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Are we Charlie?

Albena Azmanova, visiting scholar, Institute for European Studies | January 16, 2015

Upon arrival last week at Berkeley (I am a visiting scholar on a sabbatical leave) I was baffled by the silent campus. While the world was awash with “I am Charlie” protests in defense of free speech and condemnation of violence, the university that gained its fame as the cradle of the Free Speech movement seemed uncannily placid, ironically, during the year when it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the movement.

Sure, the term had not started yet, but there were effectively some student protests going on –  against torture at Guantanamo Bay, so mid-term recess could not quite explain the absent “Charlies.” Then I read Jonah Levy’s and Tyler Stovall’s blogs (on this site) and realized that what began here is something much better than any emphatic protestation in the name of a magnanimous ideal; what we have started, and I hope we continue, is an “Are We Charlie?” debate. What we owe freedom of speech is not declarations of allegiance, but a good, preferably impolite, dispute.

I hope, however, this debate does not get sidetracked by three issues that have dominated commentaries of the “I Am Charlie” mobilization. These issues do not belong to the debate because the answers are obvious:

(1) Is it acceptable to respond to verbal offence with physical violence? The Thou Shalt Not Kill rule is non-negotiable. No need for debate there.
(2) Should free speech be selectively applied? Commentators have pointed out the double standard of free speech in France, as anti-Semitic and anti-Republican pundits and comedians in France are much more severely sanctioned than their anti-Islamic brethren. Not a good thing, and nothing much to argue there.
(3) Are the vulgar depictions of the prophet Mohammed distasteful? They surely are. But rules of aesthetic justice are out of place in matters of free speech.

Leaving these three non-issues aside, I propose we focus on three that strike, uncomfortably, at the heart of the matter:

Issue One: should hate speech set the limits to free speech?

Where hate speech starts, free speech ends: this is how typically the line has been drawn. Yet identifying hate speech keeps infringing on the territory of free speech, especially when satire is deployed. Wit, though having its etimological origins in archaic forms of the verb ‘to know’, has existed in the shape of ‘intelligent insult’ more than of polite displays of wisdom. Take away the right to insult and the talent to insult intelligently, and you deprive wit of its most befitting attire. It is thus that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo explain the often offensive attitude their paper is known for: “We were drawing pseudo Mickey Mouse… sometimes goofy, other times crass, punk for sure… we were simply joyful unbelievers” (in the words of Renald Luzier, “Luz,” who has been a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo for twenty years, in an interview he gave after the massacre of his colleagues, explaining the Mohammed cartoons). The images and language used, in the process, have been often qualified as ‘hate speech’ risking to instigate violence. Similarly, when the French comedian Dieudonné (known for his anti-Jewish sarcasm), was arrested for making a joke that appeared to sympathise with the extremists, he justified himself: “I was only trying to make people laugh”.

The process of sarcastic exchanges can even be a form of recognition among the participants as equals and thus, of mutual empowerment – as they share a code of witty dialogue which turns them into partners rather than enemies. That is, provided that said participants are social equals. Take the fabled exchange between Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor (the affluent American socialite who was the first woman to be elected to the UK Parliament): At a garden party, she can no longer suppress her indignation at his poor manners and exclaims: “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” To which he is known to have retorted: “Nancy, if you were my wife I’d drink it.” Insulting, openly hateful? Surely. But also — a sparring exchange among equals, in which the mutual ridicule is a display of complicity beyond the apparent conflict. Invigorating for the participants, amusing to the viewers.

Is it only when the indirect witty exchanges between a ‘Luz’ and a ‘Dieudonné’ in France becomes an innocent interaction between social equals (with the requisite social reforms well in place, give it half a century) that we are to allow them to deploy their gift of intelligent insult against each other? Of course, there is an enormous difference between witty banter and hate speech as a public act potentially provoking violence against an oppressed group. But isn’t the irreverent de-crowning, through sarcasm, of the taboos and symbols that oppress – isn’t exactly this one of the most effective means for fighting oppression? It is here that hate speech and free speech dispute a very narrow territory. And here is how we arrive at the second question I deem important for our “Are we Charlie?” debate:

Issue Two: what is the point of free speech?

Yes, we should be free to ask that question, if free speech is not to reign as a sacrosanct dogma.

Free speech gained its validity (already in ancient Athens and the Roman Republic) not as a tool of information, but one of liberation; it still acquires its significance as such a tool. That is why the question of setting its range of operation should be approached not as a matter of horizontal delimitation of boundaries (by excluding issues), but as a matter of vertical distribution of power.

Let me explain: I grew up in a society (under the communist regime in my native Bulgaria) where sarcasm could freely be targeted downwards, at the Islamic minorities of ethnic Turks and Romani, but could cost you your life if directed upwards, at the ruling elites. Yet, jokes against the communist regime were in abundance. (We called them “the golden grid” jokes, as they sent you behind bars. Here is my favorite one: Question: “What is the difference between a racist and a political joke?” Answer: “Ten years”– that is, ten years behind bars). When used for its intended purpose – to liberate, sarcasm is a form of free speech only when targeted at oppressive ideas and institutions, which sarcasm dethrones. This has hardly been the case with the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo.

frontispiece of Voltaire play

Frontispiece of the 1753 edition of Voltaire’s play Mahomet

Let me clarify my point by making an experiment. Remember that splendid quip Mahatma Gandhi made about the Western Civilization? (When a journalist once asked him “What do you think of Western Civilisation?”, he replied “I think it would be a good idea.”) Replace “Western” with “Islamic” and the joke is no longer funny, as it’s purpose would be “to offend what we already know is a wounded civilization”(as the commentator Patrick Smith aptly put it in a recent piece).

The events in France are an urgent invitation to call the problem by its proper name – ridiculing Islam in a country where the predominantly Islamic population of Maghreb origin has been denigrated to second-rate citizens, amounts to exercising oppression on those in need of emancipation – thus, de facto going against the political project which gave freedom of expression its raison-d’être.

And the last uncomfortable question:

Issue Three: what is the proper object of satire?

Does anything go? A joke might indeed be a serious thing (an observation attributed both to Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill), and the gravest thing about joking is that not everything is a laughing matter.

That great wit, Voltaire – the human embodiment of the gutsy spirit of the Enlightenment, most ardent advocate of the freedom of religion and of expression, known for targeting his irreverent satirical attacks against all the powers of the day – from the monarchy and the church to popular superstition – did write a play about Mohammed. That play, however, was not a comedy, but a tragedy.

Issue Four: to be left out  

I would deliberately leave out of the Are We Charlie? debate on free speech the big, grave, most urgent of questions: How did we manage to get here? How did Islam become so radicalized and how come are our allegedly progressive societies failing to grant equal citizenship to the members of the Muslim communities who find themselves increasingly the losers in the distribution of life-chances. This is a debate that needs to be held in its own right. It will require an Islamic Martin Luther and an islamic Martin Luther King Jr., as well as democratic governments willing to do the right thing — undertake social reforms rather than take the short cut of increasing anti-terrorism budgets.

Albena Azmanova

UC Berkeley, January 15, 2015