Wednesday, May 6, 2015

“Blasphemy is just debate”: a report from yesterday’s PEN forum on “Charlie Hebdo and Challenges to Free Expression”

Before I cover the content of the discussion – which was lively and insightful – I want to note that my hopes weren’t fulfilled: none of the group who chose to boycott and protest PEN’s award to Charlie Hebdo accepted PEN’s invitation to take part in the panel discussion.

Now, I wouldn’t automatically attribute this to cowardice – I can think of a number of reasons people wouldn’t want to participate in public debates (though I expect that among the more than 200 protesters one or two debaters could have been found). But before making the introductions, the moderator read aloud a short joint statement from the protesters, attempting to justify their refusal on the grounds that the forum should be for people to get to learn about Charlie Hebdo and what they do. So declining the invitation to participate does seem to stem from cowardice of some sort (…possibly indicating a budding realization that their claims about CH were ignorant?), rooted either in the fear of having to try to defend their smears in person to CH staff members and those knowledgeable about the magazine or in the fear of discovering that they were very publicly and embarrassingly wrong in the first place. It’s also just…strange. Last night’s gala afforded them only the option of protesting symbolically by boycotting or refusing to applaud the award; but the forum would have provided the opportunity to share and exchange views. Why would professional communicators choose the former? (While I was disappointed by this choice, I continue to hope that at least some of them, after some reflection and research, will come forward and acknowledge that they had misunderstood and mischaracterized the magazine.)

In any case, their refusal was unfortunate, since it was the protesters who most needed to learn about and understand Charlie Hebdo. It was also ironic in that, as I’ll discuss below, one of the major themes of the discussion was that at the very heart of their work is a desire to provoke public debate. The protesters’ refusal to engage in discussion and debate with those they oppose wasn’t just disrespectful to the murdered and surviving staff of the magazine – and it was that – but also contrary to a basic principle of free expression. Defending free expression can’t just be about defending people’s right to express themselves, but has also to involve calling for their voices to be heard and engaged with, for people to listen to what they’re saying, to take their ideas seriously.

So…on to the discussion. The participants were the moderator; PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel; director of the NYU Institute of French Studies Ed Berenson, who provided an introduction locating CH in the historical tradition of French satire; Charlie Hebdo’s editor Gérard Biard; and CH film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret. I’ll talk about a few of the major themes.

Understanding Charlie Hebdo

The values promoted by CH shouldn’t have to be emphasized, but in view of the baseless attacks from some PEN members and others, it was useful to reiterate them. The discussants spoke about CH’s commitment from the start to fighting racism and all forms of discrimination – against not just racial and ethnic minorities but women, LGBT people, immigrants, and poor people.

They underlined that their emphasis was on politics and power, and that their principle targets had long been the French Right, and especially the far-Right Front National. Part of a long satirical tradition, they seek to attack political power – institutions, representatives, icons. Religious institutions, representatives, and icons are only a small subset of the “sacred” phenomena they attack - these also include political parties, nations, and so on. They’re about defying and contesting power in any form.

The discussion returned again and again to their mission to provoke thought and debate. The people who murdered their colleagues and commit other such crimes, they argued, don’t want debate. (They pointed out that the recent attack in Copenhagen actually targeted a debate.) For all they know, they could be murdering those who agree with them – what’s important is shutting down any discussion or debate. Their project isn’t a religious but a political one: to impose their views on others and silence dissenters. In contrast, the CH staff see their work – including blasphemous cartoons – as intended to contest power and open debate.

On differences between the US and France concerning free expression and criticism of religion

The conversation covered important differences between US and French law and culture, specifically between secularism as practiced in the US and laïcité in France and between US and French laws surrounding freedom of expression. Critics of the magazine in the US often seem to ignore the difference between US secularism (or “secularism”) and French laïcité. Laïcité as they described goes beyond the separation of church and state – it understands the public sphere and political discourse as a common space in which religion has no role or status, and outside of which religion (for some) is practiced, and respected, privately. In this context, religion is seen as intruding on the public sphere and publicly mocking religious iconography and practices as political targets is acceptable. This can be difficult to understand here in the US because our system is so different in theory and in practice. The US system wasn’t really discussed at the forum, but as I’ve argued many times it’s based on a bogus sort of compromise in which institutionalized religion is (in theory) kept separate from the state, but religious claims and identities suffuse political discourse and public policy, all while people are expected to refrain from criticizing or mocking religion because it’s an allegedly personal and emotional matter. Whatever the problems with laïcité in practice (and Berenson hinted at some, although unfortunately there wasn’t time to return to them), the US system with its tradition and practice of deference to “personal” religion even as religion colonizes public life is ridiculous and anti-democratic.

