“Yes, thank you very much Delphine to…giving me this opportunity to, to speak about this legendary newspaper of…who was already a legend before the seventh of January, before this drama. For the anti-racist left, I do belong to, it’s not only the newspaper that you know today [is] describe[d] as “Islamophobic” just because they, they dare mock fanatics from all religions, including Islamists. Charlie Hebdo is also mostly known in France as one of the most anti-racist newspapers.It happens, fortuitously, that just after I transcribed these remarks by Caroline Fourest from early in the recent Newseum panel discussion I read the chapter “The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and the Risks of Public Critique” in Judith Butler’s 2004 Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.* (A shorter version of was printed in the London Review of Books where it can still be read: “No, it’s not anti-semitic.”)
…Between the ‘90s, all the movements against racism, like S.O.S. Racisme, who did fight the anti-Arab racism in France, took their cartoons from Charb, from Honoré, from…from people who are dead today. And not only dead - who are described as Islamophobic and racist after they are dead.
This is incredibly painful. You cannot imagine. It’s even…It’s like if they are dead twice, actually. When I have to explain it again and again, how much those guys were open-minded, were deeply anti-racist, and strongly, strongly open to every culture, and the most brilliant, talented, and funny guys I’ve ever known. And that people can [twist] their intentions, [twist] their cartoons, put them out of their context, to help the propaganda of the killers.
Because this is actually what these people are doing. And I really want to point that out. I really want to…to insist on that. It’s not only unprofessional, for example, as journalists to describe Charlie Hebdo as Islamophobic. It’s not only wrong and false. It is dangerous.
Because this word, “Islamophobia,” who is confusing the secularist intention, the fact that an atheist satirical newspaper wants to be able to laugh about fanatism – whatever it is, fanatics from Islam, fanatism from Judaism, or fanatism from Christianism – describing it as racist against Muslims by calling it Islamophobic is not only wrong and false, it is really, really dangerous. It is putting a target on the head of those journalists, on those cartoonists. It’s already killed those people. It’s maybe going to kill tomorrow the others who are being called Islamophobic still today.
And to answer your question: how is Charlie Hebdo today, how they are living today. They are living like prisoners. They are living in hell. Because they are all under police protection. Riss, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, have been… You know that Charb have been really targeted by Al-Qaeda. Now it’s Riss who’s targeted today. And not only by terrorist groups – also by, for example, a Pakistani very famous politician who said he will pay for everyone who is going to kill Riss.
We are in that crazy situation today. And this is why it’s so important first to stop to call secularist, or atheist, or just, again, anti-racist but secularist cartoonists and journalists “Islamophobic,” when they are just…who they are, which is the opposite. It’s important to…even to stop to use that word, actually. If you want to, if you want to target the real racism, which do exist, and that Charlie Hebdo is denouncing, when it’s fighting against the National Front for example, but not only, then you should say…words or acts “anti-Muslims.” And at least it is clear – it’s not saying phobia against Islam but phobia against Muslims. And phobia against Muslims is really speaking about racism, which is something we all want to fight against.”
The chapter responds to portrayals of criticisms of the Israeli state as anti-Semitic, taking as its starting point a 2002 comment by Lawrence Summers, then still president of Harvard: “Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
Butler’s chapter is as relevant today, in a context of widespread censorious attacks on Palestinian rights activists and the BDS movement, as it was when it was first published. It’s worthwhile for its specific content. But it occurred to me that the response to Charlie Hebdo during the past year has in many ways been analogous to the portrayals and silencing tactics Butler discusses with regard to Israel, and that her arguments about our collective epistemic and political responsibility are also helpful in this context.
