Gordon Campbell on the Charlie Hebdo killings and response

Now that the Kouachi brothers have made their Butch-and-Sundance dash for martyrdom, and now that the millions have marched in Paris and elsewhere to defend the Republic…. the events of the past week remain no closer to any comforting resolution. Some have found something repugnant about the attempt to impose a tidy rationalism :

I can barely bring myself to sit down at my desk and read the commentary, let alone add to the pile of hopeful platitudes, lofty sentiments about liberty, calls for solidarity and compassion and moderation, or firmness, or bloody, bloody revenge. Why did this happen? Multiculturalism, drones, Guantánamo, the inherent viciousness of Islam, the inherent viciousness of religion more generally. Take your pick, whichever one suits your politics, whatever tin drum you want to bang on.

Even so, a tough-minded soul sickness about the violent ways of the world also seems like a pretty hollow response, especially from those – speaking for myself – whose experience of violent death in combat is limited to what they’ve seen on movie screens and the printed page. Still, the similarity of worldview between the perpetrators and the commentary on Fox and CNN has been striking :

Big hair and bright teeth instead of black flags and balaclavas, but the same parochialism, the same arrogance, the same atavistic lust for violence, the same pathetic need for good guys and bad guys, to be on the winning team

Where to turn ? After reading some of the suddenly staunch defenders of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial line, it seemed easy to forget how ambivalent the response had been to the firebombing attack in 2011 on the magazine’s premises. While not condoning the attackers Time magazine for instance, had on that occasion, editorialised against Charlie Hebdo. In the light of what has now happened, the 2011 piece makes interesting reading.

What can usefully be said about freedom of speech in this context? Clearly, it is valuable to any democracy to have totally irreverent media outlets who are willing to attack and lampoon any prevailing public sentiment. Even the French have limits, though. Charlie Hebdo itself had arisen from the ashes of a publication called Hara-Kiri Hebdo, which had been put out of business for mocking the funeral of Charles De Gaulle. (In future, will the David Cameron who marched in Paris be all that willing to defend the publication of pornographic images of the Queen at her funeral?)

More to the point, freedom of speech is based on the social good that is seen to accrue from being free to criticise and mock the beliefs of the powerful. Yet in this case, Charlie Hebdo was using that license to mock the beliefs of some of the poorest, most marginalised people in France, and in Europe in general. Obviously, this does not condone the attack on the magazine. Murder is never an acceptable way of making a point. By the same token, we can’t paper over the social polarisation that’s occurring in Europe by simply blathering on about the necessity to protect free speech, especially when it is targeting the voiceless. A more worthwhile legacy for Charlie Hebdo would be to focus its irreverence on the powerful. True, it is harder to do so, effectively. Nihilism is valuable, but it can also be the easy option.

Which brings us to this : free speech is an unlimited right in very few, if any, Western countries. I’m not talking simply about the bans on crying “ Fire” in a crowded theatre, either. In the US it is striking that the constitutional protections on free speech have been very selectively applied. Depictions of sex and bodily functions are restricted by law and the broadcast of obscene and profane material is heavily censored by the FCC

At the same time, depictions of violence ( including dog fighting videos that depict real violence being inflicted on animals) are constitutionally protected as free speech. So are violent games marketed to children, as the US Supreme Court ruled in 2011 when it struck down a California law that had attempted to limit this trade :

The California law would have imposed $1,000 fines on stores that sold violent video games to anyone under 18. It defined violent games as those “in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being” in a way that was “patently offensive,” appealed to minors’ “deviant or morbid interests” and lacked “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

By contrast – and with no sense of irony – the same Supreme Court has long upheld its 1973 Miller v California ruling which created the current “three prong” test that permits US states to regulate “ obscene” material under the Constitution :

1. whether the average person would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to a lewd curiosity
2. whether the work depicts or describes, in an offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions, as specifically defined by applicable state law
3. whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The rank subjectivity of these criteria and the pernicious distinction between the treatment of depictions of (a) sex and (b) violence should be more than enough to keep the fervent supporters of Charlie Hebdo busy for decades to come.

One final point. There has been no shortage of people willing to blame the attack on Charlie Hebdo as an indictment of Islam in particular and religion in general. Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have all contributed variations on this theme. Here’s an excerpt from Rushdie’s op ed in the Wall St Journal :

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. “Respect for religion” has become a code phrase meaning “fear of religion.” Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

Rushdie has already been met with a convincing rejoinder by Christian Caryl in Foreign Policy. and I’ll do little more than paraphrase Caryl here. It is the “medieval form of unreason” phrase in Rushdie’s article that’s the problem. This is not only an indictment of all religions. It virtually denies the possibility of discourse, since Rushdie, Dawkins and Co appear to regard religious people as being essentially unreasoning and/or crazy, by definition. One can point to several flaws in this argument, starting with the debt that secular humanism owes to religious tradition. One can also point out that some of the greatest monsters of the 20th century – Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot – were fervent secularists and materialists, as are some of today’s most murderous tyrants ( Kim Jong-Un, Bashir Assad etc). One can also point to the long traditions of non-violence by the avowedly religious (Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King etc) even in circumstances where there were plenty of advocates for violent action.

The problem, as Caryl says, is not religion. It is fanaticism. The problem is extremism in the service of an idea, and secular materialists are just as prone to that excess as the religiously inclined. Arguably the fanatical ideologues of market economics have done more damage in New Zealand – both to individuals and to the social fabric – than religion has in the past 30 years. Income inequality breeds violent responses, too. Just as surely as jihadi preachers. Perhaps if we were serious about this Je Suis Charlie stuff, we would be calling for SIS surveillance of Treasury economists.


A song for today ? How about Sinead O’Connor “Take Me To Church”…Sample lyrics :

Oh, take me to church
I’ve done so many bad things it hurts
Yeah, take me to church
But not the ones that hurt
‘Cause that ain’t the truth
And that’s not what it’s for…..
I’m gonna sing ….Songs of loving and forgiving
Songs of eating and of drinking
Songs of living. Songs of calling in the night
The songs of light, a bolt of light….
So get me down from this here tree
Take the rope from off of me
Sit me on the floor
“I AM”; the only one I should adore….


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