Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Should We Be Permitted to Think About Charlie Hebdo's Role in the Struggle for Muslim Inclusion?

In all of this Charlie Hebdo controversy, I think it's useful to take a step back and ask why anyone would particularly care what the publication was like.  Wouldn't it be equally wrong to murder the employees of almost any type of publication?  And wouldn't it then be right to honor just about anyone who risked murder to express a view?

Well, the answer to the first question is "yes," and the answer to the second question is "it depends, that's why we're having this discussion."

What I think must be borne in mind is that there is a specter haunting Europe, a decisive collective choice that is being made step by step, with every step hugely consequential.  One possibility is that Muslims will be accepted into European institutions as equal participants and as rights-bearing people.  Muslims will turn away from extremism.  They will be woven into European politics, not as dogs to be kicked, but as voting blocs and political leaders.  In short, they will be folded into European society in roughly the same way that African-Americans became full citizens when they got the right to vote.  (I'm not pretending things suddenly turned rosy for blacks when they started voting en masse, but I can say with certainty that things got much, much better.)  We only hope that the process in Europe is quicker and creates less residual hatred and distrust.

But I am using "we" loosely, because a lot of Europeans are cheering for the opposite outcome:  that Muslims will be increasingly alienated and driven to extremism, that they will be denied full participation as equals in society, that they will ultimately be expelled from Europe and forced to seek decent lives somewhere else.  There are Europeans who devote themselves to harassing Muslims at every turn, to humiliating them whenever possible, to inflaming racial and religious tensions so as to prevent integration and mutual understanding.

So for instance, in the Netherlands several years ago the legislature advanced a bill to outlaw the production of halal meat, on the pretense of preventing animal cruelty.  It so happens that this would also make it impossible to produce kosher meat, but when you set out to make life as difficult as possible for Muslims, a little collateral damage is inevitable, and completely tolerable if we are just talking about Jews.

Or take the recent case of a French Muslim schoolgirl, forced to go home and change clothes because her skirt wasn't revealing enough.  It is very hard to understand this as anything but a flagrant attempt to make her life miserable, to humiliate her, because she is a Muslim.  ["What's the matter, girl?  You think what you've got under there is too precious for French eyes to look at?  Go put on a shorter skirt!"]

Now the right response to this is to vote the bastards out.  To engage in peaceful protest.  To lobby the government and bring the spotlight of world attention on these bigots.  (I suspect France, under international pressure, will soon adopt a policy that female students cannot be compelled to wear revealing skirts.  I mean, my God.)

But there is a contingent in Europe that hopes Muslims will take a darker path.  That hopes that with non-stop harassment they can be radicalized, marginalized, and ultimately thrown out.

And now we have to ask ourselves:  where does Charlie Hebdo fit into this?  Was it trying to make Europe a welcoming place for Muslims?  Or was it trying to inflame their worst passions, humiliate them, pillory them, and generally do everything possible to prevent their successful integration into European society?

This isn't an either-or.  Charlie Hebdo fits somewhere on a spectrum.  Charlie Hebdo was not the UKIP or the Lega Nord.  But by the same token, Charlie Hebdo was very far from praiseworthy.  And it's no defense that Charlie Hebdo liked to lash out at Jews as well as Muslims.  As we've seen, Jews are considered expendable in this fight.

In the U.S., one way that we brought blacks into mainstream life is by adopting very strong norms against explicit racism.  (I am not arguing that we banished all forms of racism from our society, just that certain explicit forms of racism became socially unacceptable.)  If you look, you can find plenty of crude hatred.  But it is almost entirely relegated to the margins of society, to informal institutions like the gaming community (which, in its defense, has plenty of anti-bigots as well).  Telling a racist joke can be career-ending.  We've arguably over-shot, so that using the word "niggardly," even in a good-faith way, can be career-threatening.