Summers’ remarks, Butler suggests, propose a few fundamental claims: first, the insinuation that criticisms of Israel are, or should be assumed to be, anti-Semitic in intent; second, that regardless of the critic’s intent the audience of these criticisms will hear them as anti-Semitic, such that the criticisms unavoidably help to foster and further anti-Semitism; third, that – again, whatever the alleged intentions of the critics themselves - such criticisms are so inherently and easily exploitable by anti-Semites that making them publicly is irresponsible and basically complicit with racism – “effectively” anti-Semitic. Butler contends, rightly, that these sorts of claims lead to a silencing of and self-censorship among those who would be critical of state violence, racism, and injustice. Anti-racists more than anyone fear being charged with racism or with stupidly or callously abetting racists.
She takes issue with the premise of these claims. With regard to intent, she offers:
[W]hereas Summers himself introduces a distinction between intentional and effective anti-Semitism, it would seem that effective anti-Semitism can be understood only by conjuring a seamless world of listeners and readers who take certain statements critical of Israel to be tacitly or overtly intended as anti-Semitic expression. The only way to understand effective anti-Semitism would be to presuppose intentional anti-Semitism. The effective anti-Semitism of any criticism of Israel will turn out to reside in the intention of the speaker as it is retrospectively attributed by the one who receives – listens to or reads – that criticism. The intention of a speech, then, does not belong to the one who speaks, but is attributed to that speaker later by the one who listens. The intention of the speech act is thus determined belatedly by the listener. (105-106; emphasis in original)And despite making this distinction which ostensibly allows for a nonracist intent, as Butler points out, Summers himself, as listener, assumes, proffers, and models a reading of all criticisms of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic: “[N]ot only, it seems, will Summers regard such criticisms as anti-Semitic, but he is, by his example, and by the normative status of his utterance, recommending that others regard such utterances that way as well” (108). “His understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitic rhetoric,” she argues,
depends upon a very specific and very questionable reading of the field of reception for such speech. He seems, through his statement, to be describing a sociological condition under which speech acts occur and are interpreted, that is, describing the fact that we are living in a world where, for better or worse, criticisms of Israel are simply heard as anti-Semitic. He is, however, also speaking as one who is doing the hearing, and so modeling the very hearing he describes. (108)In other words, he himself is priming the audience to hear these criticisms in precisely the way he’s arguing they’re inevitably heard. Regarding Summers’ depiction of the audience’s response – which assumes that the audience will naturally understand these criticisms as anti-Semitic or actively use them in promotion of anti-Semitism - Butler argues that “to claim that the only meaning that such criticism can have is to be taken up as negative comments about Jews is to attribute to that particular interpretation an enormous power to monopolize the field of reception for that criticism.” And of course such selective attention has the effect of promoting the interpretation favored by the Israeli government and the Right generally.
Of great importance here is what Butler goes on to argue about responsibility. Note that Summers’ argument places all of the responsibility on the critic of Israel (even for the intent attributed to her!) and, despite the powerful interpretive role he attributes to the audience, none whatsoever on them. You’re left with the impression that while these criticisms are so dangerous that would-be critics are best off refraining from voicing them publicly, potential hearers and interpreters are under no epistemic or political obligation to base their interpretations on facts or to challenge misrepresentations. This is a very convenient situation for those who seek to silence dissent.
As Butler sensibly offers: “According to Summers, there are some forms of anti-Semitism that are characterized retroactively by those who decide upon their status. This means that nothing should be said or done that will be taken to be anti-Semitic by others. But what if the others who are listening are wrong?” (110; emphasis added). It seems so plainly obvious that we have a responsibility to try our best not to be wrong, particularly in situations in which there are reputations and lives at stake, that it never ceases to amaze me how passive and irresponsible audiences are expected and encouraged to be.
