Charlie Hebdo and The Interview: Uses and Abuses of Free Speech and the Unmasking of God

“I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.” – Stephen Colbert

“There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive – no wonder everyone keeps invading you.” – Twelfth Doctor

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From last year until now, the world has been struggling over a series of incidents regarding media representations: first, The Interview was pushed back, revised, and then nearly cancelled due to threats to Columbia, Sony Pictures and theatres over the depiction of the assassination of Kim Jong-un; second, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France was attacked by terrorists in response to publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, in which 11 staff members were killed. In both of these incidents, a Western agency created satirical representations, then non-Western society protested over their representations as offensive, and then the Western content producers protested in return that their representations were justified based on good intentions and free speech/creative expression.

As a fairly pacifist human being and one that does work and research in the arts, I do not condone any kind of attack on creators of an image, however offensive this image may be. However, in discussing this matter with others, I have repeatedly defended the objections of North Korea and of Islamic fundamentalists, and repeatedly found myself on the wrong side of the argument; this post is a means of sorting out and justifying why I think the way I do. One thread in my thinking is related to what we call “free speech,” and the other is linked to representation and divinity.

Organizing these thoughts might start with what seems to be contrasting definitions on concepts we take for granted, and also different weights given to these definition: what is a “representation,” what is an “attack” (figurative or literal, or what is figurative or literal violence), and what is “satire.” There are also different stages to these controversies; of the incidents themselves, there is the stage in which a Western representation takes place, another stage where retaliation takes place, and another stage where protests against these retaliations take place; behind the event itself, there is the long history of global politics.

Working backwards, I believe protests over retaliation on the part of terrorists and North Korea has to do with the sense that their reactions are incommensurate with the representations they find offensive (accepting for a moment that finding them offensive is justified). A justifiable reaction might be also in the realm of representation or in the discursive realm, eg publishing a column protesting The Interview or perhaps a fatwa against caricatures might seem to be responding with a commensurate retaliation (even if the logic behind it seems silly to Westerners), whereas hacking and a terrorist strike aren’t. These “extreme” forms of retaliation are incommensurate because they are material rather than discursive; they cost lives and interfere with livelihoods. Cue the sticks and stones childhood rhyme – words and pictures don’t hurt but sticks and stones do.

Going more theoretical here to cite theorist Jean Baudrillard, there are iconoclasts and iconolators. Iconoclasts object to representations of the divine, because any human imagining of the perfection of divinity or associated figures would be a profanity. Putting aside any debates on whether it’s RIGHT to think this way, it is at least clear that fundamentalists of a number of religions are iconoclast, and they steadfastly proclaim themselves as such. On the other hand, it seems that the Western world is confused about whether it wants to be iconoclasts or iconolators. We believe that representations matter; social groups advocate for better and more authentic representations of marginalized groups, and the childhood rhyme is no longer tenable in school management – psychological bullying hurt as much as physical bullying. Personally, as someone who has done illustration work and researches comics, I have to admit that my Western, Humanities scholar self has a sense of perverse pride that in the The Interview and Charlie Hebdo incidents, representations matter so much. However, while we advocate for how representations matter, we also seem to get bewildered and angry when another community thinks they matter more than we do. Representations matter, but if you’re willing to kill and die over representations, then you’re clearly insane.

In the Western liberal scheme of representations, while we might not believe there is much of a relationship between a representation and the actual thing, it’s not the case that we believe all representations are immaterial or should not have material effects. What, after all, is the end goal of increased and better representations for marginalized groups and stopping psychological bullying among children? It is so that children grow up confident and assured and with psychological resources for better lives. Or that marginalized groups do not run up against a wall of prejudice and can get better jobs and education and better lives, perhaps have lives in the first place (thinking of Ferguson). Even if some Westerners believe that young Black men are more disruptive and tend more towards criminal behaviour, I don’t think we would disagree that persistent media representation of young Black men as criminal at least contributes to increased targeting by police and hence disrupt lives if not cost lives. So, if representations are a matter of life and death, then we should also not argue that, at least on a theoretical level, it is wrong for certain iconoclast religious fundamentalists to be willing to kill and die over representations.

