Sunday, 11 January 2015

In defence of obscenity.

Whenever you hear the prattle of 'Western values' you should recall Gandhi's words when asked what he thinks to Western civilisation: "I think it would be a good idea".

It's undeniable, Charlie Hebdo spewed a lot of filthy racist trash. However, free-speech should extend to precisely those people with despicable viewpoints; but it's odd that the West pretends it does so. If the French establishment did believe in free-speech then it wouldn't have criminalised Holocaust denial. The same can be said of other countries, if the UK government gives a damn about free-speech then it should ditch its crazy libel laws.

"If you believe in free-speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you dislike," said Noam Chomsky. It's clear much of Europe does not believe in freedom of speech for despicable views. In spite of the fact that the French Republic has long laid claim to the foundations of human rights and civil liberties, it does not act as if it is. It was only in July 2014 that the Hollande government banned the protests over the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. So much for freedom of speech.

Many liberals have been calling for the cartoons to be shown on the BBC and CNN as a kind of anti-clerical defiance. As Arthur Goldhammer argues, the satirists at Charlie Hebdo represented a provocative corner of mass-media in the tradition of gouaille. It's meant to be obscene, offensive and on the edges of acceptable opinion. Of course, this is less true of the Muhammad cartoons, which unites much of liberal Europe, than it is of the racist cartoons of the Chibok girls.

The right to free-speech, which may be limited at the point where violence is explicitly advocated, should be stretched as far as it can be. The right may not be the reason to say disgusting and offensive things, but it can't be policed on such grounds. Nevertheless, it is more in line with the Hebdo spirit to excoriate the magazine for its virulent caricatures than it is to embrace them as 'martyrs'. It's suspect that the magazine is celebrated in this way, and I think that the cartoonists would be suspicious of this process too.

What it seems to confirm is that the provocation of European Muslims really isn't that edgy and isn't repressed at all. The question we should be asking ourselves is: should this be the case? In Goldhammer's words: "To transform the shock of Charlie's obscenities into veneration of its martyrdom is to turn the magazine into the kind of icon against which its irrepressible iconoclasm was directed".

This is a separate observation to saying such views don't deserve protection. Free-speech never meant omnipresence, people have the right to express their viewpoint, no matter how vulgar, but we're not obliged to republish it (though I have here, so you can see what I mean). Just as if a neo-Nazi came into your home and put up a poster denying the Holocaust it's not a violation of free-speech for you to tear it down. Publications and public speech is another matter. The people advocating the Muhammad cartoons be shown on the BBC and CNN are looking for a fight. They want to normalise Charlie Hebdo rather than defend it as the filthy rag it is.


Anonymous said...

Hi, this is a genuine question, I'm not trying to be confrontational - What exactly do you find racist about the Charlie Hebdo publications?

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi, sorry, I posted this the other day, but I think there might have been a glitch. I just wanted to know what exactly you found racist about the Charlie Hebdo publications?

-genuine question, an explanation would be helpful to me, thanks.

JT White said...

Oh, I think that the depiction of Muhammad as beady-eyed and hook-nosed is suspect. The magazine's portrayal of Arabs in general fits Edward Said's observations of orientalism in the West. Likewise, the depiction of the Chibok girls was particularly degrading, whether or not it was intended as satire of FN propaganda is up for debate.

Nonetheless, I think that the imagery was disgusting but I don't think it's a case where freedom should be curtailed. I hope I've made myself clear.

Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

That's what jumped out at me as well, but then I saw how they depicted the Pope (not the same thing, I know):

They have also been strongly critical of the far right (FN):

A lot of their stuff seems to be of the same provocative ilk. I found a comment that articulates it much better than I ever could:

'As far as I can tell, Charlie Hebdo is basically analogous to a more offensive version of South Park. They actually seem to have good intentions, but they use a lot of stereotypes (like Chef or Big Gay Al), and they love to make people cringe. According to Luz, one of the artists, they think of themselves as a niche magazine for high school students. They’ve published some pretty brutal satire of racists and right wing nationalists, but their style of caricature can be really extreme and mean-spirited, using some of the same visual elements seen in WWII propaganda.'

If they released a depiction of Muhammad, without any overt racial-stereotyping, would it still be offensive?

Anonymous said...

I've looked into it a bit more, and I came across a page on Quora; some of the answers attempt to provide some much needed context for certain covers of Charlie Hebdo:

- and as a counterpoint, this article is well written and definitely worth a read:

I don't know - after everything I've read, I can't believe Charlie Hebdo were/are racist. Vulgar, perhaps, but not racist.
However, even though they drew all races to look equally grotesque, the depictions of non whites did play up specific visual stereotypes, and those do have huge historical implications.

Though maybe I'm just being overly sensitive to their style of drawing or don't fully understand the satire (a real possibility :/ ), because Salman Rushdie spoke on Real Time last week, and said something to this effect: Satire and political cartoons - one of their functions is to rock the boat. What would a respectful political cartoon look like?

*sigh* maybe everyone's got a point.