Secularism & Security after Charlie Hebdo

On Charlie Hebdo: metaphor and the tyranny of secular liberalism

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[Note: I struggled, as have many in the US media, over whether to include an example of Charlie Hebdo’s ugly ugly cartoons here.  I struggled in part because I think it’s necessary to have a sense of how callously, pointlessly, vile they could be when having rather abstract discussion of “freedom of speech”.  In the end, I still couldn’t include a drawing of a religious figure bent over and naked soliciting his own anal rape]

The difficult spot many of us who wish to take a critical stance towards the broader reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killing is that broad-based reactions such as #jesuischarlie immediately paint one as either “for” the supposed satire of Charlie Hebdo or “for” the slaughter of cartoonists in their board rooms.  It is possible, in fact probably necessary to be “for” neither.

As someone whose interest in police began with an incapacity to fathom how one could use violence for good, I find the actions of the people responsible for the killings to be incomprehensible in a deep way.  But this is not the same thing as supporting nor agreeing with Charlie Hebdo, which I find to be an utterly disgusting publication.

One common defense of the publication is that within a liberal (and secular) democracy satire must be defended as a form of free speech.  This is one part of the bedrock of Enlightenment politics, we are told.  But to be satire one must have a viable political point.  Otherwise it is, at best, a form of ad hominem attack, at worst, systematic bullying of the already marginalized and weak; both of these being opposed to the very Enlightenment principles defendants of “free speech” wrap themselves in.

But don’t take my word for it.  This was the position of one of the foundational figures of 18th century liberalism, Jeremy Bentham.  In laying out the his Principles for Legislation, Jeremy Bentham felt compelled to first explain of what, exactly a good argument or reason consists.  Of these false, or non, reasons he gave ten examples: antiquity, he asserted, was not a reason.  Neither was, many point out, religion, nor reproach of innovation, fictions, nor—importantly—were metaphors or allegories.  By this he meant the use of proper metaphor or allegory as the basis of an argument, of which he gives several examples: “A man’s house is his castle,” the “House of God,” “balance of trade,” “mother-country”.  All of these metaphors, he argued led to disastrously false reasoning.  Without the guidance of the principle of reason, that is the principle of utility, that is the principle of valuing good effect over bad, that is of valuing pleasure over pain, law was forced to ground itself on one of a certain number of false principles.  Of these, one of the most pernicious was “The Arbitrary Principle; or the Principle of Sympathy and Antipathy”:

This principle consists in approving or blaming by sentiment, without giving any reason for the decision itself.  I love.  I hate; such is the pivot on which this principle turns.  An action is judged to be good or bad, not because it is comfortable, or on the contrary, to the interest of those whom it affect, but because it pleases him who judges.  He pronounces sovereignty; he admits no appeal; he does not think himself obliged to justify his opinion by any consideration relative to the good of society. “It is my interior persuasion; it is my intimate conviction; I feel it; sentiment consults nobody; the worse for him who does not agree with me—he is not a man, he is a monster in human shape.”  Such is the despotic tone of these decisions….

Using metaphor instead of argument in order to make political decisions, in other words, was, for Bentham, a form of despotic tyranny.

As part of a discussion on the MSNBC show All In, Chris Hayes asked a cartoonist why these “political” cartoons are so often the object of so much anger.  Joel Pett responded that it’s hard to respond to being drawn like a turtle.  “What are you going to say,” he asked rhetorically, “I am not a turtle?”  This was exactly Bentham’s point: such allegories are a non-rational despotic assertion of power.

Which, fine, one may argue may have its place.  I wouldn’t have much problem with someone doing this for, say, a powerful despotic figure in his own right like Mitch McConnell. But it’s something else when it’s done to a marginalized and relatively voiceless population like French Muslims.  And that “something else” may be delicately described as “bullying”… or more properly described in this context as outright colonial antagonism.

