Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Indecent: my position on (the response to) Charlie Hebdo

“Tignous and his from now on inseparable comrades. Journalists, cartoonists, economist, psychoanalyst, proofreader, guards—they were the sentinels, the watchmen, the lookouts even, who kept watch over democracy to make sure it didn’t fall asleep. Constantly, relentlessly denouncing intolerance, discrimination, simplification. Uncompromising. Armed only with their intelligence, with their sharp eyes, with this art of making it possible to see. Armed with only their pencils. Inseparable. United in irreverence, in a gentle cruelty. They brought about the awakening of three generations. The awakening of the consciences of three generations. They taught us, sometimes without our knowing it, about the virtues of freedom of thought and speech. They nurtured our capacity for indignation. And they led us sometimes into the dizzy pleasure of forbidden laughter.

…And at the end of these horrible crimes, we can see that something was in the process of going lax in us. And this alarm reminds of our ambitions—which have been too long silent, too easily abandoned—for social justice, equality, education, and attention to others. We must find again that humanity and that uncompromising outlook that characterized Tignous.”
I’ve been asked to clarify my argument with regard to Charlie Hebdo and the various claims that have been made about the magazine since many of its staff were murdered by an Islamist death squad in January. I have never claimed, as this comment insinuates, that my views about various individual cartoons, whatever they may be, are the only decent ones. My argument all along has concerned the ethics of learning and speaking about the magazine.

See, for example,

“A bad epistemic approach is anti-humanist, unwise, and unkind”

“Guest post: The problem with ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’”

What I’ve consistently found indecent is the approach so many have taken, one in which they were immediately prepared to believe the worst claims about Charlie Hebdo and to coldly repeat them. One in which people who knew nothing or virtually nothing (or less than nothing, having seen altered images and read false reports) about the publication set themselves up as implacable judges. One in which upon learning that the claims of intentional racism were false, people immediately shifted to accusations of negligent, callous, or irresponsible racism, propped up by clichés about intent not being magic, punching down, and splash damage.

I expected better. I expected that people would show a modicum of intellectual humility and responsibility, especially when they began to see indications that their early suspicions didn’t hold up on further inspection. First, because our community is supposed to be about humility, questioning, curiosity, evidence, and care in our claims-making. Second, because having been murdered the people they were discussing were no longer here to defend themselves. Third, because tossing out irresponsible claims about the willful or negligent racism of people who were just massacred for drawing cartoons and whose families and colleagues are grieving is disrespectful and cruel - not to mention hypocritical - and so the only decent way to proceed is to take great care in our public statements so as not to perpetuate falsehoods. (I think this is what we’d want for ourselves in similar circumstances.) Fourth, because isolating the victims and targets of Islamist hit men on the basis of an ignorantly-applied purity test endangers us all.

Certainly, the fact that Charlie Hebdo is and is well known in France to be a leftwing, anti-racist publication whose primary target is the racist, xenophobic Right, was information easily available to anyone who cared to look, and is relevant not only to understanding their intent but to understanding the likely reception of the images in context. If nothing else, I would have expected that fact to give people pause before they continued to comment on the subject. No one was being compelled to declare themselves Charlie. It makes sense for people who don’t feel they have enough information to step back before taking a position. But in that case the decent approach is to remain silent while you seek out more information, including the statements of the survivors and of the victims before their deaths, and listen to those who perhaps know more. It’s also to conscientiously retract previous public statements or insinuations that have turned out to be unsupported.

At the time the people of Charlie Hebdo were being isolated on the Left on the basis of some image-mined cartoons of which the self-appointed critics had little understanding, their funerals were ongoing. The person rendering the moving tribute at the funeral of Tignous quoted at the top of this post was Christiane Taubira, the French Justice Minister who now seems to be known on the English-speaking internet as “the black woman they drew as a monkey.”

I think we can all agree that her understanding of the image, its intent, context, and effects is probably greater than ours. But many of Charlie’s critics were either ignorant of or unconcerned with her views. Those who thought the publication of the images of Mohammed was racist or purely provocative in intent or consequence didn’t care to hear from those of us who knew better. Those who had claimed the magazine targeted Muslims weren’t generally provoked to correct themselves when this appeared. In fact, in general the self-appointed prosecutors went silent – not, as I’d hoped, in order to learn more so as to correct misconceptions, but evidently more for a lack of continuing interest.

Then came the controversy surrounding the PEN award. Shortly before the awards gala, several writers who were members of PEN wrote an open letter explaining their objection to the magazine’s receiving the award and announcing their intent to boycott the awards gala. They had clearly done little research since January to determine whether or not their beliefs about CH were correct. They refused to support their claims or to engage with those pointing out their ignorance. They evidently weren’t interested in the strong words of Dominique Sopo, head of the French anti-racist organization SOS Racisme, who attempted to set the record straight:

We’ve reached an incredibly high level of stupidity and intellectual dishonesty.

