Thursday, January 08, 2015

Mourning, with Nuance

I am about to attempt a post that may be beyond my skill level. I normally wouldn't do that, but I need to work somethings through and I really want to say some of the things in this post... so I am going to try.

I need to say somethings about the horrible attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. I absolutely condemn these attacks, and I mourn all of the people killed. No one should ever be killed for anything they say, draw, or publish. Full stop. I in no way think the staff of Charlie Hebdo are responsible for this crime.

But there is something more I need to say, and it is prompted by the reactions I've seen.

I'm not talking about the anti-Muslim backlash, which was sadly predictable and which some have argued exactly what the attackers wanted. I condemn any and all attacks on innocent Muslims (i.e., the vast, vast majority of Muslims) and their places of worship.

I am talking more about the entirely understandable lionization of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I understand the impulse, but it does not sit well with me.

I am a big believer in the power of ideas, and the power of words. One of the reasons I want to publish other people's books is that I want to do my small part to bring more, and more diverse ideas, to the public square. This is also the reason I have gone out of my way to diversify the worldviews to which I listen. That can be infuriating at times, and I wonder why I am forcing myself to listen to people who make me angry. But events like this make me thankful that I've done that, because the many different perspectives help me better understand what is happening. 

This event gave me a particularly clear case in point: the best articulation of why those cartoons matter came from Ross Douthat, a conservative writer with whom I rarely agree. Perhaps it is because of his faith (he is Catholic) that he has thought more deeply about blasphemy and when it is needed than I had, and could articulate how the fact that drawing the prophet Mohammed risks death might justify the blasphemy. (Do go read his piece, it is very thoughtful and thought-provoking.)

I'll be honest, when I look at those cartoons, I find them offensive. I am an atheist, but I believe in respecting other people's beliefs, and the lack of that respect in the cartoons offends me. I look at the cartoon that has been circulated so widely, the one with the caption "Love is stronger than hate," and I do not see a message of love. I see a message calculated to offend not just radical Muslims, but religious Muslims in general. Giving offense is not a message of love.

I understand that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo saw elements in Islam in general, and radical Islam in particular, that they wanted to satirize. As I said at the top, I think they had every right to do so and do not think that the offense they gave in any way justifies the actions of the gunmen. I probably even agree with some of the points they wanted to make via their satire.

But I also think that they could have turned their intellects and talents to finding a better, more precise way of satirizing these things. There is a famous Molly Ivins quote about satire:

"Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar." 

The problem I see with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and the Danish cartoons that caused an uproar in 2005, is that they are so broad in their caricature that they hit not just the powerful imams issuing fatwas but a wide swath of Muslims, who already face discrimination and marginalization in Europe. That is, there is an aspect of these cartoons that feels very much like a powerful group "punching down."

I completely understand that how this looks to me, here in San Diego, is very different from how it looks in Europe. It is obvious to me that the interaction of secular society and Islam is different in the US than it is in Europe, and I would not for a minute claim to understand the reasons for that. I certainly will not claim that we in the US are less racist- perhaps it is best to say that we are differently racist, and that is probably making it hard for me to understand the full context of those cartoons. I acknowledge my ignorance in this regard, and agree with the outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo's staff that has come from around Europe. 

Still, in our rush to defend free speech, it would be nice if we remembered that right now, not everyone's speech is equally free, and tried to make our analyses reflect that. 

Since I believe in the power of ideas, I must acknowledge the power of religion, which to a non-believer like me looks a lot like a container in which to gather a bunch of ideas. So I do not discount the role of Islam in these attacks. Yascha Mounk wrote thoughfully about this at Slate. Islam is not to blame, per se, but it is the container into which a group of radicals are putting the ideas that lead them to think this sort of attack is justified and even necessary, so I can see that we need to consider Islam when we're trying to understand the ideas and intercept the actions of these radicals.

But I do not think Islam is the only container into which misguided people put ideas that lead to violence. It is just that some of the other containers are so familiar to us that we do not see them. 

This is also how we get people overlooking the terrorizing effect of the bombing of the NAACP office in Colorado Springs. Thankfully, it did not injure anyone- but it still terrorizes.

