The instant I heard about the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week and saw the hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’ – I had no hesitation in posting the slogan as my Facebook cover photo. It was an angry and emotional reaction. I’m a writer – I deal in ideas, words, satire – the attack felt personal.
A week later, and the papers and the internet are full of counter headlines:
‘I am not Charlie!’; ‘Ok, well I might be a bit Charlie, but only on these strict conditions…’ ; ‘Some of my best friends are Charlie’; ‘Charlie isn’t my darling’; ‘You’re a racist, repugnant, free-speech fundamentalist, hypocritical ignoramus if you jump on the Charabanc de Charlie…!!’; ‘You’re the kind of Charlie who doesn’t care about massacres in Nigeria or what the west has done to the middle east, you bastard (did I mention that you were a racist?)!!!’; ‘Ehm…. has anyone got any Charlie?’ (Sorry, that last one was a flashback to a conversation I heard in the Groucho Club about fifteen years ago).
It’s a shoal of shifting opinion, caught in a sudden flash of light; a million panicky, quivering fish, all changing direction together.
Well, I’ve read lots of this stuff (and let’s be honest, it’s getting pretty tedious), and now, for your pleasure, The Ninja Marmoset is going to ride headlong into Charliegeddon.
The thing is, last week I was unthinking, emotional, angry, affronted Charlie. But now, the more the shoal tugs at the current of opinion, fogging the water with opinionated silt…
…the more I feel clearly confident that yes, I am, in the most considered of ways, l’homme qui s’appelle Charlie, a proper Charlie (as opposed to ‘un Charlie propre’ which would be something else altogether).
I’m wittering, but that’s because this whole debate is wittering…. it’s turning into a sequence of rants and semantic squabbles, and competitions as to who can worry the most about the offence caused (mainly) to other people; and what is offence; and over-the-garden-fence like a gaggle of neighbours at war. It’s apparently complex and nuanced…. I mean WHERE DO WE DRAW THE LINE???!?!?!?!
But I’m starting to wonder if it is complex and nuanced at all. Isn’t it really quite simple? What’s the big deal?
Haven’t we got it covered anyway?
Ok. Take offence…
What? You want me to take offence? You haven’t said anything offensive yet.
No, no, no, I mean ‘take “offence”, for example…’
Oh right. Does that mean you’re not going to offend me, but you’re going to lecture me on the nature of offence instead?
Do you have to? I think I’d rather you were rude to me.
Shut up and listen!The thing is, we’ve already got laws about this stuff. Essentially it goes something like this: sexuality isn’t a choice; race isn’t a choice; gender isn’t a choice; disability isn’t a choice; age isn’t a choice. So we have laws that protect people against discrimination, hatred, violence on the basis of what they actually are. Excellent. It’s taken a while to get here, but I’d say we’re doing pretty well so far…
Religion, however, is an idea. It is a choice. When you choose that faith then you choose everything that comes with it. The religion itself has no inherent rights of its own – Gods in a secular society are in the mind of man, or if, perchance, they turn out actually to exist, omnipotent and can look after themselves. However a religion’s followers do have rights to worship in peace, without fear of violence or intimidation, and not be discriminated against. Other than that, like any idea, it is fair game.
The right to worship in peace is a crucial idea that goes two ways. No one must threaten you with violence or prohibit your worship – and neither must you use your worship to intimidate or threaten others.
The same goes for the right not to worship by the way – which covers apostasy, in case anyone thought I was forgetting about that by glibly declaring that religion is an easy choice.
So what about mockery? As long as it adheres to the basic laws of discrimination outlined above, which are already established in our society, as Adam Ant once warbled: ‘Ridicule is, ridicule is, ridicule is nothing to be scared of….’
Crucially, mocking a religion, or the deeds of its followers, is not racism, nor is it any kind of excuse for racism. It just isn’t. And by the way, if individuals choose to use the religion/race distinction to cloak their own inherent racial prejudices that’s extremely frustrating, but it doesn’t undermine the logic of this vitally important distinction. Anyone with kids will know the difference between telling a child ‘you’re naughty’ and saying ‘that was a naughty thing to do’. The first degrades and belittles; the second may simply be a statement of fact, however hard for the child to hear.
