Charlie Hebdo and avoiding offence - two popular liberal arguments refuted

January 10, 2015

In the gallery of satirical art there’s a largely blank space where the work satirizing Islam should be. Here I argue that, where satirical work has been removed out of fear, it should be put back. I also deal with a couple of objections against doing so. 

Wander my (hypothetical) gallery of satirical art and you’ll find rooms devoted to work satirizing and lampooning a great many belief systems, including, of course, religious belief systems. First we enter a cavernous chamber devoted to work lampooning Christianity. It contains innumerable cartoons, writings, films, and so on. Later we find ourselves wandering round smaller rooms containing work satirizing Scientology and Mormonism. Later still, we enter a large room where the work lampooning Islam should be displayed. Only we discover that room is mostly empty. There are just a few isolated exhibits hanging from the walls. Where has all the missing satirical work gone?

The reason that work is missing is of course that those who produce or exhibit such satirical material are afraid, literally, for their lives, and also the lives of employees and families.

That fear-induced blank space where the work satirizing Islam should be has had two seriously bad consequences. First, those brave or foolish enough to continue to exhibit their work stand isolated and exposed – they are obvious targets running a very significant risk. Second, caving into such threats just encourages more. We’re showing the perpetrators that their violence, and threats of violence, work.   

Liberal opinion is divided over whether we should now put the work satirizing Islam removed solely out of fear of violence back on public display. Some liberals think that our now publishing such material would be a mistake. Here are a couple of the arguments for that view that I’ve have spotted over the last couple of days:  

First argument: There’s no justification in upsetting all Muslims, most of them peaceable, just for the sake of thumbing our noses at a violent few.

Jonathan Freedland, editor-elect of the Guardian, said something similar today, writing:

… this is the key point. It is not only violent jihadists who resent representations of the prophet: such pictures trouble many millions of peaceful Muslims too. To print one now would be to take a stand against the former by offending the latter. (Source.)

The prominent Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, also writing in the Guardian today, shares Freedland’s view:

there is the issue of media organisations intent on publishing the most offensive Charlie Hebdo cartoons, claiming that it would strike a blow for free speech. I support free speech, but I would urge them to desist, for what they plan to do is not courageous and will do nothing to afford people dignity. It will be another example of targeting all Muslims. (Source.)

I don't think there's a case here for not now publishing that satirical material that would have been published had we not been afraid of the violent consequences. 

What I think should be reinstated is the kind of work publishers do show regularly when the subject matter happens not to be Islam but some other religious or revered system of belief. Remember that work lampooning Christianity and other religions is regularly published across the media, despite the fact that it offends many (and there are regular complaints from other religions about the offence such satire casues, of course). If the argument for not reinstating work self-censored out of fear of violence is that it will offend even peaceable Muslims, why are many of these publishers more than happy to publish similar work lampooning other faiths? 

If a newspaper would not have printed images of Mohammad anyway, notwithstanding the threats, then I don't think they're under any obligation to do so now (P.S. though I don't think they're duty-bound to do so, I would still encourage them to do so - see my previous post). But many of them would have done and so should do so now. And even those that wouldn't should at least now make a point of reinstating all that satirical work they would have published had it not been for those threats. 

Second argument:  If a racist had just been murdered for producing racist satirical imagery of blacks and Jews, we would not now be obliged to publish racist satirical imagery across the press. So why, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are we obliged to publish images satirizing Islam?

Jonathan Freedland raises just this objection. He begins:

Wednesday’s deaths brought a loud chorus insisting that Charlie Hebdo was vulnerable because it had been left out on a limb. That was down, they said, to the cowardice of the rest of the press, lacking the guts to do what the French magazine had done. Now, if the declarations of Je Suis Charlie were to mean anything, papers like the Guardian ought to make amends and either republish the magazine’s offending cartoons or do its own depictions of the prophet – just to prove that it could.

But Freedland finds the case for publishing such offensive work unpersuasive, as he immediately goes on to explain:

Behind this argument is an assumption that Islam is a unique case. Yet for that to be true, a paper like the Guardian would be running images every day that it knew trampled on the sensibilities of, say, women or Jews or people of colour or myriad others – holding back only when it came to Muslims and what matters to them. But that’s not how it is. Mostly we do our best, not always successfully, to avoid causing that kind of pain. (Source.) 

But of course we won’t always avoid causing that kind of pain, will we? For again, the kind of satirical material publishers have held back from publishing - and should be publishing now - is the kind of material they have been happy enough to publish when lampooning other faiths, despite the fact that it also causes offence. And, as I say, Christians etc. do indeed regularly complain about such satire and insist that it offends them.

Yes, there are good reason for not satirizing racial and other minorities and representing them as stupid or greedy or whatever. We shouldn’t do that. But there’s no such reason for not satirizing religious beliefs. Or if there is such a reason, why have the media been prepared to publish similar material satirizing other faiths?

The point of reinstating the missing satire on Islam is not to offend Muslims for the sake of a cheap laugh (and it's important to remember that by no means all Muslims will be offended by images of Mohammad - see this very well-informed article on Muslim attitudes to depictions of Mohammad), but because such satirical work has a valuable role to play alongside similar work lampooning other faiths and belief systems (I explain why here). Sure, satire can be cheap, tacky, and pointlessly offensive, but it can also be much, much more than this, and the loss of almost all satire on some important topic is a very great loss indeed.

Publishers may refuse to publish the missing satire on the grounds that they don’t want needlessly to upset Muslims. But if these same publishers are happy enough to publish similar satire that upsets other religious folk, then they’re not being honest with themselves. The reality is that they're refusing to publish not for fear of causing offence but because they’re frightened. That’s understandable. But I’d urge them to think again.

Postscript.

Perhaps some will suggest it's the greater depth of offence felt by (some) Muslims that explains why we should be less inclined to satirise Islamic beliefs than other religious beliefs. I am not convinced. First, I would question whether it's even true that religious satire provokes greater offence amongst (some) Muslims than those belonging of other faiths. How do we know this? Does the fact that a few Muslims exact murderous revenge on those who satirise their beliefs show that Muslims generally feel the offence more deeply? Is their murderous rage a reliable measure of general offence caused? Second, in any case I suggest those demanding far greater levels of deference, reverence, and respect for their particular beliefs - and who subsequently get far more enraged when they don't get it - are surely more deserving of having their beliefs satirised, not less.