[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.