In the case of Islam, the majority of Muslims are probably brown or black skinned – and if they are mocked on the basis of their colour, and for the simple state of being Muslim in the first place, then that is racism. But criticising a religion, its prophets (who are dead and legally beyond libel – no, seriously they are, I’m not being flippant…), the deities (see above for omnipotence or non existence) or people who do shite things in its name is not racism. Because Islam is largely associated with a couple of racial groups it’s easy to see where the conflation creeps in, but it is just that, a conflation. I’ve looked at quite a few Charlie Hebdo cartoons and covers – and they’re tough, uncompromising, arguably unpleasant, certainly lacking in taste at times – but I don’t get that they are crossing that line.
But, the argument runs, just because you have the right to offend, it doesn’t mean that you have to? Isn’t the act of depicting anything that you know will offend, even in a satirical cause, deliberately targeting a group in order to hurt them? Isn’t that at best a fundamentalist aggressive use of free speech, or at worst the ‘r’ word again?!
Well it would be if you ran into a mosque waving the cartoon ‘A Star Is Born’ around.
That would be just plain rude, and you’d rightly get a punch in the face, or worse. However…
The rule not to depict Mohammed is one that applies (as I understand it) to Muslims, and that’s absolutely fine. But since when did we enter a world where one religion’s rule applied to non believers? Jews don’t expect non Jews to abstain from pork…. Or Catholics insist that Anglicans abstain from contraception or not have terminations (they may protest against abortion, but mostly adhere to the democratically accepted law of the land)… I could go on at length. Obviously, when I go into a mosque I remove my shoes, because I am a guest, and I cover my head in a synagogue, and take my hat off in a church… I can equally understand the logic that says that a public broadcaster paid for by everyone and going into their homes might choose to respect this edict (I understand it, although I don’t personally agree with it)… But no one reasonably expects that any religion can dictate my diet or clothing in the secular public arena. I simply don’t understand why Muslims alone among all religions should dictate what other people can draw or look at? After all, there are 1.6 billion Muslims world wide and only 30,000 people paying for the privilege of being offended by Charlie Hebdo in a normal week. And it is a privilege – one I doubt that many of those who might be offended need encounter if they don’t want to. It’s hardly an act of bullying or oppression.
Yes but yes but yes but yes but… what about a cartoon depicting Jews in the holocaust, or someone falling from the Twin Towers, or a black man with a banana in a tree…
This is always said as if there’s only one answer to it, but there isn’t. A cartoon is a form of art, and so the answer is: ‘It depends’. If you say in your cartoon that ‘all Jews are hook-nosed money grubbing bastards and isn’t it funny they all got gassed mwah ha ha’ then you’re into the realms of racial hatred, and incitement to genocide. If, however, you draw Benjamin Netenyahu building a wall, reminiscent of the nazi ghettos, to imprison the Palestinians, you are evoking the holocaust in order to comment on the behaviour of a modern Jewish state… and it’s fair comment about someone’s behaviour.
Many Jews find this sort of thing highly offensive, but it’s rightly not illegal, and speaking as someone who is (half) Jewish I have no problem with that. There’s no problem using any stereotype in a cartoon – or in any work of art – it’s all about context. If we take context out of the equation suddenly we’re applying a literalist set of rules to satire which is anti humour, anti satire, anti art, anti intelligence…!
Yes but yes but yes but yes but!!!! Who are you to decide what’s acceptable, Charlie-chops, you self satisfied white secular slightly Jewish Guardian reading liberal?! Even The Guardian doesn’t support you these days – spinning on its moralistic tail and disappearing up its own comment columns in a puff of semantics!! This free speech fundamentalism just won’t wash!! It’s a form of cultural arrogance! It’s impossible to come to any kind of judgement that doesn’t offend someone who lives round the corner so let’s grab the magic marker of fear and draw that mythical line RIGHT BACK HERE!!