In any event, people from outside France should seek to understand their system before pontificating about what is or isn’t within the bounds of acceptable discourse there. I think this also helps to understand the perspective of CH a bit better. They see religion in highly personal and private terms. It only comes to be of interest to them, and a target for their critique, when it improperly invades the democratic public sphere and makes political claims to status and power. So their attacks aren’t on individual believers or their dignity but on religion as a political force. They see believers not as representatives of, or represented by, a religion but as equal participants in a shared democratic sphere.1

Another significant difference discussed is that, while the US has few legal prohibitions on speech, France has speech laws prohibiting, for example, inciting racial or religious hatred, denying the Holocaust, or trivializing the slave trade (I had been unaware of this last one). The panelists differed about some aspects of these laws. Berenson was strongly opposed to all of these prohibitions. Biard disagreed, arguing that there was a meaningful difference between satirizing religion and denying historical facts. Thoret talked about some of the unintended consequences of such laws in this age of social media. Banning language and images from the public sphere and institutional channels, he said, can drive them underground, in a sort of “return of the repressed,” especially into social media where they’re most often seen by the young. The anti-Semite Dieudonné, for example, was removed from French television, and quickly discovered the immensely greater reach of YouTube. Thoret contended that the ideas have to be fought in the public space.

On self-censorship

The problem of self-censorship was raised in two contexts. First, in relation to media outlets and their decisions about whether or not to publish the CH cover cartoon from after the attack or other controversial images from the magazine. All were in agreement, I think, that they believed the media should have shown the images – not without context, of course, but accompanied by relevant contextual information – as a newsworthy subject, as an opening to discussion and debate, and as a demonstration of commitment to the value of free expression.

Once again, they refused to accept the designation of “special” defenders of free expression and other important values, arguing that everyone can and should actively defend them. Biard discussed how the magazine’s original decision in 2007 to publish the Danish cartoons (which they presented thoughtfully, accompanied by commentary) was taken in response to the firing of the editor of another French paper who had published them. It was an act of solidarity when other publications had chosen self-censorship. It’s sad to imagine how things might have turned out had more than one other publication joined them at the time…

Self-censorship was also talked about in relation to individuals. Panelists were concerned about the threats and violence, and the lack of solidarity, leading writers and artists to self-censor. While they made it plain that the attack and public responses haven’t led them to change anything about their approach, they worried about self-censorship creeping in. It’s an especially pernicious sort of censorship since people aren’t always fully conscious of the fact that they’re doing it.

On reading images

Another theme was the question of the different nature of, and complexities in interpreting, verbal vs. visual commentary, words vs. images. Biard and Thoret spoke passionately about the general problem of “illiteracy” (as Caroline Fourest put it in a recent interview) with regard to images, an illiteracy not limited to cartoons or humorous or satirical images but extending to all visual representations. Biard talked about how children are surrounded with images from the time they’re born – on television, in advertising,… - without knowing how to go about interpreting them, and how they’re never really taught how to read them. Thoret, who teaches about film, noted that he’s found his film students often lack the skills to critically analyze images. Both called for public attention to this problem (which has enormous political reach given the use of images by the powerful) and education in reading and interpreting visual representations.

They also alluded to a number of problems with their critics’ attempts to interpret images pulled from their immediate and larger (linguistic, cultural, political, historical) context. Part of the problem, of course, is a basic lack of skill in reading images themselves and of awareness that this skill is lacking or needed. But the difficulties of reading decontextualized images from other cultures, which should be obvious, have been all but ignored, even denied, by the PEN protesters, who’ve arrogantly insisted that not only can they definitively interpret the decontextualized images but that they can speak for people in the French political context.

The moderator asked an important question about the globalization of culture and the issues that can arise when images are seen or used outside of their original context. Biard acknowledged that this was increasingly the case, but cautioned against responses to this phenomenon that would put all of the burden on creators to preemptively address all possible misinterpretations (which would be impossible in any case). He argued that an artist envisioning and trying to guard against all of the ways their work could be misread, intentionally or unintentionally, or cause anyone offense, wouldn’t be able to produce anything. I think this returns us to the question of literacy in interpreting images and the complexities involved with trying to read them across different contexts. Of course creative people have a responsibility to minimize the possibility of misreading and misrepresentation of their work (and I’ve discussed examples of CH staff demonstrating this responsibility), but all of us need to be aware of these problems and, most important, to use caution and humility in interpreting or discussing unfamiliar images.

