Freedom to Offend
Posted on 1-February-2015
When news broke out about two masked gunmen going into the room in the offices of the French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo where their editorial staff was meeting on the 7th of January this year and shooting dead ten of them, there was naturally a chorus of disapproval not only in Europe but in much of the rest of the world. That the gunmen shouted allahu akbar and that allah had been avenged made it clear that these men were acting in anger against some slight to Islam. What followed was days of discussion about the inadmissibility of violence against people who were expressing their opinions, howsoever offensive to someone. It was also almost universally asserted that freedom of expression must not be allowed to be suppressed by acts of violence of this kind. Other comments were about intolerance in Islamic societies, yet others about Muslims lacking a sense of humour and then the Presiudent of France declared war on radical Islam.
That there can in today's world be no room for the kind of violence that happened in Paris on 7th January should not be a matter of doubt. Similarly not only freedom of speech but the spirit of free enquiry demands that nothing in society, not even religion, any religion, should be considered too sacred to be a subject of critical examination. It is important to assert this principle because there are in today's world an increasing number of people who seek to shut out discussion particularly of religiously charged subjects on the ground that their religious sentiments had been hurt or simply by asserting that some questions cannot be asked as it is a matter of faith. People who thus shut out discussion of religion are either afraid that asking questions about religious belief might destroy belief itself and thus the position of those whose power and influence depends on people blindly holding on to their religious beliefs or are simply too illiterate. On neither the count of violence being inadmissible nor of an attempt to frighten those whose opinions you do not like into silence can the action of the gunmen in Paris be defended.
Yet the Paris episode raises other questions that have either not been asked or been asked by such a small number of people that their opinions have just been drowned out in the general noise about freedom of speech. One question that arose but not fully debated was about limits on freedom of speech. There is one limit recognised in all modern societies: impermissibility of libel and slander. Another restriction observed in many societies is against hate speeches or writings and yet another widely accepted limit is against incitement to violence. There is now in all of west Europe and north America a restriction on any speech or gesture that might be construed as anti-Semitic. At Charlie Hebdo itself a journalist not long ago had to leave because he was thought to have made some anti-Semitic remark. This thus has become another accepted limit on freedom of speech. If I was a Muslim, I would ask my west European interlocutors why they who were so careful about not offending Jews could not also take Muslim sensitivities into account.
The second more complex set of questions is about the nature of satire and humour. Charlie Hebdo was routinely described in all the discussions about the Paris shootings as a satirical magazine. Good satire ridicules cant, hypocrisy, pomposity, social manners and attitudes and even public policy. Some of the best satires in western literature does all this and more: for example Boileau's Le Lutrin, Alexander Pope's Dunciad or The Rape of the Lock, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, A. P. Herbert's Uncommon Law and of course Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, to take a random sample. Satire and humour are best within the confines of a given culture for in most cases, apart from a limited number of universals, the conception of what is ridiculous varies in space and time. In modern Europe a man wiping his hand on the dinner table will look ridiculous while about three or four centuries ago it was a common enough practice. To an Indian not exposed to the west a man standing and urinating looks ludicrous just as to early European visitors to India, Hindu upper caste obsession with self purification with water would have looked bizarre. Satire and humour do not easily work across cultural barriers and this is something the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and their defenders do not seem to be aware of.
There is another barrier the defenders of Charlie Hebdo seem to ignore. Suppose you are in polite urban, urbane middle class company in Paris or London. Someone pokes light hearted fun at someone in the company but that instance of frivolity causes offence to the other person. If after that the one poking fun persists, the rest of the company would think of him as a boor. It would be better, all in the company would decide, not to continue offending the other person. A few years ago a Danish newspaper published some cartoons making fun of Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam. Other publications across Europe reproduced those cartoons. Muslims everywhere were incensed. There were protests and even acts of vandalism against western offices and institutions in the Middle East. The right to free expression was defended then also. Charlie Hebdo did what the Danish newspaper had done earlier. Was it right to repeat an action that people know causes offence to Muslims or was Charlie Hebdo going against the accepted norms of behaviour in polite society? In fact Charlie Hebdo's action looks worse if one allows for the possibility that to many Muslims these repeated actions of ridiculing Mohammad by people in countries that are more powerful and that consider themselves repositories of modern civilised values are instances of racial arrogance. Many Muslims regret the way their Mullahs have restricted the room for reasoned debate about the nature of their religion and about which of its original tenets is relevant in the modern world and which is not. Urge to correct this perceived shortcoming has to come from within Muslim communities. It is not for western satirists--not the best ones in the glorious western tradition of satire--to try to show to Muslims and non Muslims how ridiculous Mohammad looks. Subjecting religion to critical examination is a legitimate exercise and should be carried out in the calm of sober discussion. Reducing another's religion to the triviality of newspaper cartoons is not an activity worthy of respect, even if that activity is undertaken in such centres of civilisation as Copenhagen or Paris. Ridiculing a person or an object venerated by people of any religious persuasion is to show crass ignorance of the strong emotions that animate religious belief and for such ignorance on the part of the Danish or French cartoonists there can be no sympathy.
In the context of the Charlie Hebdo episode another apt observation was made by one of the most independent minded English journalists. The Kouachi brothers who were named as the gunmen who fired in the offices of the magazine were of Algerian parentage. Like most Algerians resident in France they would be aware--even if they had no direct experience themselves--of the atrocities committed by the French colonial administration in Algeria. They would not only be aware of the racist attitude of the colonial officials when Algeria was a French colony but would be facing numerous racist slurs and humiliations in their daily lives in France. These would be fertile enough ground for anti-western anger to grow in their minds at the west's misdeeds in the Middle East during the last one hundred years. For such people cartoons ridiculing Mohammed would be only the tipping point. Rather than reduce the entire discussion in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo shootings to a simple matter of violent means being used to curtail free speech the west needs to fully face its old demon of racism. That demon is still alive and kicking and keeps raising its head in unexpected ways. Starting from the premise that Darwinian natural selection continues to operate people have produced serious sounding books to suggest that through natural selection in the last 30000 years or so people in Europe or America have evolved to be superior in one way or another. A scientist of the standing of James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, suggested some decades ago that Africans were people of inferior intelligence. To a non-European it is annoying to hear the USA so often arrogating to itself the right to speak on behalf of the civilised world, often meaning by that expression only the USA. The spirit of Arthur de Gobineau lives on. But the west must ask itself why there is so much of anti-western anger in so much of the Muslim world. It must also ask itself whether ridiculing Mohammad does not also in the eyes of Muslims bespeak racial arrogance. Such introspection by the west on occasions like this will be healthier than organising rallies with millions of people holding Je Suis Charlie placards or to reduce the discourse to one of violent attack on free speech. Such introspection only can lead to change in attitudes.