Wednesday 14 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo: Assholes can't be Heroes

Articles in defence of free speech are pouring out of all the usual places. They are eminently unnecessary. We don't need a theory of free speech or a defence of enlightenment liberalism to condemn sadistic murder, or to go through the rigmarole of weighing up the justice of fanatics' pretended motivations.

Liberal principles are at stake here, but they are those principles that constrain democracies from intemperate reactions, the ones that went missing in America after the World Trade Center attacks. Indeed many of the supposed defenders of our liberal values are enthusiastically carrying out the murderers' plan by promoting an us vs them tribalism. The same newspapers who routinely call for banning speech that offends their editors' sense of popular prejudices now pretend to defend the right to be offensive, but only, of course, to those 'who hate our freedoms', the evil muslim threat to civilisation.


Terrorism is about demonstrating to a civilian population that our government isn't really in charge - it can't keep its promises to protect us. Terrorism is disruptive far beyond its direct harm because of its challenge to our faith in the social order that makes ordinary life possible, the idea that the laws, rules, and rights we have come up with and try to live by have real significance. We are thrust into an existential play, a debilitating sense of uncertainty, fear, and powerlessness comes over us. I understand the desire to do something, even something that might make you personally a greater target for terrorists, just to feel in charge of your destiny again.

From Glen Greenwald's Call for Solidarity
But saying or drawing mean things about Islam or Muslims does not make you a hero defending truth and justice, any more than making jokes about the holocaust would. Please stop. Making use of the freedoms permitted by liberalism to denigrate the morality, sanity, or humanity of other people - including many of your fellow citizens - doesn't make you a defender of those freedoms but someone who finds it agreeable to say those things about that group of people. (See Greenwald's excellent essay on this). If you set out to use your freedom of speech to upset and demean others then you are an asshole not a hero. Don't get so upset when people tell you so. You are immune from prosecution not criticism.

I share in the general horror that people who want to exercise their human right to be assholes to and about Muslims should be at special risk of extreme violence. Assholes deserve to be shunned, not murdered with cruel delight. But being murdered doesn't make their behaviour any more reasonable. It doesn't make them heroes to emulate. It doesn't justify this kind of hyperbole:
Ideally, it would never require great courage and commitment to make puerile doodles mocking those whom one perceives to be making a mockery of the things that they purport to hold sacred. But those dead French cartoonists were braver by far than most of us in going up against the deadly foes of our civilization, armed only with a great talent for bilious ridicule. On any given day, we might have scoffed at the seeming crudeness of their jokes, rather than laughing at their jokes on crudity. But the killers proved the cartoonists’ point with ghastly finality: theirs was a necessary, freedom-sustaining, and therefore life-giving, form of defiance. Without it, they knew, we—humankind—are less. (New Yorker)
Let's not turn lulz into something noble. Charlie Hebdo's purpose and business plan is provocation not journalism. Corporations like this are even less respectable than the pseudojournalistic Fox News or Daily Mail. They should not be celebrated as the flower of liberalism, any more than Sarah Palin should be celebrated as the spirit of American politics. They are emphatically not what the freedom of the press was instituted for. Rather they are a byproduct, opportunistic parasites looking to further their own interests at the expense of the very civic institutions and values that make their operations possible.


I read Aaron James' neat little book Assholes: A Theory over the holidays and I find his account quite helpful for thinking about just this kind of opportunistic offensiveness. The moral obnoxiousness of assholishiness, according to James, lies in the refusal to recognise the moral status of those one uses and abuses, to systematically refuse to listen to their complaints:
The person who complains is not seen as a potential source of reasonable complaint but is simply walled out. If the person complaining is “standing up for herself,” in order to be recognized, it is as though she were physically present but morally nonexistent in the asshole’s view of the world.
That seems to fit with how defenders of offensive cartoons about Muslims often respond to complaints, such as mocking them further or escalating - taking exaggerated offense at the very idea that one's right to mock Muslims be constrained by a sense of decency: "Screw you! This is what freedom looks like."

I hadn't come across Charlie Hebdo before the attack, but its reputation suggests it falls at least partly within James' definition of assholishness - at one point its official motto was bête et méchant ("dumb and nasty"), supposedly drawn from an early reader's complaint: it was proud of what the reader had hoped would shame them into more civil behaviour. Here and here are some of its offerings on the subject of Muslims. Are they funny? They certainly fit the classical superiority ('school bully') theory of humour, the use of laughter as a weapon to demean those we make the butt of our jokes. But do they count as satire - "the scourge of bigots and tyrants" - merely because they use the tools of sarcasm and ridicule? Or are they not really best described as bête et méchant?

As I've already suggested, James' theory of assholes applies to a depressingly large part of today's news media. Breaking the standards of civil discourse and abusing or bullying people, whether famous or just caught up in newsworthy events, is perfectly normal behaviour for many news media corporations, presumably exactly because the freedom of the press shields this industry so effectively from public accountability (something I've discussed previously). As Greg Miskiw, assistant editor at the News of the World, once famously put it, "That is what we do - we go out and destroy other people's lives."