They also pointed out that CH isn’t just a publication of cartoons. The images appear in the context of words and articles, and are as much a subject of editorial discussion and debate as the written pieces they accompany. Critics, however, tend to treat them as though they’re freestanding, and worse, to focus only on the cover images rather than those within the stories themselves. Moreover, people aren’t, they emphasized, forced to buy or read Charlie Hebdo. Thoret described his dislike of soccer and wish to avoid all things soccer.2 But he’s not compelled to buy soccer magazines any more than people are compelled to buy CH. This wasn’t of course an argument that consumption decisions should trump democratic debate. But it was worthwhile to note, because reading some of the articles attacking CH you’d almost be led to believe this small satirical publication had the power to demand that it be read by every person in France.

On “Je suis Charlie”

They also talked about their response to the support for the magazine following the massacre, particularly from some of the institutions they’ve targeted most viciously.3 They stated that they’ve never been naïve – they’ve always known many of these expressions of support were ersatz and politically self-serving and would evaporate in a matter of months or even days. The film critic Thoret, in keeping with their emphasis on dissension and debate, also expressed his discomfort with the idea of a globally shared opinion, which reminded him of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I think the most poignant remarks concerned their response to the “Je suis Charlie” supporters whose support was and is genuine. Naturally rejecting iconic status, with all of the anti-democratic bad faith it entails, and insisting that they’re not the “owners” of the universal values they defend and champion, they called for those who shared their values not to leave it to them but to take action themselves:
OK, you’re Charlie. So take a pencil, take a pen. Stand up for these values…. ‘Je suis Charlie’. OK, so do it.
Thoret said that he dislikes that they have been singled out as especially courageous, arguing that many if not most people can and do also show courage in these situations.

On the history of French satire

I’m going to close where the discussion opened. Ed Berenson opened the discussion by situating Charlie Hebdo in the bawdy, irreverent, anti-clerical tradition of French political-religious satire dedicated to skewering all claimants to power. (These two articles, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming post, go beyond France to fit their work in an older, global tradition.)

One aspect of this history discussed by Berenson that I’d forgotten or somehow never knew was that Voltaire wrote a play in 1741 called Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet. I impatiently await delivery of the 2013 translation.

Some last thoughts

I was already favorably predisposed toward Charlie Hebdo going into the forum, but I was impressed by Biard and Thoret especially given the stupidity of the protest here; Biard’s opening line - “We don’t eat children, and we don’t eat believers” – was funny, but shouldn’t have been. It’s terrible to be ignorantly accused of being the opposite of what you actually are, and I thought they handled it remarkably well. They seemed deeply committed to challenging power in any and every guise and to provoking thought and debate, and talked about their continuing hope that the current controversy helps to bring about more debate. This made the protesters’ blanket refusal to join the panel all the more aggravating and embarrassing.

And one last note. Almost every piece I’ve read, not only the attacks on Charlie Hebdo but the defenses too, includes some line or other about how the author dislikes and won’t attempt to defend the cartoons. They’re puerile, juvenile, unsubtle, unintelligent, ugly, and just “not funny.” I’ve never been a fan of cartoons, including those meant as political satire, but I’ve now seen numerous images from CH and I like them. I’m sure there are many I wouldn’t care for, but overall, yes, I find them interesting, thought-provoking, not exceptionally ugly, and often funny.

1 I’ll note that their views are less extreme than my own on this subject. While of course I share their concern about religion as an explicitly political force, I also have a problem with “private” belief and the epistemic practices associated with faith. I think faith, even when ostensibly private, always has political consequences.

2 He mentioned one player’s name, and then expressed his annoyance that he even knew it, since it was occupying space in his brain that could be used to much better purpose. I know that annoyance very well.

3 They laughed about the ringing of the bells at Notre Dame in their honor, but correctly pointed out in response to a comment from the moderator that ultimately the Pope did not speak in support of them.

1 comment:

  1. Re ' I’ve argued many times it’s based on a bogus sort of compromise in which institutionalized religion is (in theory) kept separate from the state, but religious claims and identities suffuse political discourse and public policy, all while people are expected to refrain from criticizing or mocking religion because it’s an allegedly personal and emotional matter...'

    C'est ça.

    I find the Hebdo cartoons strong stuff, myself, frequently. Double-take inducing, even, frequently. But then that second take is the charm.

    But even saying that, and figuring my taste for these things might be a little more accustomed to the piquant than some, I'm always suspicious of those sniffing 'unsophisticated' and so on. Figure they're not interested even in thinking about the actual image, so much as avoiding the potential social cost of saying anything beyond the they-hope-safe 'not to my taste'. Justly or not.