Which is why it’s so important to notice what is so often elided in these French discussions of “freedom of speech”: other little issues such as “power,” “inequality,” and “colonialism” that would paint Charlie’s cartoons not only in a much more negative light, nor merely hypocritical in that they are antithetic to the liberal tradition in which they drape themselves, but also as dangerous in that their effects–in the form of security crackdowns, illegal intrusions on liberty, social ostracism, etc– will almost surely further endanger and antagonize the lives of France’s broad and complex Muslim population.


11 thoughts on “On Charlie Hebdo: metaphor and the tyranny of secular liberalism

  1. stavrianakis says:
    1. “This principle consists in approving or blaming by sentiment, without giving any reason for the decision itself.” Such as being “utterly disgusted?”
    2. Is the accusation of colonialism argument or metaphor?


    • So, first, the point is that they claim their “satire” is “free speech” and a cornerstone of Enlightenment rationality, while at least some in the tradition they robe themselves in would recognize it as neither speech nor reason.

      Having said that, I don’t claim nor do I believe, speech is possible without metaphor nor affect. Which should force us to think through those metaphors not evacuate them of their political ramifications. I am not chastising cartoonists for using metaphors. I am chastising them for believing they are beyond a metaphysics and justifying their violence thusly.

      Having said that I see a functional family resemblance between the logic of Charlie Hebdo & its defenders with the classic liberal “civilizing mission”: I must antagonize the Other in order to save it from itself; We have to knowingly offend wide swaths of relatively marginalized people in order to save them from “imams who would brainwash them into suicide bombers”; white men are saving brown women from brown men


    • In his tendency to start with a condemnation of a “minority” of fucked up people and, through a series of steps, conflate it with the whole spiritual project of Islam, yes

      Have you read the Manifeste de douze? It conflates opposition to caricatures of Mohammed with opposition to democracy and rationality, which are themselves portrayed as universal human values

      It paints “islamicism” as the inheritor of fascism and Nazism, in a weirdly depoliticized and ahistorical (and immaterial) world of “ideas” in which the legacies (and continuities) of colonialism play no part


  2. stavrianakis says:

    Have you read Favret-Saada’s “Comment produire une crise mondiale avec douze petits dessins”?

    Why did Friday’s murders take place in a kosher supermarket? It was very interesting that during an hour and half program on TF1 on sunday, during the “unity” march, the word “anti-semitism” wasn’t uttered a single time.

    Who is de-historicizing, Kevin?


    • I haven’t read that piece, I’ll look it up. But:
      1. It is possible that there is both anti-semitism and islamophobia in France, they are not incompatible. In fact I would argue (and others have argued) that they both operate simultaneously in different forms within both the Left and Right
      2. To caution against certain forms of political mobilization after the attacks is not to condone the attacks nor whatever logic fueled them… I thought I made that clear in the beginning of the piece


  3. stavrianakis says:
    1. Yes it is: my point is that you have conflated in this post (a) the political analysis of the French state’s relation to French Muslims (“colonialism”) enacted in things like the law on the veil (although you must be careful here, studies of things like French Muslims in the army give a more complex picture than your summary by way of “vicitimization” ) – and (b) the political content of specific cartoons featuring Mohammad. Some are funny and thoughtful about political issues, others are neither (it’s called discernment, i think).

    2. I didn’t say that you condoned the attacks: I implied that you yourself were de-historicizing the relation of the two events (Wed/Fri) through your conflation named in point 1.


  4. Whatever we mean by “colonialism,” it isn’t something that is neatly confined to “the State” but rather extends out in complicated ways–including cartoons. But you know this; you know political cartoons are political and that power works through various institutions not limited to the state–so I don’t really understanding what we’re arguing about.

    Having said that, no matter how insightful the cartoons might be, the editors of Charlie published them knowing that the very images antagonized a large community of people which they claim to not be targeting. Combined with the relative absence of voices from that community in every corner of the French public sphere I’ve ever come in contact with (I’d love to hear more about this military study), I find the cartoons tasteless.