Like asshole capitalism generally, this kind of behaviour often seems to pay off, at least in the short term for the assholes themselves. In the long-term though it undermines the very things that the freedom of the press was meant to achieve, and that the assholes themselves implicitly rely upon, society-wide, civil, informed and pluralistic conversation about the issues of the day. The press have a variety of special entitlements and rights because of their special role as underlabourers of democracy. Those news media companies that partly or largely refuse to take their moral responsibilities seriously undermine mutual civility between citizens and increase public cynicism of democratic ideals. We should not pretend that liberal democracies are served by such behaviour or that they would be diminished by its absence.


If assholery by the press is so dangerous to society, why is it allowed? Well, some behaviour is generally illegal, like defamation, incitement, and hacking people's phones. But it is hard to curtail assholery by legal means, and usually mistaken to try.

Sometimes offensive cartoons really deserve the honourable title of satire for their ridicule of popular conceits or powerful people. They make an important contribution to the public conversation that couldn't really be made with a polite editorial. Southpark for example revels in its obnoxiousness, but it also makes relevant and oddly persuasive contributions to the public conversation.

Our sense of decency is a poor guide to legislation here exactly because the laws that follow from it tend to be ones that shield the complacency and interests of dominant social groups from being challenged as a free society should allow. Lèse-majesté laws for example (which brought down Charlie Hebdo's predecessor) protect the sanctity - the undiscussibility - of political institutions; censoring information about contraception protects the sanctity of women's role in life from open discussion; and so on. Censorship laws in defence of society's sense of decency, such as against blasphemy, generally protect the established social hierarchy from challenge or resistance. They almost never do much to protect vulnerable minorities from bullying and delegitimation.

In addition, assholery is devilishly hard to prove, since it is defined by the obnoxiousness of the perpetrator rather than any particular action. The asshole exploits the fact that many moral norms about how we should properly respect each other are sensitive to context and open to interpretation. The asshole can often offer some possible if strained justification for his actions, viewed one at a time, for instance that he was only being 'ironic' (And can't you take a joke? I mean what's wrong with you people? Don't you understand France's tradition of humour?) Reasonable people may disagree about whether to believe him. That's why Charlie Hebdo won its 2007 legal case about hate speech.

In any case, if we tighten the laws on the press too much to try to prevent assholery we would exclude too much of what we want them to do. We would narrow and flatten our cultural spaces, as the old censorship laws did in banning novelists from exploring a significant part of the human condition for fear of accidentally allowing in pornography. A flourishing social conversation doesn't need assholes, but it does need conflicts and disagreeable things - and also to permit people to make honest mistakes - for such frictions identify the problems we need to talk over together.

Finally censorship is obnoxious to individuals in a way that it cannot be to soulless media corporations, which do not burn to express their thoughts and cannot suffer when they are prevented from foisting them on their readership [previously]. Individuals should be as far as possible legally free to say assholish things, to put burning poppies on Facebook or tell jokes about the holocaust at dinner parties, but the rest of us have no duty to help them do so, let alone listen. One wouldn't want to live in a world where everyone was so restrained by the thought of possibly offending someone 6,000 miles away that they would never say boo. On the other hand neither would one want to live in a world full of pastor Terry Joneses, obsessed with setting fire to korans just in order to upset as many millions of Muslims as possible. But the way to achieve that balance is not by using the power of the state. Instead we must make it ourselves by the sum of our actions and choices.


Terrorism makes us feel helpless because it threatens our sense of security in the exercise of our rights and privileges, the first duty of the state to guarantee. Writing 'Mohammed was a pedo' on your car bumper or putting anti-Muslim cartoons on your Facebook feed might make you feel like you are taking back some control. By deliberately putting a target on yourself you are at least fighting back; you aren't just waiting around like a helpless civilian for the government to make you feel safe again.

Well, it might make you feel better about yourself but you are still effectively dancing to the terrorists' tune. For if you are willing to abandon your values you haven't succeeded in defending them. Central to the values of a supposedly liberal enlightenment society is the recognition by each of us that we are, to quote Nagel, “one among others equally real". There are a billion or so self-identified Muslims in the world. Setting out deliberately to goad and demean them is not an act of heroic defiance but of childish rage, just the emotion these terrorists specialise in producing.

If you want to publish some offensive cartoons, why not some that ridicule ISIS or Al Qaeda themselves? That would be satire. That would be defiance. That might actually achieve something.

Since I wrote this more information about the specifically French political context of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons has been published in English, such as on the helpful website Understanding Charlie Hebdo. This makes the magazine's satirical credentials stronger and deserving of a more nuanced analysis than I allowed. 

Nonetheless, the increasingly anti-Islamic "neurosis" of the magazine after 9/11 was noted by others well before the attacks, such as former editor Olivier Cyran. There is also a wider political context to consider, of France's increasing hostility to 'muslim' immigration - the magazine's tiny sales nearly doubled whenever they brought out issues mocking Islam.