Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

On Charlie Hebdo

First, a note: I am going to express some opinions which are not verbatim that 'the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed were perfect heroes in every way and deserve unblemished honor for their sacrifices in the name of liberty'. Of course, I definitely do not mean to in any way excuse, condone, or rationalize the attacks of terror perpetrated against them. If you find yourself believing that I do, it's almost certainly because I'm failing at communication, and I beg of you a little charity. The attacks were contemptible, cowardly, and could in no way be justified by anything. But let's talk for just a moment about Qui, précisément, est Charlie, and who we are, discussing it all from a distance.

It takes a certain amount of courage to, in a post-Jyllands-Posten-incident world, remain committed to printing images of Muhammad in the name of satire. But discretion is the better part of valor, and in discretion, it has been said that Charlie was, perhaps, lacking. Slate | Charlie Hebdo is heroic and racist. We should embrace and condemn it.:

[T]heir work featuring Mohammed could be [called] sophomoric and racist. Not all of it; a cover image of the prophet about to be beheaded by a witless ISIS thug was trenchant commentary on how little Islamic radicalism has to do with the religion itself. But often, the cartoonists simply rendered Islam's founder as a hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said's nightmares, seemingly for no purpose beyond antagonizing Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, believe that depicting Mohammed at all is blasphemous.

This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia. France is the place, remember, where the concept of free expression has failed to stop politicians from banning headscarves and burqas. Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to "a white power mag." As Jacob Canfield wrote in an eloquent post at the Hooded Utilitarian, "White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire."

So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t. (...; hyperlinks sic)

The Daily Beast is even more plain about its criticism:

Let’s be real about what Charlie Hebdo is. Calling it "journalism" isn’t quite right. Even the term "satirical newspaper" puts it on the same level as The Onion, which isn't very fair to The Onion, which strives for at least some degree of cleverness and subtlety, most of the time.

Paging through translated cartoons from Charlie Hebdo's past, the comparisons that kept coming to mind were to Mad magazine or pre-David Wong Cracked, but while the sophomoric level of humor fits -- we’re talking single entendres on the level of this crappy joke about the Pope raping choirboys -- none of those publications ever descended to quite the same depths as, say, making fun of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram by portraying them as pregnant welfare queens.

The best comparison here for an American audience is, well, Internet stuff. The stuff that ends up in censored form on Tosh.0 -- the kind of videos, images, and text memes you see linked from 4chan or Something Awful. The most mainstream comparison is, I suppose, South Park, and it’s true that I got sick of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 2edgy4u schtick sometime around Team America: World Police. To be fair to them, South Park has only portrayed Muhammad a couple times, each time as part of a meta commentary on the politics of portraying Muhammad. (...; hyperlinks sic)

Now, Vox points out that many commentators miss that Charlie is suffering a bit from problems-in-translation complicating Poe's Law[?], and that much criticism leveled against Charlie's racism instead finds the magazine's critical parodies of racism (a la National Front, or others...):

To get a sense of how Charlie Hebdo's two-layer humor works, recall this 2008 cover from the New Yorker. It portrayed Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, as Muslim. And it portrayed his wife, Michelle Obama, as a rifle-toting militant in the style of the black nationalists of the 1960s. It caused some controversy.

If you saw this cover knowing nothing about the New Yorker or very little about American politics, you would read it as a racist and Islamophobic portrayal of the Obamas, an endorsement of the idea that they are secret black nationalist Muslims. In fact, though, most Americans immediately recognized that the New Yorker was in fact satirizing Republican portrayals of the Obamas, and that the cover was lampooning rather than endorsing that portrayal. (...)

I do not have enough familiarity with contemporary French politics (or, for that matter, French language) to have any hope of determining whether Charlie is good art, good humor, or just racist. And so, I'm not even going to try.

Instead, I'm interested by some of the responses by commentators that have avoided aligning themselves along well-understood positional lines, and have tried tugging sideways on policy ropes instead.