This must stop. Charlie Hebdo is the greatest antiracist weekly magazine in this country. Every week in Charlie Hebdo, every week, half [of the magazine’s articles] is against racism, against antisemitism, against hatred towards Muslims… I mean, [some people didn’t like a caricature and said “Well, okay but…”] There is no “but”. Charlie Hebdo fought against all kinds of racisms. Cabu drew cartoons for us, he even made a book for us. Charb drew cartoons for us, they [the cartoonists] gave us drawings on a regular basis, every time we asked; we used those drawings as we wished. Wolinski did the same. [Take a look at the past and ask] every antiracist organisation, they’ll tell you [that] they [Charlie Hebdo] really were antiracist and obviously everyone knows it. And so, people who argue that “Ah, Charlie Hebdo, so full of hate…” Did you know that Charlie Hebdo petitioned to ask for Claude Guéant [then minister of the Interior] to resign right after his anti-Muslim words? For an islamophobic weekly magazine, honestly, that’s quite unusual. So actually, this must stop, okay? And these people who try to make you believe that Charlie Hebdo was a racist magazine, honestly, this is scandalous, they insult the memories and the fights of the ones we lost, most of whom we knew on a personal level, needless to say, and you have to stop insulting the living and the dead. Because when you insult, and when you spread an ideology full of hate, when you lash out at journalists like a pack, this is what happens. So this must stop, everyone is called to its personal responsibility.
The morning of the awards gala in New York there was a panel discussion on “Charlie Hebdo and Challenges to Free Expression.” I went, reported back, and posted the video of the event.* I was hoping that at least one or two of the more than 200 writers who had sanctimoniously denounced the magazine would accept the invitation to come and discuss the matter with Charlie Hebdo’s editor and film critic. But none did. Not a single one. I don’t think anything could have been a bigger insult to the dead and to the survivors at CH than this refusal even to talk with them. That was indecent.

They went ahead with the boycott. Dominique Sopo was among the speakers at the presentation of the award:
I think that for us tonight, in honoring Charlie Hebdo, we honor the magazine, we honor the talent and the courage of the people who work for it, and above all we honor their antiracist commitment which has been consistent throughout their existence. Charlie Hebdo in France is something that has stood for the antiracist voice in many kinds of combat, whether it be combat due to religious dogma, a rising up against anti-Semitism, against violence, against Jews, against the Roma people, against Arabs. Charlie Hebdo is always in the forefront of all of these battles. I speak both on behalf of my own organization, SOS Racisme, but also for all of the other organizations—we know this.
Fortunately, Biard and Thoret, accepting the award, received a standing ovation. And then, from the boycotters, silence. There was a bit of self-righteous muttering about how the protest had been necessary, but now it was over and can’t we all just move on? I was thrilled last week to see that one of those who’d signed the letter, Jennifer Cody Epstein, asked for her name to be removed, apologizing and acknowledging that she had failed to adequately inform herself before taking a public position. This was admirable, but so far she’s the only one. That’s indecent.

There are new books by Caroline Fourest, Charb (posthumously), and Luz. I’ve yet to read these last two, although I’ve read excerpts from Charb’s, but I have read Fourest’s, which was published earlier this week. It gives a good deal of background which would be useful to those trying to sort out their understanding of Charlie Hebdo. But again, I haven’t seen people who were so keen to interrogate CH going out of their way to engage with them.

And guess what? Both Fourest and Charb, as well as others I agree with in general, say several things with which I disagree. There are probably also many individual CH cartoons I’d find cringeworthy or offensive or “problematic” (not the ones I’ve seen shared around, but surely some). And I’ve never seen any representative of CH dismiss that reaction or treat it as invalid. In fact, even in the face of the most vicious attacks and unfair criticisms, they’ve been entirely decent.

As I said at the beginning of this post, my concern here isn’t about any specific content. My idea of what’s decent, as I’ve said all along, doesn’t necessarily concern any particular opinion, but the way in which opinions are reached, expressed, and revised. I think it’s decent, when people have just been massacred, to avoid rushing to judgment about them. To appreciate the limits of our knowledge, recognizing when we might not have the requisite information or skills to form a proper opinion. To hold off on making public suggestions about their motives, actions, or impact until we’ve learned more. To treat the question holistically instead of plucking a handful of superficially questionable images out of context. To approach the matter, not with a prosecutorial zeal, but with a high level of care that we not erroneously smear people (we could still in the end conclude that they’re intentional or negligent racists, but this is different from beginning with this presumption and then expecting to have to be convinced out of it).