This is how we get a former deputy director of the CIA making this mistake:

Even the analyses that acknowledge the fact that Christianity has also been used as a container for violence and extremism tend to reference the past- the Crusades, the Inquisition. But we have more recent examples, such as the murder of George Tiller

The sad fact is that any belief system can be formed into a container for ideas that lead to violence and extremism. There is nothing unique about Islam in this regards.

And yet, we only apply the label of "terrorist" to some extremists, and we are remarkably unaware of the absurdity of this. If I were to list the things that actually terrorize me, as in "make me worry about harm coming to my family," Islamic extremists aren't at the top of my list. I am terrorized more by American gun extremists and by the group of my fellow Americans who hold a toxic mix of "patriotic" yet anti-Government beliefs coupled with conservative social values. I worry more about accidentally posting something online that draws the attention of a group like the GamerGate mob and finding myself hounded out of my livelihood and home by threats than I do being caught up in an attack of Islamic radicals.

I am white, so I do not generally fear the neo-Nazis, the Klan, and the other violently racist organizations that continue to exist in this country. But they are here

But these groups are not called terrorists. 

I don't know what to say should happen next. We should mourn the loss of life in Paris, for certain. We should also defend the right to free speech and a life free from terror. But perhaps while we're doing that, we could also look at  how unevenly distributed those rights are right now and at the very least acknowledge that this is a problem, and maybe if we did that we would find ourselves better able to separate the violent radicals from those who are merely angry at their own unfair marginalization, and we could make progress towards a better society.

As I said, this post feels like a stretch for me. I am sure to have gotten things wrong. I welcome corrections and discussion in the comments, but ask that we please all keep our comments respectful to both the people who have been killed and the vast majority of Muslims whose religious beliefs in no way advocate for attacks like this.


  1. I'm glad you posted because I share your feelings. Now the unfunny 'humor' of Charlie Hebdo will be lionized along with 'The Interview'. I hate to see the Free Speech banner hung on such tasteless mediocrity.

    1. And yet that's the real test. It's not hard to rally behind attacks on literature. But will you rally for attacks on crap? Because the crap counts, too. (I don't mean to say that the satire in Charlie Hepdo was crap; it does not appeal to me, and I'm sure I would be offended by at least some of it, but The Interview looks pretty crappy.) Martin Niemoller's words apply here.

    2. I'll defend their right to make The Interview or draw offensive cartoons, but then I think we also get to say that neither a movie about the assassination of the leader of another country or cartoons that disrespect an entire religion really do much to advance our discourse. It is the second half that I think a lot of people overlook. Just because they CAN say something doesn't make it useful or good to say it, and the rest of us get to tell them that.

    3. I don't know... I saw The Interview and it's pretty over-the-top inappropriate/cringe-inducing along many directions, it can be hard to watch, but it is also hilarious. Those can coexist, and I think that' s exactly the point; it's something Rogen and Franco often do.

      When you have an issue that many people tiptoe around for a very long time, so that everybody's got this perpetual spasm going on, I think it's inevitable and probably valuable for someone to come and say every so often "Fuck advancing discourse and tiptoeing around the other party's sensibilities, let's just let out the stupidest, most crass and disgusting jokes that we can think of." The result is not pretty, but is cleansing, and thus might be necessary.

      I always remember this comic by The Oatmeal. It's very offensive to parents, and I was very offended. But at the end of the day it must have come out of someone being genuinely fed up with the unsolicited crap parents were spewing at them all the time, deciding to forgo tiptoeing around parental fee-fees for once, and giving us the unfiltered rage-y version of what goes on in their mind. Not pretty, but necessary. (No parent gunned down The Oatmeal, btw.)

      Personal safety is sacrosanct, free speech is sacrosanct, no buts. Not getting offended? Simply not the same order of magnitude in importance.

      I guess I might be Charlie...

  2. I hate it when I agree with Douthat - and I'm not sure I agree with his comments at the beginning about hate speech. The rest of the column, absolutely yes. He also, as you point out, references the Christian past and not the Christian present. My area of the US is dotted with white supremacists group. I am Jewish. I am far more worried about attacks at the local JCC by "Christians" than I am about Muslims.