Onto the second thread, which is free speech. Again, as a person working in and around the arts, and as someone who will usually defend fan work over copyright, I believe that society needs both an ideologically generative and economically lucrative structure to protect creativity and “immaterial” labour. On the other hand, in terms of a debate we have had internally to the West, there is the tension between free speech and hate speech, which are part of the convulsions France is currently undergoing. An article from NPR states that hate speech and blasphemy are different under French law. I am not sure about the logic behind this, but it seems that if religion is integral to someone’s identity as their ethnicity (I suppose in certain Pan-Islamic contexts it is more important than ethnicity), and if objecting to someone’s ethnicity is hate speech, it doesn’t make sense that objecting to someone’s religion isn’t. I suppose there is still the sense that the racial/biological part of one’s ethnicity is in some ways innate, and can’t be helped, whereas religion has ideas that one has agency to renounce. But if a religion is the only system of knowledge and truth that you know, and it has structured your life from the day you were born, it’s not so easily to step outside it.

Another argument I have heard in protest against Islamic fundamentalism is that the world needs a system of checks and balances, and no group should be exempt from criticism. Outsiders to the group under consideration should also not fear for their safety due to their critiques. I also do believe that aspirations of a ruling class to be fair and generous towards everyone else usually fails as people tend to protect their own interests, and hence a system of checks and balances needs to be able to function so different elements of a society can critique each other without impunity. However, to me this system of checks and balances has not been actualized, and it is as a lofty and unrealistic goal as noblesse oblige. Checks and balances assumes that each party can have their voices equally heard, and to have their stakes equally measured, otherwise disproportionate power means that there is no checks and balance. And there is no global equality. Regardless of whether the US being engaged in the Middle East was a justified action after 9/11, the UN security council expressed reservations about interventions; the US as a disproportionately strong world power was able to say it would act alone. This is not something that most countries or communities in the world can do. Due to historical colonization of Asia, Africa, and South America, nations in these locations do not have as much political or economic leverage as Western countries, thus they disproportionately have their concerns infringed upon while being disproportionately unable to influence world powers. For example, the term “banana republic” originally referred to Honduras, which could not exercise its sovereignty against American businesses who wanted to grow bananas cheaply there. Most colonized countries have not bounced back from this state of being. There are certain international laws in place to prevent exploitation, however historical legacies are not so easily overcome.

In this context of unequal power, what “satire” is needs to be seriously considered. The famous example would be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where he satirized England’s encroachment on Ireland by suggesting that taken to the extreme, the English might like to eat Irish babies. Satire does not exist in an abstract world where each cultural work has the same weight as other cultural works, but a tool of the weak against the strong when no outright critique is possible. In Swift’s case, objecting to the English directly would have resulted in retribution, so satire was criticism disguised as a fable, where on the denotative level there is no criticism, just absurdity. I would argue that if the power dynamics were reversed, it would no longer be satire, but ridicule and psychological bullying. It is true that the average French journalist doesn’t have as much power as the average terrorist (sorry, “the average terrorist” sounds kind of…wrong), however on a global scale I would argue that France and French media command more attention and has more power to shape international decisions than religious fundamentalist teachings and “extremist” policies, which tend to terrorize a local context. Also, if Swift was trying to reveal British atrocities, I’m not sure what the staff at Charlie Hebdo meant to reveal – or at least the throughline between Mohammed being humanized and current extremist policies isn’t clear enough to me from a caricature to be satire. It would take a long exposition about traditions of veneration in Islam, the impact of rigid or literal interpretations of divine texts, and perhaps a statement on the choice to deliberately tackle image-making to move beyond ridicule.