Moreover, people in positions of power or influence, those putting forward interpretations for large audiences, have both a “negative” obligation not to promote misreadings and a “positive” one to educate actual and potential audiences. Butler doesn’t deny the very real potential for criticisms of Israel to be misread, misrepresented, or exploited, and argues that critics should be on guard for and seek to counteract such misuse. But that many people can and do misunderstand or misrepresent criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic isn’t a fact of nature to which critics and other public speakers must resign themselves but a social and political problem everyone needs to address:
[E]ven if one did believe that criticisms of Israel are by and large heard as anti-Semitic (by Jews, by anti-Semites, by people who could be described as neither), it would then become the responsibility of all of us to change the conditions of reception so that the public might begin to learn a crucial political distinction between a criticism of Israel, on the one hand, and a hatred of Jews, on the other (106: emphasis added).Arguments like Summers’ have deleterious consequences:
If the possibility of…exploitation serves as a reason to quell political dissent, then one has effectively given the domain of public discourse over to those who accept and perpetrate the view that anti-Semitism is authorized by criticisms of Israel, including those who seek to perpetuate anti-Semitism through such criticisms and those who seek to quell such criticisms for fear that they perpetuate anti-Semitism…. To remain silent for fear of anti-Semitic appropriation that one deems to be certain is to give up on the possibility of combating anti-Semitism by other means.This week we’re in the midst of yet another wave of performative outrage and self-righteous denunciations of Charlie Hebdo’s “racist” cartoons. Article after article after article after article after article after article after article after article rushing to join the chorus of condemnation and rebuke and to offer stupidly earnest responses to so-called racist provocations.**
I have no idea what Butler’s views are on Charlie Hebdo. (Of course I also have no idea how knowledgeable she is on the subject and thus of what weight I would give her views.) But it seems to me that the response to the magazine over the past year strongly resembles the sorts of comments Butler is addressing and that her arguments are useful in understanding this phenomenon. We see the same claims of “effective racism” intermingled with insinuations of intentional racism, the same attribution of overwhelming power to a single interpretation, the same refusal to accept responsibility for making claims of racist intent, the same priming of audiences for attributions of racist intent or effect under the guise of mere sociological observation, and the same propensity to encourage self-censorship and hostility toward challenging voices.
I’ve argued for a long while, fairly fruitlessly it appears, for a recognition of our epistemic responsibilities in this context. I and others have repeatedly called on people to refrain from uncritically accepting superficial interpretations, to actively investigate Charlie Hebdo’s history and mission; its primary audience (the French anti-racist, atheist, and secularist Left); its primary targets (political figures and institutions, primarily the Right); the nature of its satire and the history of its form of humor in France; the fact that the cartoons are connected to pages and pages of text which informs their meaning;*** the powerful people and groups who have a strong interest in misrepresenting the magazine and alienating its potential supporters, and the way they’ve altered its cartoons and encouraged others to interpret them as racist; and so on. I’ve called on influential people to work themselves to make, and educate others about, crucial distinctions between satire of powerful people and institutions or mockery of ideologies on the one hand and racism on the other. I’ve asked that at the very least people appreciate their own level of ignorance before making consequential declarations and judgments.
But the journalists and opinionators involved in round after round of ignorant denunciations have willfully ignored any such requests and persisted in misrepresenting Charlie Hebdo and encouraging others to do the same. Maybe the most ironic and galling aspect of these boilerplate condemnations is their preening judgment of the alleged irresponsibility and callousness of the magazine’s cartoonists. These people, whose colleagues and friends have been massacred, work every day under immediate threat of violence and death. They live the responsibility for their actions and choices in the starkest possible terms. Their supposedly sensitive and responsible judges, on the other hand, can’t be bothered to investigate whether their public statements are true or false, whether they’re blithely destroying the reputations of murder victims, whether they’re being used by censorious and authoritarian forces, or whether they’re contributing to an environment of abandonment and hostility toward the magazine which increases the chances of further violence against them and others as well. That is as irresponsible and callous as I can imagine.
* A book which I recommend highly despite its significant flaws (rampant speciesism in particular).
** As usual, there have been a handful of dissenting voices, but far too few.
*** At the panel discussion in New York last spring, Gérard Biard joked that it sometimes felt like people thought that the magazine consisted entirely of cover cartoons; I’m starting to suspect that, with the addition of a few images plucked from inside pages (but often misrepresented as covers), this might actually be the case.