To correct previous statements if they prove to have been exaggerated or mistaken, and to correct other people when they make those errors. To apologize if we’ve said something ignorant and potentially damaging. To seek out more information, especially from the people about whom we’re forming our views, and to take that information fully into account. To appreciate that our intentions are (ha – not magic!) irrelevant, no matter how good or well-meaning, if their application is based on misinformation and stubborn ignorance. To recognize that it doesn’t show a weaker commitment to social justice or give comfort to racists to admit that our initial judgments were mistaken in any particular instance.

To proceed otherwise is, yes, offensive and indecent.

* Incidentally, Voltaire’s play Fanaticism was mentioned there. I’ve now read it and have been writing about it: part 1, part 2.


  1. My impression – not original to me, but I don't have time to dig for the sources – is that Charlie Hebdo is like South Park or Family Guy: it goes to great lengths to make sure it offends everyone to the same amount, and believes that's inherently a good thing.

  2. Oops, sorry. I should have scrolled up on the other thread first.

    Still, I find nothing in this post that contradicts that assessment; having personal convictions (as the CH authors & editors evidently do) doesn't mean they don't think they should offend everyone equally.

  3. Honestly, David, I’m baffled that you don’t get this. (And you don’t have to go with your impressions – I’ve provided evidence right here in this post.)

    First, CH is a committed leftwing, anti-racist publication, whose principle target is the French Right. This means that they aren’t interested in “offending” (I’ll discuss this below) everyone equally. They’re not targeting poor immigrants equally with the Front National. Their political and moral commitment is to social justice, not generalized mockery. They’re not interested in “offending” racists and their victims equally. Being a committed leftwing, anti-racist publication means that in practice they publish writing and cartoons that are leftwing and anti-racist. I really don’t understand how you don’t see this. Believing nothing (including themselves) should be out of bounds for mockery and that mockery can be inclusive is not the same thing as seeking to offend everyone equally.

    Second, their purpose is not to offend. Their purpose is to comment on politics in a funny way, from, again, a leftwing, anti-racist, social justice perspective. When they published the cartoons of Mohammed, they weren’t seeking to offend Muslims or anyone else. They were standing up to Islamist fanatics and defending free expression, and were very thoughtful about trying to go about this in ways that included Muslims in the political community, made clear that Islamists didn’t represent all Muslims, and didn’t cause undue offense to Muslims in general. (I know this because it’s the subject of the film, It’s Hard to Be Loved By Jerks, that I posted about back in 2011.)

    When you describe them the way you are, you erase the political commitments of the magazine. They're not personal convictions incidental to their work - they're the editorial commitments of the publication. I know you see it as a sort of defense (“They don’t just target minorities – they work to offend everyone equally!”), but it’s simply not an accurate characterization of who they are/were or what they do. Being racists and being across-the-board offenders aren’t the only two possibilities. There’s also the possibility of being a committed leftwing, anti-racist publication, which is what they are, and what we should recognize and celebrate, as Taubira and Sopo do.

  4. I don't know if you've read this:


    “…Nous rions, nous critiquons, nous rêvons encore des mêmes choses. Ce n'est pas trahir un secret : l'équipe actuelle se partage entre tenants de la gauche, de l'extrême gauche, de l'anarchie et de l'écologie. Tous ne votent pas, mais tous ont sablé le champagne quand Nicolas Sarkozy a été battu en mai 2012.

    …Ouvrez donc ce journal ! Jean-Yves Camus y suit avec la rigueur qu'on lui connaît l'activité des extrêmes droites. Laurent Léger dévoile les turpitudes des réseaux si étendus de la corruption. Bernard Maris décortique l'économie et le capitalisme comme aucun autre. Patrick Pelloux raconte avec douceur les horreurs des urgences hospitalières. Gérard Biard ferraille contre le sexisme et la pub. Zineb el Rhazoui critique – oui, et de belle manière – les insupportables manifestations de certain islamisme. Fabrice Nicolino regarde le monde en écologiste radical, mais humaniste. Sigolène Vinson détaille le quotidien absurde de tant de tribunaux. Luce Lapin défend avec une opiniâtreté sans borne les animaux, ces grands absents du débat. Antonio Fischetti raconte la science, les sciences avec drôlerie et impertinence. Philippe Lançon proclame chaque semaine la victoire de la littérature sur la télé. Et puis tous les autres ! Quant aux dessinateurs, qui ne connaît leur trait ?

    De Charb à Riss, de Luz à Willem, de Riad Sattouf à Tignous, en passant par Honoré, Catherine et bien sûr Wolin et Cabu, ils font rire chaque semaine ceux qui n'ont pas renoncé à être libres.

    Où seraient cachés les supposés racistes ? Nous n'avons pas peur d'avouer que nous sommes des militants antiracistes de toujours. Sans nécessairement avoir une carte, nous avons choisi dans ce domaine notre camp, et n'en changerons évidemment jamais. Si par extraordinaire – mais cela n'arrivera pas – un mot ou un dessin racistes venaient à être publiés dans notre hebdomadaire, nous le quitterions à l'instant, et avec fracas. Encore heureux !”