    And yet I do think we are all Charlie. I believe you should care about my safety, and thus I must care about the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. "When they came for me, there was no one left".

    1. I absolutely do care about the safety of everyone, but I could not bring my self to say "Je suis Charlie." Perhaps I am just not taking a broad enough view of that. Perhaps it is meant to be "we could all be targeted by someone and so we all condemn violence based on speech."

      I've seen several Muslims tweeting "Je Suis Ahmed"- referring to the Muslim police office who died defending the right of Charlie Hebdo to make fun of his religion.

    2. I wouldn't say "je suis Charlie" because I make fun of Muslims. I don't. I think the cartoons (the ones I've seen) are not just offensive but juvenile - someone else compared the magazine to "South Park" and I despite "South Park".

      I would say "je suis Charlie" because armed fanatics - especially armed fundamentalist fanatics - might decide that the Darwin fish on my bumper or the Jewish star around my neck are as offensive to them as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are to me, and thus they might shoot me. That's why I included the "when they came for me" quote.

  3. Anonymous7:53 PM

    I don't understand why it is so hard for people to realize that obviously people shouldn't be killed for being vocally racist, but that it's still not ok to be racist! (And why is it so easy to blame an innocent woman for being raped? Probably because she's not a white Christian man. It's only when we don't think of victims as being in the victim class that it can't possibly be their faults, when we should be extending that grace to *everybody*.)

    Yo is this racist said it well today:

    1. I did see the commentary get more nuanced as the day went on, as people began to make that point. I suspect a lot of the initial response was shock and horror and people not thinking things through. But then I think about what assumptions underlie those initial responses, and think we have work to do as a society.

    2. Anonymous4:38 AM

      I'm still really disappointed with one of the regular academic bloggers we read who decided to draw a comic of Mohammed in response. Like sure, you shouldn't be killed for doing that, but that doesn't make it any more morally right than going in black-face or supporting the Washington football team. And in her comments she says, "well, it's all right to draw *Jesus*, why can't I draw Mohammed" Really? You have a humanities PhD and you don't see how that's not the same at all? (And of course, you *can* do or say anything offensive that you want so long as it isn't a death threat and it doesn't violate TOS of whatever platform you're on. That doesn't mean anyone will still think you're a good person if you do it, except, you know, racists.)

    3. Anonymous7:02 AM

      And it's so difficult to know what to say or do... when someone you've had on your blogroll for years. At first we didn't want to say anything because we're trained to be nice and not make waves. It's easier when someone is being sexist, because we feel like we can speak for ourselves. But as a woman, I want white men to speak out when they see something sexist, because they have more power to change things, they have more power to condemn negative actions. "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept," and all. And Yoisthisracist says you gotta call out and then peace out... so that's what we've done. Not that it's going to do any good or change any minds, but what else can we do?

      (And I thought of a better analogy about why one shouldn't draw pictures of Mohammed in protest-- if a Jewish person shot up a neo-nazi rally, would that make it right for other people to start drawing swastikas on everything in protest? Because people would, you know.)

  4. Calee8:48 PM

    I rarely speak publicly about my religion or my experiences extremists but perhaps I can add something to this conversation.

    I was a college student living in lower Manhattan on September 11th. I watched the top of the World Trade Center explode when the second plane hit, but from our vantage point on the street, it looked like a bomb. A bomb that was quickly followed by falling detritus and then humans. I ran for my life. Later, I would give directions to my apartment by saying things like "turn left at the explosion and walk two blocks." However many people tell me it was a national tragedy or point to the firefighters and police as heroes, I will always think of that day as one where regular people went to work and were murdered for simply being a secretary or a middle manager in an office building.

    Several months ago, I attended an ecumenical prayer service for Christians in the middle east. I attend a Greek Orthodox church, have my kids in Catholic school, and my husband works for an organization that is a pan-Orthodox and Coptic (so it includes Arabic, Egyptian, Armenian,Russian, Greek and other Orthodox Christian). All of those groups were represented that night and the prayers and readings centered around a certain expectation of violence against Christians and prayers for peace. The ISIS crisis is horrifying, but not unprecedented, particularly for Christians of the East.

