By Zak Brown
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Western media has wasted no time tooting its own horn regarding the value of “free speech” in our liberal societies.
But what should we think about this defense of “free speech”?
No doubt, the massacre at Charlie Hebdo which left 12 dead and dozens more wounded was a terrible atrocity. Every sensible individual should condemn this attack, and nearly everyone already has. However, we should not confuse the massacre which occurred at Charlie Hebdo with some fundamental attack on freedom of speech. The reason the publication was attacked is because radical Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS are at war with liberal democracy. Charlie Hebdo was a vocal critic of these groups along with Islam itself and therefore posed a very ripe target for such an attack. The problem is that if we are to conflate this attack with an attack on freedom of speech, then we are forced to hold up Charlie Hebdo as a shining example of “free speech” in its most abstract sense.
What about Charlie?
Is Charlie Hebdo really a shining example of “free speech”?
It’s been argued that the publication itself was explicitly racist in its depiction of Muslims and the Middle East; along with various accusations of homophobia and misogyny, the magazine is not an uncontroversial center of discussion. Despite these accusations, many pro-Charlie readers and sympathizers have argued that the satire of the magazine is misunderstood, and that while openly offensive to religious belief, Charlie Hebdo has published nothing with a racist or islamophobic intent.
Having seen many of the cartoons myself, I feel this position is far too generous to our “anti-racist”, “anti-theist” friends at Charlie Hebdo. Many of the characterizations, especially of Muslim and Jewish individuals, accentuate ethnic features with the clear intent to depict them in some racialized sense. So even if Charlie Hebdo and co. feel as though their intent is fair or balanced, their racism seems to bleed through quite observably onto their work.
Regardless, all of these musings pertaining to Charlie Hebdo and “free speech” generally forget one crucial element: Charlie isn’t cartooning in a cosmic vaccuum.
Muslims remain a very marginalized community within Western Europe, especially in France where Muslims comprise between 60-70% of the prison population while making up a fraction of the population at large. This systemic oppression of the Muslim community has burst forth quite explicitly in the recent bombings of French mosques, presumably in “retaliation” for the recent massacre. All of which should help us conclude that mocking Muslims and Islam while in the position of Charlie Hebdo is less about “free speech” and more about perpetuating a chauvinist state of affairs.
What the Islamist militants attacked was not “free speech” but frankly a very derogatory and unprincipled “satirizing” of Islam. This does nothing to admonish their guilt in the massacre, but surely it should help us contextualize these attacks as being a result of a heated ideological war – between eurocentric liberalism and islamist fascism – rather than a unilateral act of terror. This ideological war which has seen incredible atrocities committed on both sides, but still more violence has been inflicted by the Western liberals against the people of the Middle East and Africa than vice versa. Furthermore, anyone familiar with history should remember that violent conflict between hyperreligious fundamentalism and western liberalism is hardly novel or unique to Islam. These conflicts arise as expected in the course of great contradiction between fundamentally antagonistic rivals.
Free Speech and Criticism as Principles
So is mocking Islam entirely out of the question? Does “Free Speech” mean anything at all?
Certainly, anyone should be able to criticize or mock a religion or religious figure without fear of reprisal. This is a fundamentally liberal principle that like many others can be deduced as necessary for an open society, not simply one that is indicative of a liberal democracy. All socialists, communists, and general progressives should defend that right as being necessary for a vibrant and critical public discourse. However, it’s not simply enough to leave this question in the realm of the abstract and pretend as if “Free Speech” itself is not manipulated through power relations.
We must ask ourselves the fundamental question: Free speech for whom and to say what?
Class society acts upon all realms of discourse, no matter how principled or objective they seem. Indeed, capitalist society bends even the most basic pillars of liberal thought such as “freedom of speech” or “freedom of religion” like gravity altering the projection of light, and produces them in such a way so that the fundamental inequalities this society is founded upon can persist. Therefore, we must consciously differentiate between speech which challenges hegemony and that which empowers it.
Speech which empowers hegemony, through some defense of the oppressor or belittling of the oppressed, must be criticized and resisted.
Speech which challenges hegemony, through some criticism of oppression or empowerment of the oppressed, must be defended and strengthened.
Pretending that these two sorts of speech are identical in character is a pitfall of modern liberalism. Liberalism at its finest presents content which seems progressive but when contextualized quickly becomes reactionary. The recent liberal defense of Charlie Hebdo is a perfect example. “Everyone should have the right to speak freely” is a great principle to have until we realize that “everyone” includes those who are drawing a nude Muhammad while Muslims are being tossed in prison on a whim.
Furthermore, like all great liberal pillars, the “freedom of speech” never behaves quite as one might envision. In capitalism, most media is concentrated into the hands of a few private conglomerates who draft the talking-points, write the scripts, and essentially manufacture the “official coverage”. In reality, its their speech, the speech that actually influences decision-making and composes the wider narrative, that fundamentally matters; you may have your “freedom of speech” but that freedom is generally no more than the freedom a dog has on a leash – an illusion of freedom for comfort more than anything else.
So as a socialist I would suggest that a genuine “freedom of speech” would include not just Charlie Hebdo lampooning Muslims and the Islamic faith with derogatory cartoons and remarks, but also with adequate and equally publicized responses from the Muslim community themselves. Genuine “freedom of speech” means that the plight of working people is actually listened to, and no one but the most hateful reactionaries are excluded from meaningful public discourse. Genuine “freedom of speech” means that the news is not held hostage by multi-billion dollar media conglomerates desperate to sell a narrative. This interpretation affirms the principle of “free speech” while taking it to its fundamental conclusion: “free speech” is not free when its the master talking down on his slaves.
Ultimately, satire is supposed to challenge power and make it humorous, not berate the most poor and oppressed among us.
And yes, there is a right and a wrong way to criticize religion. First, recognize the humanity of those you are criticizing and respect the person behind the belief (e.g. don’t depict followers as animals or racially inferior). Secondly, there are many kernels to religion worth preserving – compassion, community, thoughtfulness, intrigue, etc. – and any fruitful criticism of religion must recognize this. Thirdly, extrapolate these kernels outside the framework of religion itself, outside the hierarchy, the dogma, and the tiring metaphysics.
The most powerful criticism of religion is that we can affirm principles which are just in any belief system and boot the rest. The point at which we can do that is the point at which there is no purpose to organized religious belief.
However, this is neither here nor there, the point is that even with respect to a progressive understanding of “free speech”, there is plenty of room to criticize religion. Even humorous, raunchy, and “offensive” criticism is acceptable as long as it does not violate the cultural identity of believers, and with the understanding that the critic makes themselves prime target for a comical retaliation.
I am not Charlie Hebdo. If you’re progressive, then you are not Charlie Hebdo. The massacre which took place had nothing to do with “freedom of speech”, and even then we must be critical of exactly what “freedom of speech” implies in a capitalist and white supremacist society.
This should be quite obvious considering the same nations which are championing “free speech” in wake of the massacre are the same nations which imprison whistle blowers, ban Palestinian solidarity demonstrations, and murder journalists. Regardless, a more just interpretation of “free speech” is possible and it depends on our understanding of how speech functions in capitalist society. Fundamentally, the question “speech for whom and to say what” must guide our response to these flagrant and abstract notions of an otherwise malleable social mechanism.
“Freedom of speech” isn’t free until the oppressed aren’t speaking from their shackles.