Fredrik deBoer, on his own blog, writes FdB | if you write "the terrorists have already won," then the terrorists have already won, re: Charlie, The Interview, &c.:

Seriously: is there a more worthless cliche in our well-stocked bag of worthless cliches? ... If we abridge civil liberties because we’re fearful of terrorism, that's bad enough to function as its own zinger. Don't gild the lily.

I get that "if we change our way of life in response to terrorism, then we have abandoned core democratic and social values out of fear of a statistically lesser threat than bee stings" doesn’t really have that ring to it. But it’s more accurate and has much less of an "I'm a ponderous blowhard" quality to it.

Besides, the phrase amounts to an endorsement of the stupidest way to think about foreign policy and national defense, the juvenile vision of national defense as a matter of teams and winning. It's bad enough to speak that way when it comes to any foreign policy question, treating geopolitics like a zero sum exercise in out-toughing the other side. But it's even worse with terrorism. (...)

And, also attempting to reframe the discussion away from "we do not give in to terrorism, so we will circle the wagons", Leah Libresco writes, in The American Conservative | The Case for Civility Campaigns After Charlie Hebdo (link-titled "False Equivalences between Censorship and Condemnation"):

Arguing that campaigns for civility, against catcalling, against graphic sexual content in the public sphere, against "microaggressions," differ only in degree, not in kind, from the Charlie Hebdo murders requires casting every cultural war as an exercise in annihilation.

In this schema, anyone pushing against offensive, crude, blasphemous, or otherwise objectionable material really has only one goal -- the silence of the problematic speaker. Even those activists who refrain from explicit violence are, in O'Neill's estimation, attempting to commit symbolic violence, directed toward destroying the opposition.


[Critics forget] that civility campaigners don’t just have the goal of protecting the delicate eyes and ears of the innocent. Often, activists have the good of the person giving offense in mind as well. Sometimes we offend out of ignorance of the implications of our speech, and loud opposition gives us the chance to reevaluate our actions. (...)


It's healthy to be reminded that an act does give offense or cause pain to others, and that these acts demand some other justification than "opposing political correctness." Casual or thoughtless offense isn't praiseworthy -- as G.K. Chesterton says in The Man Who Was Thursday, "Revolt in the abstract is -- revolting. It's mere vomiting."

Can we criticise crude humor without taking up the mantle of censorship (either in reality or in others' perception)? For that matter, is the topic of Islam-critical humor just too racially coded in the modern political clime to bear fruitful discussion? The degree to which "X University students protest commencement speaker for views on Y" has become business as usual is not precisely promising, at least for my peer demographic.

A week ago, most reasonable people would have said, if you asked them, that free speech is an important -- if not unalloyed -- good; that racially-stereotyped depictions of Muhammad are either racist and in bad taste, or lampooning the same while running a serious risk re: Poe's Law[?]; and that killing people for opinions they express is never okay. This week, we all seem to be repeating these things, but louder, and perhaps with new inflections -- but it's not clear to me what new discussions are happening, aside from a large opportunity for tribal posturing.

And if I'm going to take a stance in all of this, it's that I really don't want to take a stance on the "free speech/racistm/satire vs. civility/religion/self-censorship/terrorism" axis which has been invented. I think that we should find other ways to frame our discussions about Charlie, and discuss issues of free speech framed for light, not heat, and certainly not for emotional proximity.

And as for the people of Charlie, of Paris, of France, today and this week... Leah's got a great quote on her own blog, topically quoting Rowan Williams speaking atopically:

[I]t is only here, with the renunciation of all our various ways of making suffering a weapon or a tool of ideology, that we are going to learn how to grieve properly. Of course, we just grieve anyway, 'properly' or not; but where does our grief take us? And what do we mourn for? If, as St. Augustine says in his Confessions, we can fail to 'love humanly,' then surely we can also fail to grieve humanly, to grieve without the consolation of drama, martyrdom, resentment, and projection. Are there words for grief that can make us more human, so that we mourn not just for ourselves but for those whose experience we have come to share, even for those whose moral poverty is responsible for murder and terror? (...)