But in any case, the point is that we adopted these norms for the very good reason that in their absence it would be virtually impossible to make blacks feel as though they are welcome in our society.  We sent the FBI down to the South to go to war with our own little fascist domestic terrorists.  We adopted widespread affirmative action in our major public institutions (you can criticize how it has operated, but there is little question that it has drawn a lot of blacks quickly into the elite echelons of society).  In fact, we probably focused too heavily on black elites and not nearly enough on the rest of the black population.  But the point is that we have an aversion to explicit racism that is almost instinctual at this point.  We all understood that Trent Lott was toast once it became common knowledge that he had praised Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign.  In other words, our racial sensitivity is almost automatic at this point.  (And again, I'm not defending it in all of its nuances.  We paid a lot more attention to Trent Lott's remarks than we did to the cauldron of injustice that is the U.S. justice system, and that was a mistake.)

And so, Charlie Hebdo is a big "fuck you" to racial sensitivity.  It is a big middle finger to the process of inculcating norms of decency and mutual respect that are virtually preconditions to the successful integration of the Muslim population.

We can debate exactly how Charlie Hebdo fits in, and exactly how beneficial it is to treat people with respect.  Maybe the U.S. would have been better off with less racial sensitivity over the last 50 years.  Maybe free speech is more important than successful Muslim integration into the Western world—so much more important that it is not merely to be legally protected, but lionized.  Maybe Charlie Hebdo wasn't nearly so racially insensitive as it facially appears.  But this is the argument.  This is the discussion that everyone seems to want to preempt by claiming that there is no possible reason, other than some weird hatred of free speech, that anyone would decline to stand up and cheer for Charlie Hebdo.  By claiming that Charlie Hebdo's bravery is simply undeniable, its entitlement to our praise beyond question.

And I think that's wrong.  Charlie Hebdo is a strategic player in a very important game, and one of the sides in that game is repugnantly evil.  We can't come to a reasonable opinion on Charlie Hebdo until we have an open discussion about where it fits in.

(I emphasize, as if it needs to be said, that even if Charlie Hebdo is at the very worst end of the spectrum, which it is not, it is still utterly evil to kill its employees.  In fact, the killers were themselves useful idiots in the game of Muslim exclusion, since their actions have done more to lower the stature of Muslims in Europe than Charlie Hebdo could ever hope to accomplish.  But that is not the main reason they are evil, the main reason they are evil is that they murdered 12 people.)

19 Comments:

Blogger Alan said...

I appreciate this perspective, which is not the one I naturally adopted, in part due to my ignorance of the larger political context. It turns out I had just waded into this debate for the first time this morning, prompted by another friend, and had just sent him my thoughts, before seeing your post.

My thoughts have developed in light of your post (and surely will develop further), but I still stand by most of what I sent my friend, and I figured I'd share it here in the interests of discussion:

I haven't followed this issue (so, among other things, I have only a vague sense of the kind of stuff Charlie Hebdo published), but I've now read this blog post Caleb Crain promoted, as well as debate among some friends on Twitter. My initial thought -- and I recognize this is a somewhat legalistic approach -- was to find a general overview of the PEN award in question -- what is it meant to honor? what are its stated criteria? who has it typically been given to? -- but I couldn't easily find one. But I did find the official announcement of the specific award to Charlie Hebdo.

It sounds fine to me. It sounds like the award is for continuing to engage in political speech in the face of threats or attacks in response to that speech, which I take it is true of Charlie Hebdo both before and after the recent terrorist attack (I don't know the details of the earlier attack(s)). I don't have a problem on face with having an award for this, where the focus is on the principle of freedom of political expression, not on what specifically was expressed or who expressed it. I wonder if the people who are against giving the award to Charlie Hebdo are assuming it's to some extent an endorsement of the content of the Islamic satire, which does not seem to be the case. Perhaps it's to some extent -- inevitably -- an endorsement of the overall enterprise of Charlie Hebdo, but I think that's acceptable given the primary purpose of the award and the apparently good-faith-political (as opposed to bad-faith-hate) nature of the publication.