    In the middle of the service, our priest asked that people stop forwarding him graphic photos and videos of beheadings of people who were being killed for their faith. It reminded me so clearly of the inescapable images after September 11th. These people were murdered simply for what they believe, just as secular Americans were murdered for participating in a globalizing culture--both are extremely despised by fundamentalist Muslims.

    As someone who is very white and safe in my little southern California bubble yet deeply connected to Christians from the Middle East, the news regarding this latest attack was disappointing but not surprising. The news media (on both sides of the political aisle) doesn't particularly like to cover the genocide that is currently occurring in places like Syria, but my hope is that this tragedy will bring more awareness of the thousands who are dying.

    One other note, I think the Neo-Nazi type of US-based hate groups are often called "domestic terrorists" but I could be wrong.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting. I appreciate your willingness to share. You have a valuable perspective.

      I am sorry to say I doubt this attack will make people more aware of the horror going on in Syria- or probably more accurately, willing to pay attention to it. I think we are generally really good at compartmentalizing things like this and as our reaction to the Ebola crisis has demonstrated, most of us only really pay attention when the risk feels close. I suspect this is a useful thing from the standpoint of being able to get through the day without breaking down over all the horror in the world, but it does not show us at our best in this case.

      I was unclear in my post- I think the FBI and other official entities classify at least some of our homegrown hate groups as "domestic terrorists," but I think the broader discussion usually does not talk about their attacks as terror attacks, at least not in the way we're talking about the Charlie Hebdo attack as a terror attack. If I can think of a way to make that more clear in the main text, I'll make the edit.

  5. Requin6:28 AM

    The discussion about whether Charlie Hebdo is racist, anti-Muslim, etc. is separate to the question of free speech. I can see why people want to explore the reasons why certain cartoons are so offensive but linking the two discussions implies that Charlie Hebdo brought the violence on themselves or that such an attack would have been worse, somehow, if the gunmen had targeted a less-offensive publication. When we talk about events in the US - for example African American teens being shot by police - some people smear the character of the victims and suggest that if only they hadn't been [insert something irrelevant here] that they wouldn't have been in that situation, or else people talk about it being especially tragic because the victim was college-bound, or a good student, etc.. Those personal characteristics are not relevant to how we ought to judge their killing. Likewise the conversation about what Charlie Hebdo published (and most people talking about it don't have a good idea about the publication, because it's all in French, full of slang, and not readily available online) in the context of the violent attacks makes me uncomfortable.

    1. I hope it is very, very clear that I do not think the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo are in anyway responsible for the attack. I haven't actually seen anyone say that, although that doesn't mean people aren't saying it. The legal right of free speech was never at risk in this case. Far from outlawing the cartoons, French society provided police protection to Charlie Hebdo's staff. And that is as it should be.

      Gawker, Vox, and several other sites have published representative cartoons, with translations and explanations. And even my rather poor French is up to the task of reading the caption on the cartoon I reference in this post. The most severe critiques of Charlie Hebdo's work that I have seen have been from people who were well versed in it before the attacks.

      I understand your point about not linking the two discussions, and that is one of the reasons I said that this post may be beyond my skill level as a writer. I do not want to imply that the cartoons led to the attack. No, violent extremism AND NOTHING ELSE led to the attack. But at the same time, it feels wrong to me not to acknowledge how hurtful those cartoons are, and not just to people like the extremists who carried out the attack. We are struggling with the limits of the ideal of free speech in so many areas right now. Free speech matters so much because speech is powerful. If we acknowledge the power of speech, we also must acknowledge that sometimes speech does harm, and come to some sort of consensus as a society with how to handle that. Right now, in my opinion, our consensus protects some people more than others, giving them more freedom of speech in practice than others have. I have no answers for how to resolve that, but I think we need to acknowledge it and try to address the problem.

