By: Doron Levine  | 

Liberty, Equality, and Obscenity

By: Doron Levine

When Jihadists opened fire in French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris, an ideological struggle culminated in murder. The events begged analysis, but the destruction of human life must (almost) always be followed by a moment of silence. Knee-jerk responses by pundits and bloggers attempting to explain the murder of civilians violated the sacred solemn silence that must follow brutality.

Now, however, as the dust begins to settle, some analysis is in order. We’ve screamed in outrage, we have marched in protest, we’ve posted, and we’ve tweeted. We have even gone so far as to identify ourselves with the victims of the crime, claiming “Je suis Charlie,” I am Charlie.

Beyond horror at the attacks and sympathy for the victims, “je suis” describes a deeper connection between the victims and the speaker. Someone who “is Charlie” empathizes with the victims and identifies, both emotionally and ideologically, with the cause that they died defending. After all, this attack was rooted in an ideological struggle. It pitted the proponents of secularism and unrestrained freedom of expression against the defenders of a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy under repressive Sharia law. That is why this attack garnered so much media attention, aroused such a massive outpouring of sympathy and outrage, and inspired widespread activism.

During the days immediately before these Jihadists wreaked havoc on an office in Paris, Islamic militant group Boko Haram carried out its own set of attacks in Northern Nigeria. Though reports are vague and many of the exact details are unsubstantiated, the long short of it is the following: Boko Haram fighters stormed into the town of Baga and its surrounding villages, opening fire on anything that moved. They gunned down residents who tried to flee, and burned down the homes of those who attempted to hide. Reports of the death toll range from “hundreds” to “over two thousand.” Local authorities estimate that over thirty thousand people were displaced. These attacks, perhaps more accurately classifiable as a campaign of genocide, began on January 3rd and continued at least until the night before the Charlie Hebdo shooting. The response to this massacre, compared to the backlash against the Charlie Hebdo shooting, was underwhelming. Many fewer marches were organized in protest, many fewer articles were published in response, and the social media campaign quickly fizzled, with #iamcharlie quickly out-trending #iamnigerian.

Why the disproportionate response? Many answers have been offered, and perhaps one of the reasons is a particularistic outlook of ours that we would prefer not to confront. But surely a major reason why the Charlie Hebdo attack inspired such worldwide support was because of its ideological underpinnings. France is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern liberalism, of equality and fraternity, of secularism and religious freedom. While the ideological history might be debatable, surely many see France as a symbol of these basic modern values. Thus when Islamic fundamentalists targeted editors and cartoonists for exercising their freedom of religion and expression, the western world, which rests on these basic freedoms, identified with the victims on an emotional and ideological level. Built on Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité, the west collectively cried, “I am Charlie.”

But perhaps this struggle between liberty and fundamentalism is not quite as quantized as it has been portrayed in the media. Maybe we can stake out a more nuanced position instead of pitching our tents on one side of the line or the other.

The senior staff members of Charlie Hebdo have been hailed as champions of free speech, but this glorification of vulgarity is misguided. A government that gives its citizens the right to say anything whatsoever may be a tolerant government which values diversity of thought and free exchange of ideas. But why should we celebrate people who then use this freedom to publish the most outrageous and offensive material imaginable? The right to say or believe anything neither absolves a person of the responsibility to seek the truth, nor frees him from the obligation to view the other with respect and dignity. As I see it, Charlie Hebdo is a test case of the cost of unrestricted free speech. Perhaps we can grit our teeth and tolerate the horrifying obscenities that Charlie Hebdo will continue to churn into the public sphere, but we will surely avert our eyes. We will simultaneously defend free speech and vomit when the basic dignity of religion is violated.

Charlie Hebdo has published cartoons of Mohammed in varying states of undress, arranged in assorted pornographic poses. In support of a French law banning women from wearing burqas in public, Charlie Hebdo’s cover design once included the headline “Yes to wearing the burqa…” with a picture of a nude woman saying “…on the inside!” Not content with desecrating Islam, Charlie Hebdo has published cartoons profaning Christianity as well. The magazine’s cover once showed a circle of cardinals engaging in sodomy, and another time depicted the father, the son, and the holy ghost doing the same. Nor were Jews exempt from Charlie’s rabid anti-religiosity. The magazine ran a series called “One Commandment A Day: The Torah Illustrated by Charb” which lambasted Jews for rejecting their own religious values. One cartoon in this series depicts a man holding the side-lock of an ultra-orthodox Jewish man and saying, “You can shave your brain but you can’t shave the blanket!”

Many have defended Charlie’s outrageous outrageous cartoons by claiming that they are equal-opportunity offenders. As a writer for the Huffington Post put it, “they were democratic in their ridicule and satirisation.” But this claim of equality is just a facade. They were far from democratic in their ridicule – they disproportionately targeted religious groups.

The people who produce Charlie Hebdo, like all people, hold some things sacred. As Oxford philosopher Brian Klug commented: “Will [the next] issue ridicule the scenes of mourning and solemn demonstrations on the grand boulevards of Paris, poking fun at people who raised pens skyward and lit candles in the dark?” Klug also considers what would happen to a person who showed up at a “je suis Charlie” rally with a fake gun and a sign that said “je suis cherif” (the name of one of the shooters). He asks: “How would the crowd have reacted? Would they have seen this lone individual as a hero, standing up for liberty and freedom of speech?” Of course, these questions are rhetorical. Even for the “equal-opportunity offenders,” the “champions of free speech,” some things are too sacred to be satirized.

Laurent Leger, a Charlie Hebdo staff member, admitted that the magazine’s approach is undemocratic when she explained that “we want to laugh at extremists, every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.” Unsurprisingly, her list of extremists who are ripe for ridicule only contains religious groups. And the characterization of “extremist” is itself evaluative. In casual conversation, people often resort to the terms “extremist” or “radical” in an attempt to prove that a certain person or group is incorrect. But these are just attempts to hide moral criticism behind terms that have strong negative connotations but no clear meaning. A person is only “extreme” or “radical” relative to a different worldview. People call an ideology extreme only when it is vastly different from their own. Instead of attacking a religion or sect on its merits and challenging its specific claims, they label it as “extremism” and call it a day. They forget that every ideology is comparatively extreme. Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of what they consider to be extremism is irreverent and insulting, superficial and vacuous, the newest incarnation of the ancient tendency of otherization.

Note the multiple layers of irony. The supposed fighters of extremism were exposed as extremists. Mourning for the symbols of French equality and fraternity came at the expense of mourning for the lives of two thousand Nigerians. Those who called for empathy and identification with the slain turned a blind eye to genocide. Many Jews tweeted “je suis Charlie” alongside “je suis Juif,” simultaneously identifying with their own people and those who ridicule and profane traditional religion. And the equal-opportunity offenders made us recognize the dangers of free speech.