I feel compelled to distinguish cases like the Neo Nazi one. What if Charlie Hebdo were a bunch of Neo Nazis? My inclination is to make a distinction based on the intent of the speech: was it primarily meant to persuade and engage with the political process, or was it primarily meant to rally the like-minded and hurt the subjects? It seems to me that Charlie Hebdo, however tasteless or otherwise poorly executed, falls into the former camp, whereas a Neo Nazi march falls into the latter. Of course, such distinctions are not easy, and one can imagine a close case. But what I am reluctant to do is take the position that certain speakers or viewpoints are so odious that it would be unacceptable to give them an award meant for courageous political expression, even if their speech were an exemplar of the genuinely courageously political. I'm sure under extreme circumstances I would take the character of the speech or the speaker into account (e.g., if the speaker were supporting a genocide and possibly had participated in it). But I think "extreme" is the right qualifier, because freedom of political expression is so important. Wherever the pale is, I don't get the sense that Charlie Hebdo is beyond it.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Yes I think there's merit to the idea that some parts of the European press seem interested in twitting Muslims partly to draw an extremist reaction which poisons public opinion against them. If "Muslims" were a unit, you could argue that "they" are to blame for being provoked, but in practice someone is always extreme enough to be provoked and Islamic extremists are organized, and the public response does not distinguish among Muslims. So arguably provocateurs are being assholes b'se the predictable consequences of their provocations are to make the world worse (at least from the liberal cosmopolitan perspective that everyone in this debate is assuming).

I also agree in part that "religion" is a proxy for race in these debates so the analogy with African-Americans is not totally inapposite. But there _is_ a meaningful distinction: e.g., France has an ancient tradition of writers attacking the Catholic church but none of attacking white people. Religion is not just an identity but is also (for many) a way of life and a hierarchical structure and a set of taboos, and these things do not merit public deference or respect. (Non-rhetorical Q: what is the French Muslim equivalent of Richard Pryor or Chris Rock?) Islamophobia seems analogous (in the US context) to not just plain racism but all sorts of un-PC but mainstream comments about black culture etc. I do not know that one would want to chill this sort of discussion...

If French Muslims were not visibly so different from the French mainstream (suppose they were mostly Eastern European Muslims), the analogy would be less with American racism than with the American treatment of Mormons in the late 19th cent. In that case it has always seemed to me that the US was morally in the right when it forced the Mormons to assimilate in some crucial ways as part of the price of admission to the broader polity, and was also right to continue to be suspicious of those who adhered to the religion, and to mock the religion's precepts. It is easier to assimilate when you don't look different, and therefore more reasonable to require assimilation of non-visible minorities, but this is a complicated question.

I think if you asked the CH people about the implicit "cause" in their work, it is the cause that no idea or attitude should be sacred, that anything and anyone is mockable in the public square. In a society without massive disparities of power, this is a principle that I would wholeheartedly endorse, and they would clearly have been heroes. In the real world it is more complicated because of the difference between punching up and punching down. Is this enough to cancel out the heroism completely? Perhaps not. They weren't purely punching down; they were killed, showing that their targets did have some power.

12:17 PM  
Blogger James said...

A few points.

1. I think there is considerable distance between "speech that should not be chilled" and "speech that should be honored." I wouldn't want to chill Fox News but I'm not going to attend a gala in its honor. We don't give awards to every publication that manages not to be "beyond the pale."

2. Even if I decided to attend a gala in honor of Fox News, I wouldn't take to the internet to call out people who declined to attend. This attempt to shame people for having a negative view of Charlie Hebdo, for having a dissenting opinion, strikes me as creepy and jarring, coming as it does from rabid supporters of free thinking and free speech. "Shut up and go to the award ceremony!"

3. But what has really been striking to me is the incredibly low standards for what counts as a good argument against the dissenters. Caleb Crain, a fairly cerebral guy, first linked to the argument that only French-speakers can form legitimate opinions on the matter, and then to the disgusting Lynskey post. What is going on here?