  5. "To treat the question holistically instead of plucking a handful of superficially questionable images out of context."

    The point is, millions more people will have seen those images on the news-stand - out of context - than will ever have read the publication. And what exactly would you say to the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram and represented by grossly racist and misogynist images on the Charlie Hebdo cover, and to their families? Sometimes, no context whatever can make something acceptable.

  6. Amazing. It’s like you’re not willing to engage with (or even read?) the actual content of the post you’re commenting on.

    Charlie Hebdo is (or was, at the relevant moment) a French publication with a circulation in the tens of thousands. It commented on French politics, and it was widely recognized to be leftwing and anti-racist, satirizing above all (though not exclusively) the French far Right. People who create satirical works about local or national politics for a local audience can’t reasonably be expected to make those works absolutely immune to misreading or misrepresentation for a global audience with no knowledge of context or intent. That would be ridiculous. I certainly doubt that within France there were "millions" of people who would be seeing the cover and know nothing of the French political context, much less be at the same time affected by seeing the image and yet so incurious as to refuse to investigate at all. (And, to the extent that there are people who proceed in that manner, it's a problem that needs to be addressed, as I mention below.)

    (This isn’t to say that artists shouldn’t be concerned about possible misuses of their work, especially when they have reason to believe it might be widely seen beyond the usual audience or that there are people with an interest in misrepresenting it for their own purposes, and guard against that to the extent possible. As Cabu did when he drew the “It’s hard to be loved by jerks [assholes]” cover: he made sure he bled the text of the word “intégristes” into the image of Mohammed so that it could less easily be cut out so as to make people think “jerks/assholes” referred to Muslims and not Islamists. Some people still altered the image to serve their propaganda purposes, as some people cut out the FN symbol and the large words “RASSEMBLEMENT BLEU RACIST” from the “Taubira” cover…or maybe people just didn’t see them?)

    What they do is very similar to what Stephen Colbert did on his show, with the differences that they’re further left than Colbert, that he didn’t occasionally adopt and exaggerate rightwing viewpoints to satirize them but embodied them full-time as a character, and that he had a much larger audience and more of an expectation that his work would be seen beyond its basic audience, in the US and abroad. Someone could easily compile and edit a series of clips he did, say, on immigration and welfare benefits (“anchor babies,” kids with “calves the size of cantaloupes,”…) that would look “grossly racist and misogynistic” to anyone unfamiliar with his show, who didn’t know that he was taking on the perspective of rightwing US politicians in order to satirize it.

    The difference is that there aren’t powerful global forces interested in doing that to Colbert, whereas there are such forces interested in provoking confusion about and hostility to CH. But even with that knowledge, it’s absurd to suggest that they should therefore have basically stopped doing satirical work on the French Right because someone could potentially misread or be tricked into misreading it. Not only would that spell the end of political satire, but it would interfere with the project of developing image-literacy in a globalized world. (This issue was discussed in depth at the panel discussion in New York – I don’t know if you read my summary or watched the video. I’m guessing not.)

  7. What would I say to those girls and their families? It would depend on what information or misinformation they’d been given. If the context and intent had been described to them, I don’t think I would need to say anything - I would just listen to their views. If the image had been presented to them in a misleading way, through a lack of information or through misinformation, I would explain its context and intent. (As I’ve said before, the racist/misogynistic misreading doesn’t even make sense. Why would those girls be saying that?) I would assume they’re less manipulable and have a better capacity to appreciate satire


    than, for example, you.

    In either case, I would know that their possibilities for immigration to safer countries like France, for receiving help and benefits once there, and for taking on Islamists and foreign governments and corporations in their own country have been defended with the work, courage, and blood of the people at Charlie Hebdo.

  8. and represented by grossly racist and misogynist images on the Charlie Hebdo cover

    This is a real problem. Even if you're going to persist, perversely, in trying to reduce the matter to something that can be answered with "intent isn't magic," can you, at the very least, acknowledge that their intent was not racist and misogynistic, and that CH is an anti-racist publication that has supported the rights of immigrants and minorities for decades? Even if you think that they went about creating that image irresponsibly or in the wrong way, can you at least acknowledge that their target was the French Right?

    A discussion about political commentary and satire in complex contexts is one worth having, but it's not helped by conflating concerns about the potential reception or misinterpretation of images with their intent. And to continue to do that in this case, when people have been murdered and can't defend themselves against smears, is indecent.

  9. And by the way, there was a response to that article you've brought up by Olivier Cyran:


    I'm pretty sure it was posted on threads where you were commenting back in January, so I'm not sure why you continue to ignore it.