      It is very, very hard to have a conversation that acknowledges all of the issues and the nuances, but I think we have to try, or we will never get past the broad stroke identity arguments.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  6. Cloud, I want to thank you for this piece and tell you how deeply it resonated with me. I have had to turn off my fbook feed lately because all the coverage, links, and posts that showed up there were so mired in a very specific brand of self congratulatory Western ideas as the balwark of civilization that I was starting to feel a little sick to my stomach. Let's be outraged and horrified and really angry and devastated, yes. But when folks start descending to a "we are the last and best defenders of freedom" then you have a problem, because it reinforces deeply problematic (and imperialist) dichotomies (civilized vs barbaric for example). I also find the cartoons offensive for the same reasons you articulated. True satire to me is about calling out The Man. Punching up, not down, as you say. A stereotyping cartoon of an African American from the 1930s is not satire, it's racism. A "satire" whose main purpose is to make us feel self satisfied is not doing its job.

    One of the main reasons you're right about the point about domestic terrorism is that domestic terrorism does not inspire stereotype-based generalizations and hysteria. Nobody turned against twenty year old white dudes in the wake of Norway to Oklahoma City, or Tiller's murder, or any mass murder in the US. These individuals are always denounced solely as "lone gunman/madmen". Whereas terrorism perpetrated by Islamic forces have led to racial profiling, hate crimes, increased stereotypes, and disparagement of the religion of Islam.

    Also, amen, NicoleandMaggie

    1. Anonymous7:17 AM

      We've got a post that I'm not sure where to put in the queue that says exactly that: Punch up, not down. There is nothing brave or wonderful about punching down.

    2. (This is somewhat on a tangent, not directly pertinent to Charlie Hebdo.)

      I agree. But it's sometimes hard to determine what the direction actually is. For instance, for an American satirist it's punching up to make fun of Obama or Bush or any other US president. Presidents and other prominent politicians are the ultimate celebrities, with real power. But is it still punching up or at an angle or down to make fun of the North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Il? Or of German chancellor Angela Merkel? On the one hand, I would say all presidents are fair game as they are all very powerful. On the other hand, with Il there are issues of racism, US imperialism etc. With Merkel, there are issues of sexism. What happens is you replace an American satirist with a German satirist? Or a North Korean satirist? Or a seemingly neutral, say, Kiwi white male satirist? What about an Aboriginal female satirist?

      I was born in a monochromatic country, and I still consider myself painfully ignorant on how complicated and mostly painful the issue of race in the US is and I have been living here and trying to pay attention for 15 years. All I know is I have no effing idea about the lives of Muslims in France, how they are (mis)treated or (dis)respected. I wish us from the US wouldn't project our own complicated issues with religion and race onto other countries. The West too is far from monolithic.

    3. @xkyacademiqz - those are good questions, and one reason you'll probably never see me write any satire!

      I'd say that the safest route is to stick to criticizing- even satirizing- a person's ideas, and avoid any comment on their identity. So, conservative cartoons about Obama's healthcare initiative are things I disagree with, but they are not offensive. The cartoon that got published of him eating watermelon... that was offensive, because it played off his identity as a black man.

      There was an interesting discussion last year around Lorde, and the fact that some Black Americans felt that the lyrics in Royals were at least borderline racist because of how they dealt with hip hop culture. But Lorde is a young New Zealand woman, and from her vantage point, criticizing American hip hop culture is more about America than race. So many non-Americans thought the American critiques were being overly American-centric. I still don't know the "right" answer to that one, and perhaps there isn't one- perhaps it is just that we need to be open to the discussion.

      In terms of how Muslims are treated in France, and Europe in general... you are right, it is not something that an American like me will easily understand. That is one reason why I try to keep my discussion of it to noting the problem (which is well-documented) and not to proposing solutions. I think about it a bit like how I think about the US gun issue. Europeans can certainly note the problem we have- it is well-documented. But their attempts to suggest solutions usually fall far short, because there is a lot of culture and context that they do not understand.