I really don't know, but I suspect people are engaging in a very low-level form of reasoning ("Free speech good! Muslims bad!") and then grasping for reasons to justify their desire to lash out at the dissenters. It's all very depressing.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Again, I'm not really up on this and don't have strong feelings, but I find myself agreeing with Adam Gopnik and Caleb Crain.

1. This goes back to the purpose of the award. If the purpose is to honor the principle of courageous political expression, then it strikes me as natural to pick Charlie Hebdo as this year's exemplar of the principle -- a publication that's certainly courageous and seems to have been engaged in the right kind of speech, albeit crudely (i.e., political speech meant to engage and persuade, not hate speech meant to hurt and instigate bad acts; I recognize this is not a clear-cut distinction, but I think it's a meaningful one). My understanding is the award is not meant to endorse the content of the speech, but rather to promote the freedom to express that content -- and yes, to promote the honoree qua courageous political speaker. My point about Charlie Hebdo not being "beyond the pale" is just that, assuming it is the natural honoree based on courageousness and nature of speech -- the apparent criteria for the award -- then I think PEN should be highly reluctant to deny it the award on viewpoint grounds. After all, the whole point of the award is to celebrate the right to express unpopular or offensive viewpoints. Of course, if the award were meant to celebrate viewpoints themselves, my position would be different -- there's obviously better content out there.

2. I'm not really familiar with how this all played out, but it strikes me that those who are declining to attend are the ones doing the calling out, accusing PEN and the attendees of promoting hate speech or speech that is otherwise beyond the pale; they're boycotting on moral grounds -- saying PEN is being immoral -- and therefore attempting to shame PEN and the attendees. They're not merely saying: "I wanted some other guy to win, but you didn't pick him, so I'm not going." So I'm not sure it's accurate to characterize the response as "shut up and go!" I mean, look at Crain's recent post (linked to above) -- it's pretty defensive. I think the response (at least from the more sophsiticated quarters) is more like: "it's at the very least morally acceptable to give the award to Charlie Hebdo, so you have no moral grounds for refusing to attend, and as someone who was otherwise intending to attend (and in some cases participate), you ought to go."

3. That post by the Charlie Hebdo guy that Crain linked to is pretty weak, but there's no way he really means that one personally must speak French in order to have a legitimate opinion on Charlie Hebdo's speech. I mean, the post is not very well written, and he may very well literally say this. But I highly doubt he's actually a radical skeptic about translation. And I'm sure this isn't what Crain was going for -- he's not crazy. In his recent post, he makes the intuitive argument that it's difficult to understand and evaluate Charlie Hebdo's speech without being steeped in French culture and politics, or consulting someone who is. So I imagine he was charitably interpreting the post (especially in light of its having been written by a Charlie Hebdo guy) as essentially advancing this notion.

Is there actually low-level reasoning of the kind you identify going on? Undoubtedly -- there always is, particularly with emotionally charged issues like this. But there's also an intelligent, levelheaded debate going on, and in that debate I think Crain has made a good case that giving the award to Charlie Hebdo is appropriate. Maybe there's a better potential honoree, but PEN isn't acting immorally, so the boycott is unwarranted.

12:05 AM  
Blogger James said...

I refer you to the headline of the piece, which I quoted accurately. I'll have more responses later.

8:05 AM  
Blogger James said...

Actually, I see that the sub-headline has been changed, so that the headline + sub-headline is now: "If you don’t speak French, how can you judge if Charlie Hebdo is racist? Prominent writers have chosen to boycott a PEN gala in honour of Charlie Hebdo. But are they in any position to pass judgement?"

Let me know if, having reviewed the evidence, you still think that the author isn't arguing, "If you don't speak French, how can you judge if Charlie Hebdo is racist?"

8:07 AM  
Blogger James said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:22 AM  
Blogger James said...

"An infinity of pundits have made blithe diagnoses of general knavishness while not speaking any French at all.

