In the rush for solidarity we’ve taken leave of our critical sense argues Ruari Shaw Sutherland
This week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo represents a senseless loss of life, bringing into sharp relief the tensions between freedom and equality. It makes it all the more important to remain critical about what freedom of speech means and the power relations which frame it. I have been struggling to put into words exactly what it is about the response to the attack that I find so troubling. Loss of life is always a terrible thing, and the 12 people who died as a result should still be with us. I don’t condone the violence in any way and I hope that the perpetrators are caught without further bloodshed.
In the course of my research on populist far right organizing online, I have been unlucky enough to spend a lot of time trawling the darker corners of the web. My work has focused on the counter intuitive deployment of civic nationalist discourses of tolerance, equal rights, and the rule of law by racist groups such as the Defence Leagues of England and Scotland. Such discourses may seem to be progressive, but are framed by these groups in such a way as to cast Muslims as intolerant, unfairly advantaged, and determined to undermine ‘our’ laws an customs. It is the power relations inherent in this form of ‘tolerance’ that Lebanese anthropologist Ghassan Hage highlights when he states that “the tolerated are never just present, they are positioned”. The satirists of Charlie Hebdo may aspire to be equal opportunities exponents of offense but they undermine the very principles they claim to uphold.
The grotesque parodic images of hooknosed Jews and Muslims peddled by journals like Charlie Hebdo are all too familiar to me from my work and these caricatures have been put to use by racists for decades in order to dehumanise their subjects and reproduce unequal relations of power. I frequently come across such images in far right web forums which serve to goad Muslims and position them as ‘the intolerant other’ when they protest. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, these images represent a particular blend of xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and homophobia now glorified as a last bastion of free speech in a politically correct world. It is a position that is fueled by discourses of ‘benefit scrounging immigrants’ and justified by reference Muslims’ unfair advantage and dispensations. The attribution of heroic status to the cartoonists and the publication in question now serves to overlook the part that they played in normalising racism and xenophobia.
In fact, the far right Front National have already moved to take advantage of the outpouring of anger and fear, calling for a referendum on capital punishment. A number of retaliatory attacks have since been reported on Muslim targets in France.
Freedom of speech and press are, of course, integral to a healthy society. Like democracy, it is the worst system except all others that have been tried. However, if good satire is to be a weapon of the weak, it must shine a light on authority and speak for the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Much of Charlie Hebdo’s satire is a tame exemplar of this form, riding, as it does, on the coat-tails of popular xenophobia fomented by the very elites they claim to ridicule. We should always mourn the death of innocent people, but let’s not allow this incident, and the outrage which we all feel, to silence critique of the press including Charlie Hebdo.
To say that freedom of speech requires equal derision of all, is to ignore the deeply engrained nature of antiIslamic sentiment. We are not playing on a level field, and treating it as such makes us complicit in these structural inequalities. The published images mocking Islam and similar images of Jesus have no structural equivalence, in the same way that jokes about black people and white people are not equally offensive.
Centuries of oppression and structural inequality serve to undermine the French dictum of ‘liberté, égalité, and fraternité’ by limiting the enjoyment of such principles to particular privileged groups. Equal derision of all is only legitimate if all are equal.