Ehm. Actually, we do already know how to do this. Every day, Ofcom, The British Board of Film Censors, BBC Editorial Policy, the itv Compliance Unit make considered and rational decisions about things loitering on the grey and shifting boundaries of taste, decency and acceptability. It’s not so hard really.
Then there’s Billy Bragg. Remember him? The voice of solidarity. He was a miner apparently, and a docker, and a railway man – no really, he was! – but it turns out he’s a bit wobbly about being a Charlie. His reasoning goes, that Islam is ‘plagued by extremists’ (his words) and the non muslim world needs to extend the hand of friendship and agree to self censor in order to secure the help of moderate muslims in fighting the aberrant forces within its own ranks (I paraphrase).
Really? Is this some kind of trade-off of values? Who agreed the exchange rate? I mean it’s big of him and everything, but did he check first that ‘moderate Muslims’, or potentially extremist muslims were up for this swap, or did he just decide on his own that this would sort it? ‘They’ll be happy with that – where’s my guitar, I need to write another song about freedom and solidarity…’
I’ve got a feeling that the causes of young muslim alienation might run a little deeper than this.
We know they do, because hundreds of people are dying in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and apparently we’re all trivialising hypocrites because we’re getting wound up about a few french cartoonists.
Racist. Fundamentalist. Hypocrite. It’s so easy to throw these words around, isn’t it? Extremely easy to call anyone a hypocrite because no one is entirely consistent – especially a line of world leaders who look like they’re doing a bizarre hokey cokey.
It’s also extremely easy to accuse people of protesting against the wrong thing – there’s always a list of stuff more important you ought to be protesting about. It’s an easy accusation and just a bit meaningless. Why are you eating carrots???? You should be eating peas!!!
No. We’re not marching about Nigeria – not because we don’t care about Nigeria, but because we’re marching about what this attack represents, which does embody some fundamental principles.
And, crucially, having fundamental principles does not make a person a fundamentalist in the knee jerk pejorative sense of the word; just as failing to adhere precisely to a fundamental does not make a person a hypocrite. All principles are inherently aspirational. The declaring of principle is important because we publicly declare a benchmark against which we can be judged. The scornful cry of ‘hypocrite’ is a cry of defeat. Like all the other labels it closes the discussion down. No one can stand up for anything – and no one is fit to lead. Isn’t the world shit?
Well, actually, no it isn’t.
I’ll leave the last word to Charlie Hebdo. This week they came back with a commemorative issue featuring a front cover depicting Mohammed holding a Je Suis Charlie placard, a tear falling from his eye, and above him, the legend: ‘All is forgiven’.
By and large this was reported positively – including by the BBC. A moving response by the surviving members of the Hebdo team… provocative in its insistence on depicting the prophet, but reconciliatory in tone. Awwww….
But hang on a sec. Flick your eyes up this (lengthy) blog (sorry!). Take a look at the “A Star Is Born” cartoon. Notice any similarity? Yup, Mohammed’s family jewels in all their glory echoed in the prophet’s headdress – the penile drip now a mournful tear.
As yet I’ve not heard Huw Edwards on the six o’clock news describe this as a picture of the prophet Mohammed with a cock and balls on his head – and that’s probably wise – but ignoring it altogether is a lost opportunity. It is cheeky, scurrilous, mischievous. Some might see it as a spiteful slap in the face. Personally I read it as saying: ‘Yes, we must forgive each other, but we’re still going to rip the shit out of you, because that’s what this is all about’.
I think it’s brilliant; it’s smart, it challenges the viewer to look with intelligence and think about a whole narrative that extends over years. It demands that you look at it with a sense of context. It is funny…. and it is art.
It has many different things to say and like all good art it acknowledges that more than one thing can be emotionally true at one time.
The right to do this without fear is why I am – fundamentally – Charlie.