      I'll put a comment with some additional reading links down below, if anyone is interested in more on the issues Western Europe is facing with race and religion right now. In pointing these issues out, I do not mean to sound like I think the US has a better handle on them. Like I tried to say in the post- I think we have different but equally profound issues with race and religion.

  7. So many good points here, Cloud, from you and everyone else.

    One of my friends is a professor of international relations with a specialization on issues of national security. She said that this past week she was lecturing about incidents of domestic terrorism, and one of her students (born about 1993 or 1994) asked "when did the Oklahoma city bombers convert to Islam." Yes, that's how intrinsically linked terrorism has become to Islam for some. As Erin said above, and as you said eloquently in your post, "Islam is not the only container into which misguided people put ideas that lead to violence. It is just that some of the other containers are so familiar to us that we do not see them."

    Also, I generally hate-read Ross Douthat, but that is the first column of his that I've ever agreed with.

    And though I understand what people are saying about "punching up" and "punching down" and how of course racist speech is still racist even when you wrap yourself in the banner of free speech. . . I also agree completely with Requin above.

    1. Anonymous8:55 AM

      But nobody is saying, "they got what's coming to them" or "if they didn't want to get killed they shouldn't have been racist."

      It's not at all like the coverage of all the recent police killings of blacks in the US where they're blamed for "resisting arrest" or selling illegal cigarettes or holding something that looks like it might be a gun, or the rapes of women who should have somehow known better than to drink something Bill Cosby gave them or to go to a frat party. Those cases actually are doing victim blaming.

      Here, the closest thing to that is this idea that people can be morally repugnant and still not deserve to be killed for their moral repugnance. That distinction is specifically made each time it's mentioned. And it's mentioned because so much of the aftermath is racist against Muslims. But in the US it's still "ok" to be racist against Muslims, I guess. It shouldn't be.

  8. Thank for articulating this so well. My initial reaction was along the lines of Je Suis Charlie and I believe in the freedom of expression. However, when I took a closer look at the cartoons, I also found many of their cartoons to be offensive and racist. That doesn't justify the murders of course.

    As for the Interview, I asked my husband "What would happen if another country made a film about the murder of our president?" That seems to cross the line, even if I don't know how we can ever agree where this line is drawn.

  9. Thank you all for you thoughtful comments and for this discussion. I love the community of commenters here.

    I have a few more links for people who want to read the thoughts of more articulate people that me.

    Matt Yglesias' post today was really good. It discusses the blasphemy angle, and also gives some more info about the climate faced by Muslims in western Europe right now.

    Joshua Keating at Slate brings in context about the climate faced by Jews in France right now.

    I'm thinking now about what a difficult spot France is in, with both the largest Jewish population and the largest Muslim population in Europe,and a difficult history with both. Add in the difficulty people (all over) seem to have with separating criticism of Israeli policies from anti-Semitism, and... well, I don't know what to say. It is just a difficult situation.

    The secular French may not be getting everything right. None of us are. But they are at least trying, and I give them a lot of credit for that.

  10. Anonymous4:50 PM

    NPR on the way home today: David Brooks blamed our over-sensitivity to micro-aggressions for the massacre and conflated it with college campuses "censoring" hate speech. E J Dionne said those two conversations (the massacre and speech on college campuses) should happen separately.

    It's funny how white guys are the ones always saying that micro-aggressions are no big deal and people should just allow them and not be so over-sensitive.

    1. I am shocked by how many of our commentators can't separate "freedom of speech" from "speech that is worth listening to".

      The Guardian's commentators seem to be doing better.
      Jonathan Freedland and Hari Kunzru both had good columns.

      And Nabila Ramdani provides some history on Algerians in France.

    2. Anonymous6:47 PM

      Really thought provoking pieces. That Jonathan Freedland article is point perfect.

    3. Anonymous5:25 AM

      One from joe Sacco

  11. EarthSciProf5:19 AM

    Thanks for the thoughtful post and links to good articles. And thanks to all the commenters for a good conversation.

  12. Anonymous4:20 PM

    To add to the nuance, an interview with one of the surviving cartoonists:

    "The media made a mountain out of our cartoons, when on a worldwide scale, we are merely a damn teenage fanzine."


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