratic state and non-state actors. In fact, Muslims in France have for greater capabilities for free speech and expression than Muslims in Algeria, where thousand of left-wing intellectuals have been slaughtered by the FIS because they refused to be silenced. It is absurd and almost insulting to criticize CHs fight against the theocratic elements in Islam, which want to get rid of free speech, by referring to the limited free expression the Muslim diaspora. Those who want to limit free expression in the Muslim diaspora were the ones who shot.
Maureen Brian says
Why, whenever I return to this side of the argument do I immediately think of James Baldwin (and quite a few others) who made his way to Paris in order to write what he could not have written at home? First Amendment notwithstanding.
The term ‘privilege’ has lost all significant meaning in this haze of PC bloviation.
Being machine gunned to death is apparently a position of ‘privilege.’ People were justifiably outraged when Dawkins used the privilege argument in Dear Muslima. People have to recognize when they are being manipulated by empty slogans.
Anne Fenwick says
@4 – sayamika – I grant your argument on France’s dress codes up to a point, but in point 3, the state can’t direct its new surveillance laws against Muslims explicitly – it has actually forbidden itself from identifying which of its citizens are Muslim and the changes will affect all French people (actually, dress codes must do so also, and it’s debatable whether the school with the long skirt thing will get away with its stance).
Point 4 doesn’t concern activities by the state at all, but by private individuals whose actions are criminalized by the state,
John Horstman says
Problem the first: far too many people now conflate “privilege” with “unearned privilege” or “unreasonable privilege”. Ophelia’s examples concerning greater talent illustrate this problem, pointing out that some privileges are earned or inevitable and thus not really unjust.
Problem the second: too many people mistake “privilege” for some kind of personal characteristic or possession. It’s not, ever; it always and only refers to social systems that value certain people or classes of people more than others, that treat groups differently on some basis. I don’t “have” privilege as a White male, I’m accorded* privileges by others on the basis of being White and male (which is indefensible – those are not good reasons to grant me deferential treatment); I might exploit those privileges to my own benefit, which is on me, but I really can’t control how others treat me on the basis of how they perceive my embodiment (that said, I need to be aware of my likely deferential treatment in order to not assume that my own experience necessarily is or will be shared by others – “check your privilege” is an exhortation to consider how your own deferential treatment by others may be influencing your viewpoint, not a charge to invalidate one’s perspective or shut down debate).
*I disagree with Ophelia’s objection to “bestowed”, unless I’m not understanding the basis for it – privileging is an active process carried out by individuals influenced by/acting in accordance with normative social systems, and “bestow” is a reasonable way to describe this process IMO
Ophelia Benson says
I suppose my objection is that “bestowed” makes it sound more conscious and explicit than I take it to be. I think of it as similar to stereotypes in being often hidden even/especially from the self. Don’t normative social systems work partly below the radar? Or am I all wrong about that.
This whole thing is ridiculous.
I can’t help imagine a John Cleese character ranting:
“Bloody Charlie Hebdo ….who do they think they are? ! Makes me sick seeing them….you know… prancing around with their lah-dee-dah PRIVILAGE. Look at`em happily sitting there without a care in the world just writing and saying and drawing ANYTHING they want like they’re better than me!
SOME of us live in the real world! SOME of us have to worry about getting SHOT if we do or say the wrong thing……
Never mind, then.”