07 January 2015

Kill 'em if they can't take a joke!

The headline above probably expresses the sentiments of many in the western world following the raid on the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris today, in which several of the paper's editors and cartoonists, as well as two policemen assigned to guard the controversial publication, were killed by gunmen who remain at large as I write. Charlie Hebdo briefly captured global attention a few years ago when the office was firebombed in apparent protest against the paper's mockery of Islam and its caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Writing in a somewhat cynical mood in 2012, I questioned the avowed courage of the cartoonists as they went about their work shielded by the state from reprisals. If they were really such brave souls, I asked, why don't they defend their own right to free speech and provocation instead of depending on the police? The answer, of course, was that a "free society" ideally guarantees citizens against reprisals for expressing their opinions non-violently, and that protection extends, again ideally, to mockery of religion and other belief systems.

I suppose it's better to say now that the people at Charlie Hebdo were not cowards of any sort, being most likely quite aware that what came today could have come at any time. The question now is whether their work was worth the price so many have paid. Must it come to this because people have an impulse for mockery? There's an obvious, reflexive answer that affirms our obligation to protect opinion from all those who can't stand substantial criticism or mere mockery. This answer presumes that opinion of this sort is essentially harmless, giving those offended no real cause for complaint, or no complaint the rest of us are bound to recognize -- or that whatever harm mockery in particular inflicts is outweighed by the chilling effect on civil discourse of a suppression of mockery. There is a minority opinion, usually found among demographic minorities and in academia, that sees more harm in mockery, or less difference between mockery and "hate speech," all of it tending to marginalize the targets of mockery and undermine their standing as equals in a democratic society. From this perspective, Charlie Hebdo may have done real harm to Muslims, even if its real offense was not the one Muslims themselves perceived.

Since Muslims remain a relatively new class in most western countries, any appeal to their sensitivities provokes a backlash, since Muslims seem to demand a special exemption from mockery that seems more exceptional, perhaps because of the vehemence with which it is sometimes demanded, than it actually would be. Muslims might ask why it's acceptable everywhere to caricature them yet unacceptable in many of the same places to caricature Jews. Less controversially, they might observe that popular culture no longer tolerates the degrading caricatures of blacks that were common not so long ago, and argue that they are at least as offended by modern caricatures of themselves -- leaving blasphemy out of it for the moment -- as everyone claims to be by Little Black Sambo or similar symbols. In short, Muslims might fairly ask why they seem not to be entitled to a particular reticence from the culture as a whole when other groups do seem to be so entitled. The answer may have something to do with how Little Black Sambo went away, more or less, without threats to firebomb his publishers. The thing that irks Islamophobes (and others) is that Muslims appear determined to compel respect with force and threats. In our culture, we like to believe, you don't earn respect by saying: respect us or we'll kill you. The shootings in Paris only put Muslims on the same side as Kim Jong Un or the NYPD. Those who can't take criticism or mockery without acting out or lashing out are bullies at heart, and while it must again be repeated that the Paris gunmen who reportedly shouted "Allahu Akbar" most likely represent a violent fringe, it must also be noted that the strictures against representation of persons, not to mention caricatures, that made Muslims hypersensitive to the provocations of Charlie Hebdo are part of Islam, not just Islamism. Sunnis above all (Shiites seem more easygoing about images) have to get over this hangup if they want to take part in the wider world as part of a global democracy.

Democracy on any level depends on mutual respect, but it also involves mutual accountability. The imperative of respect may condition but cannot negate the imperative of accountability. Muslims cannot demand a form of respect from the rest of us that preempts criticism of their faith or culture, or denies non-Muslims the right to see Islam in ways Muslims deny themselves. That being said, I remain somewhat uncomfortable with the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo dying for an assumed right to provoke merely for the sake of provocation. Did they publish simply with the idea of getting a rise out of Muslims, or with some idea of testing the limits of their civility? If so, that seems stupid. If Islam presents as great a problem for Europe and the west as a whole as some believe, there has to be a better solution than taunting, even if the final proof of Muslims' integration into western society would be their refusal to respond to taunting. I'd like to think the land of Voltaire could find a better way of dealing with the problem. Voltaire himself offers a range of options, from his legendary vow to defend until death opinions he disagreed with to the motto Ecrasez l'infame! In any event, something more than cartoons are needed now.


Anonymous said...

One could simply make the argument that respect is entitled to those who respect. If they refuse to respect other cultures, societies or belief systems, then they are entitled to no respect from members of those cultures, societies or belief systems.

Samuel Wilson said...

Mutual respect is exactly what I mean, and I assume that in most western countries most Muslims do respect the mainstream culture and other cultures. They may not approve of Muhammad cartoons but don't feel entitled to kill cartoonists. The real problem is with "Islamists" who demand a respect that's really submission to the superiority of Islam. Muslims in the west are under increasing pressure to disavow Islamism, and some (I saw one on TV today) resent having to prove an innocence that's supposedly presumed, in the U.S. at least. Whether this amounts to disrespect is another question that has to be addressed.