This bears repeating. No. French. At. All. The point about language is absolutely crucial."

As Wilson [sorry about my earlier mixup] points out with typical Irish understatement, the point about language is absolutely crucial. It's just so fucking crucial.

8:24 AM  
Blogger James said...

"Do the writers boycotting Charlie in New York all speak French? If they don’t, then, seriously, how informed can their opinions be? You might as well ask your budgie for comment. So, Feathers, what’s your view?

Am I wrong about this? Am I missing something really obvious?"

8:24 AM  
Blogger James said...

"If you speak French and you tell me you think Charlie is racist, I can respect that. If you don’t speak French and you tell me the same, well (how to put this politely?)...sorry, I can’t actually put it politely."

Alan, please weigh in on why you think your reading of Wilson's piece is right and mine is wrong.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

I don't see what is gained by reading Wilson literally vs. seeing him as making a hyperbolic version of Crain's fairly anodyne point. Is Wilson of the belief that a Quebecois or Ivorian with native French but no knowledge of French politics is entitled to weigh in on this? Presumably not, and probably he hasn't thought about it.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

Like I said, I agree that Wilson literally says you must personally speak French in order to have a legitimate opinion on Charlie Hebdo. I just think that's so straightforwardly crazy that he can't mean it. I mean, suppose you told him: "I don't speak French, but I consulted with English-speaking Charlie Hebdo authors and an independent translator about some of their material, and here's what I think about it." I'm pretty sure his response wouldn't be: "I'm sorry, how much French did you say you speak?" Clearly he's concerned with people passing judgment on Charlie's cartoons without making reasonable efforts to understand their messages -- all of his examples are of such superficial judgments.

And there's no way Crain is endorsing what Wilson literally says. Again, I think, unless he had a bout of temporary insanity, Crain was charitably interpreting Wilson as essentially advancing the notion that an English speaker unfamiliar with French politics needs a contextually informed translation and explanation of Charlie Hebdo's material in order to meaningfully evaluate it.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

On the broader Q: there are two different defenses of free speech, an "affirmative" one that says that the expression of unpopular views enriches public discourse, and a negative one that says the govt. and the mob cannot be trusted to censor. The negative defense is more sweeping because it covers both the "inner zone" of speech that plausibly enriches public discourse and an outer zone of speech that does not, such as KKK marches. For outer zone speech we all agree your analysis is correct. It is analogous to someone putting their recycling in the trash; there is no law against it, and if a local Greenpeace member punches you for doing it, she will/should be arrested, but no one is obliged to honor you for "courageously" continuing to trash your beer bottles.

Inner-zone speech seems to me different. Suppose there's a local idiot who campaigns against GMO food, and does this in spite of Monsanto discrediting him and threatening him in various ways. Even if you think the campaign is completely wrongheaded on the merits, it seems appropriate for the community to express its solidarity with the local idiot, and to honor him for persevering, because what he is doing is both good-faith and in crucial ways indistinguishable from other vitally important types of speech. Someone like this is *paying* heavily to perform what is at some level a public service, and should be honored for that. As Crain and Alan say, if you grant that the award is morally _acceptable_ then it is inappropriate/muddled to publicly boycott it.

Is Charlie Hebdo inner or outer zone? Is Fox News? I don't think it's possible to answer the question without a reasonable amount of context; otherwise you lack a frame of reference, you're like someone who wanders into the middle of a movie in French.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

On the inner/outer issue, I've been advancing the position that there are two ways for speech to be outer in the context of deciding whether to honor a speaker for continuing to speak: (i) inappropriate intent (e.g., threats, but also speech meant to hurt or instigate bad acts); and (ii) beyond the pale viewpoints.

I agree that the standards for the PEN award are stricter than the standards for whether to allow certain speech. Even though the award is not meant to endorse the honoree's viewpoint, it is still meant to praise the honoree. So if Charlie Hebdo were a Neo Nazi organization, I would support a boycott even if its publication were scrupulously engaged in the right kind of speech. I just think, given the purpose of the award, we should be careful about rejecting potential honorees on viewpoint grounds.