    But even more troubling to me was the idea that some version of liberal democracy depended on their ability/right to antagonize that community in that way; that the security of freedom required they violate such arcane ideas as ‘don’t draw cartoon of Mohammed” and disabuse anyone who might hold such backwards thoughts. As someone who has not completely given up on some form of liberalism, I found that claim disturbing and tried to complicate it through a kind of Benjaminian “hand grenade”: it turns out the “liberal tradition” is not one thing and that at least some people indisputably in that “tradition” would see such “Enlightened speech” as neither “enlightened” nor “speech”.

    Having said that, I actually wrote the piece before the events in the deli (even though it posted here a couple of days after). I’m not sure how that turn challenges or adds to what I tried to do here though. Frankly, i’m still not really sure what you object to here.

    In any case, most of the media coverage I’ve been seeing over here has pushed a kind of multicultural message out of the whole thing–a Muslim employee helping save the lives of Jewish customers, etc.


  5. stavrianakis says:

    The English liberal tradition you put these guys in is not the same thing as the French socio-historical context that they come out of, but you know this (and no it’s not “colonialism”).

    “I find the cartoons tasteless”: taste as we know is first and foremost about occupying a position in a social space. Donc, rather than your “disgust” leading to a critical position, your positioning as critic of a specific target (Anglo-American “liberal tradition”, which as I say above is the wrong target) has lead to the cultivation of specific taste/affect (“utterly disgusting”).

    What I object to is that, it seems to me, you have mixed up a critique originating in the politics of the American academy with what is really going on in the object of your critique: the accusation that Charlie Hebdo exemplifies “colonialism” is false and this accusation, i think, stems from the confusion named above.

    Your claim that these cartoons “antagonized a large community of people” is curious: who are you talking about? are you talking about “all Muslims”? “French Muslims”? “French Muslims” at the rue Stephenson mosque? The assumption behind the claim is that these cartoon are “about” Islam, or even “Muslims”, which is not true.

    Clearly one “small” community is a group of radical Muslims prepared to murder in response to cartoons which were “about” radical Muslims prepared to use violence for political means.



    All of the arguments above are/ would be typical of a discussion among the intellectual elite of Constantinople about some drama or another within The Mighty-Wall, some time before the Turkish Invasion . In another occasion, I compare the status-quo of Constantinople on the eve of the Turkish Invasion with that of the invasion that pulverized Mexico-City of The Aztecs by the Spanish conquistadors. The Wisdom to be learned form both events is simply that “The World stopped to be the same, the day after.”

    Let us visit France in its history, The Roman Invasion, some 50 years after man became divine: In “les guerres des Goals” by Julius Cesar relates that when the Goals got to meet the Romans for the first time with intent of war, the Goals started to laugh. As well know, “The Hexagon” stopped to be a hexagon, at the end of that first encounter day (it was first encounter day for the participating troops). Yes, at the end f that day The Hexagon and by suite the entire Europe stopped to be the same, but the change was not as dramatic as the case of the two cities/ republics above.

    Given the history of France, as you know it since that moment (50 AD), the French brain occupation with the artistic merit of geometry, created an invisible walls around The land of The Goals !!!.

    By the 18th Century la France was not just geopolitically geometric, it became a garden: “Il faut cultivar notre jardin” (Voltaire).

    But the French of the 18th were too lonely in their garden of Eden, some thing was going wrong. So some of them climbed over the wall, to seek a medicine-man. They found “the man” but the encounter evolved into an open war at the expense of the medicine-man.

    Now we know that all of the consequence, by act, of “La Lumière Greek-philosophy ” since the funeral of Victor Hugo, in Paris, has not been nothing but a savage act of the Goals and company against The World.

    Now we have plenty of World within the walls of The Hexagon, there for it is urgent that the 3rd act of the comedy “The Wars of the Goals” be staged in France , before the 400th anniversary of the Funerals of Victor Hugo, in Paris


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