In addition, perhaps specifically related to the Charlie Hebdo incident, the audience matters. I do not know the readership of Charlie Hebdo, but I understand that this magazine has always critiqued French society, and perhaps its satire has revealed to citizens machinations in French politics and enlightened them to make better social decisions. Thus, I am assuming that most of their audience are not Islamic fundamentalists or doubting Muslim followers who are trying to embrace secularism. In which case, if the caricatures are meant to be satire, I am not sure what kind of social change the cartoonists were trying to accomplish. After similar incidents they should know that Islamic believers won’t respond well to caricatures of Mohammed, and probably won’t renounce their fundamentalism after seeing these caricatures. If their audience are other liberal middle class Frenchmen, with the cartoons they are already preaching to the converted (sorry for the religious metaphor there). Thus, the caricatures are not so much socially-motivated satire as an ingroup joke ridiculing those who are already outsiders. From this point of view, this issue isn’t a free speech or hate speech issue on an abstract level at all, but pragmatically a bad allocation of artistic resources.

The Interview is a similar case and perhaps enlightening in terms of caricatoonists’ thought processes. In The Interview, two American journalists set out to prove to the people of North Korea that Kim Jong-un is not a god, but human. In parallel, one way of thinking about caricatures of Mohammed is that by making him ridiculous, cartoonists are stripping him of his divinity and making him human. Both of these stripping away of divinity is supposed to lead to some kind of secular or democratic liberation, as people would be able to see through a lie.

What is interesting is that Dave and Aaron are enacting what the terrorists enacted in real life, which is attack a representation to shut it down. There are three facets of difference: First, the material routed through representations or the material straight up: The Interview is fiction, whereas the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo is a real world occurrence. Second, in the case of Kim Jong-un, the representation and the crafter of the representation are the same figure, Kim Jong-un, whereas in the case of caricatures of Muhammad, the representation and its crafters are different entities. The last facet of difference is Rogen and Goldberg are attacking and taking down a representation of god and showing there is nothing behind it, whereas the terrorists are attacking and taking down a representation of god to preserve the divinity behind it.

These differences are significant, but at a conceptual level both parties were acting under very similar logic. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg can conceive of making Kim Jong-un fall but cannot put it into practice, and so created a representation that they hope will achieve similar real world effects in the long run, whereas the terrorists were different in that they were willing and able to commit real world actions directly. With the second point, a Western liberal question might be to ask why not just attack the images instead of killing the people who created it. In The Interview, Aaron protests against killing Kim Jong-un because another dictator would just be set up in its place, ie it doesn’t really solve the root of the problem. It actually does – conveniently for Dave and Aaron, they can kill two birds with one stone and kill the image of god and the dictator who crafted him in one go, whereas the terrorists don’t have that convenience. The same logic might apply in the terrorists’ mind – just protesting verbally that images are offensive falls on deaf ears and more images would be made; might as well kill all the cartoonists and root out the problem. Third, as I’ve discussed earlier, both the film producers and Al-Qaeda are iconoclasts, just different kinds.

One point this post is aiming for is that for all of lofty Western values, in practice strategies don’t necessarily operate on different grounds than terrorists. Another point is that in the West we need to work out exactly what we believe representations are and what they’re meant to accomplish, and acknowledge some kind of internationally-accepted limit, that’s just as important, I think, as a UN security council. As a subset of this, we need to be clear about what satire is meant to accomplish.

Third, we also need to assess what it means to unmask god. If we are so keen to destroy the image of god of another community and show him to be human, we should also accept that another community might be rather keen to destroy the images we make of their god. Also, regarding allocations of artistic resources: if a terrorist attack doesn’t convince the Western world that they’re wrong in drawing caricatures of the divine and just deeply offends everyone, how would a movie showing a terrorist attack on a man people think is god going to change anything instead of deeply offending everyone? Finally, if we unmask god, what do we put in his place? Do we take a boat off into the sunrise with the dog we rescued? Do we try to become god? How do we teach a community who has lived with god that God is dead and we have killed him?

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