I like the GMO example, and I think Crain makes a good case that Charlie Hebdo is more like the local idiot than like the local Nazi.

11:20 AM  
Blogger James said...

All right Alan, I truly don't understand your point about Wilson. You seem to be saying that I shouldn't criticize him for making an insane argument because his argument is so insane that he can't possibly mean it. So we should interpret him to be saying something sane, that is, something exactly opposite of what he wrote.

What am I to make of this? How am I supposed to respond to arguments like Wilson's if I disagree with them? And should we extend the same courtesy to, say, the Scientologists? By your logic their religion is one of the most sane ones in existence (by which I mean, their stated beliefs are completely bonkers).

7:59 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

"Exactly the opposite?" Come on, it's pretty clear from the context of his post that what Wilson really is objecting to is people not bothering to acquire an understanding of Charlie Hebdo's satire before passing judgment on it. So yes, this isn't, strictly speaking, the same thing as not bothering to personally learn French, but it's the same upshot. Look at his examples -- he's calling out people who judge Charlie Hebdo at face value, without even obtaining translations, much less culturally- and politically-informed ones. Yes, he literally says he's objecting to people who don't speak any French passing judgment, but it seems clear from the context that who he really means to call out are people who don't speak or understand French, including via appropriate translation. The fact that the article isn't tightly written further supports my view -- it's apparent Wilson wasn't writing for a rigorous audience. Again, I ask: does it really make sense to read him as advancing radical skepticism about translation, when you can just read him as meaning "speak or understand" when he says "speak?"

Soy yeah, how are you supposed to respond to arguments like Wilson's if you disagree with them? Well, I think it's eminently fair to point out that the argument is literally untenable, but then I think you ought to cut to the chase and deal with the argument that was intended to be made. In this case I think you should acknowledge that Wilson's intended argument is correct in an anodyne (to borrow Sarang's term) sense, and then focus on the real issue, which is essentially whether Charlie Hebdo, in linguistic and cultural context, is more like the local idiot or more like the local Nazi.

Should we extend the same courtesy to the Scientologists? Of course not, because we have every reason to believe their intended arguments are bonkers. If you asked a Scientologist, "does Scientology really believe that shit about aliens?" my understanding is they'd say yes, or at least something tantamount to "yes in principle." But if you asked Wilson, "does someone who consulted with an English-speaking Charlie Hebdo writer about his work still have no right to judge that work," my understanding is he'd say, "oh, no, that person counts as having learned French for purposes of my argument; my argument wasn't directed towards them."

1:44 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Can we move on to the still-outstanding question of whether McLiam Wilson would "respect" an AI that spoke French perfectly and vituperated against Charlie Hebdo but did not seem advanced enough to understand French.

Also, perhaps Wilson just doesn't respect people or AIs that don't speak French, regardless of their views on Charlie Hebdo. I have known people like that.

5:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted something similar in reply to another comment, but its core idea is relevant here as well.

If action X s offensive to group A, and group A is known to respond violently to action X. Then if action X is not occurring regularly, violence has won. A peaceful and liberal society simply cannot allow violence to win. It really ought to be morally obligatory to engage in action A.

The way a peaceful and liberal society is maintained is that the aims of the violent must be frustrated at all turns until violence is abandoned. Most people don't do this, because violent people are scary, but ideally it is what we would ask of everyone.

Charlie Hedbo did what was necessary to defend a peaceful society. I think honoring that is probably necessary to maintain a peaceful society because you want others to do the same thing.

If no one was getting killed for Mohammad cartoons or drawings, then making them would just be a dick move that offended people for no good reason. But that is not the world that exists. In the real world there a violent extremists who will win unless Mohammad cartoons continue to be published. If they were published, for many years and there was no violence and lots of offense, then they should be discouraged and the people who publish them discouraged. Context matters.

8:23 AM  
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8:01 PM  

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