Offense for Offense’s Sake

Our courts and our universities are full of people who have devoted some or all of their careers to free speech and free expression. The history of the idea, its justifications, its forms and its limits have been investigated, scrutinized and criticized countless times.

At some very general level, everyone is for it, of course. The devil – or, rather, the complexity – is in the details.

Those details didn’t seem to matter in the immediate aftermath of the assault on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris.

That atrocity brought millions into the streets — in support of free speech and in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims and the people killed in a nearly simultaneous assault on a kosher grocery store by the Porte de Vincennes.

It was a remarkable display: so many people, demonstrating forcefully and passionately – in behalf of a philosophical doctrine associated historically and conceptually with liberalism, arguably the wisest, but certainly the most soporific, ideology on the face of the earth.

Mass demonstrations in favor of good causes are always inspiring; the January 11 demonstration in Paris was particularly moving, if only for its size and the earnestness of its participants.

Although it was organized by the French government, not by opponents of the regime, it recalled a demonstration held in Paris during the student-worker uprisings of May 68.

Prompted by the deportation of the charismatic Danny the Red, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, people then took to the streets chanting: “Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands (we are all German Jews).” The slogan this time, as everybody knows, was: “Je suis Charlie.”

Evidently, before the onset of the neoliberal era, “nous (we),” not “je (I)” came more easily to mind. Mais quand même, solidarity is solidarity; the Paris demonstration was about as good as it gets these days.

Many of the world leaders who came to Paris for the event were among the world’s worst violators of the principles the masses of demonstrators were there to defend.   But even their hypocrisy, revolting as it was, could not deflect the demonstration’s positive impact.

Neither could the realization that equal or great atrocities are perpetrated regularly around the world – on non-European peoples.

There is Boko Haram, of course; but there is also the terrifying reality of American and European drones. They have become a fact of life for “insurgents” and civilians alike — from Afghanistan and Pakistan, through Syria and Iraq, to Yemen, and throughout East Africa.

And there is what Israel does to Gaza, acutely every two years or so and chronically all the time. The situation Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories face, from both the settlers and the Israeli army, is hardly better.

By nearly any measure, these crimes and others like them are more ghastly than anything the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly did. However, the Western mind is numb to the depredations of empire; only the horrors Islamists perpetrate – in the West or to Westerners — get through.

There are two reasons for this: the first is that the West is full of latent and not so latent Islamophobes eager for excuses to turn actively vile; the second is that radical Islamists are good at getting Americans and Europeans to make themselves crazy. They know what buttons to press.

Craziness erupted after 9/11, and has been going strong every since. So far, the U.S. has led the way. Now, though, it looks like the French — and the Belgians, along with the British and the Germans and others — are about to ratchet up the level several notches.

What the West will do to itself is worse by orders of magnitude than anything Al Qaida in its several incarnations or the Islamic State can do to it. This is how it has been, and how it will be.

The January 11 demonstration was therefore a moment to savor.

It will be remembered as a lull before the onset of the next stage in the process of self-destruction that George Bush, Dick Cheney, and a vengeful American Congress set in motion nearly fourteen years ago.

In the next phase, the old Europe will find its stride – as France and Britain and Germany, their media and ours in tow, take the lead in undermining the values the throngs in Paris celebrated. But we are not any better off on this account; America will be dragged in too.

Second fiddle is not the American way, and abject subordination is still the European way. Therefore, expect this new and very dangerous phase of the Global War on Terror to be brought back home soon. Egged on by bloodthirsty Republican legislators and with an election looming, Barack Obama will find a way, yet again, to “lead from behind.”

Who knows what horrors will follow then. All that is clear for now is that the Right, especially the extreme Right, will benefit, and that Islamophobic hooligans will feel more empowered than in the past to make the lives of innocent Muslims onerous. Also Al Qaida et. al. will have an even easier time gaining sympathizers and recruits.

As they did after 9/11, radical Islamists can just sit back and watch. In the clash of stupidities that dominates the current phase of world history, only the side representing “Western civilization” gets to knock itself out.

The demonstration in Paris was also a salutary departure from the bleakness of neoliberal politics. It gave people a chance to feel hopeful again.

In the spirit of the demonstrators, let us therefore stipulate, as lawyers would say, that free expression is of paramount importance in any decent society. Let’s also agree that, while there may sometimes be a case for governments regulating the exercise of speech – restricting times and places where free expression is permitted, for example – governments should never regulate speech’s content.

Let’s stipulate too that the kinds of protections accorded media by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution are indispensable in a free society. The French might note, as they celebrate themselves, that their own rights are not similarly protected.

First Amendment prohibitions reflect early liberalism’s concern with relations between the individual and the state.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, liberal thinkers were beginning to take a more expansive view of what their philosophical commitments entailed.

For example, in On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill maintained that the very stringent “principle of liberty” he defended – that the only grounds for interfering with the life and liberty of any individual is to prevent harm to (identifiable) others — pertained not only to relations between the individual and the state, but also to what he called “the moral coercion of public opinion.”

Modern liberals, and even some libertarians (proponents of unreconstructed nineteenth century liberalism), agree – especially with regard to freedom of expression.  They are as wary of the moral coercion of public opinion as of government interference itself.

But, by this, they mean majority public opinion. In France today, the majority is fine with cartoons that mock the Prophet Mohammed. Only a small minority is not.

We hear now that one of Charlie Hebdo’s objectives is to give offense. This can be hard work – especially in a world in which, for the vast majority, hardly anything any longer is sacred.

In such a world, drawings in magazines and newspapers are more likely to elicit yawns than outrage.   Worse still for the provacateurs at Charlie Hebdo, it is hard even to get people to pay attention enough to yawn. Their “business model” is hardly a winner.

In these circumstances, the only thing to do, short of giving up, is to become even more offensive – in the hope that somebody will notice and care enough to keep the Euros coming in.

Giving offense is not the same as being in bad taste. That is child’s play, and well within Charlie Hebdo’s means. Offending the majority population by insulting their religion is probably not — because, increasingly, throughout the so-called First World, nobody much cares about religion, and those who do are unlikely to care about, or even to have heard of, Charlie Hebdo.

But all is not lost. If the Charlie Hebdo people are dead set on getting somebody’s goat, if they really do want to offend for offense’s sake, Muslims are easy prey.

For this, they have a millennium and a half of troubled relations between the Christian West and the Muslim East to thank, along with centuries of Western colonial domination, and, more recently, decades of egregious American and European meddling in the affairs of the Muslim world.

The economic and strategic importance of oil, and related geopolitical concerns, explain the meddling; the ineptitude of the meddlers explains the blowback it elicits. The blowback can be violent – and sometimes murderous.

In the United States, there were always decorous persons who took exception, and some high-minded types were overtly opposed, but it used to be more or less acceptable to express disparaging views of racial, ethnic and national minorities. “Political correctness” put an end to most of that – for everybody except Muslims. In their case, political correctness only toned down the volume.

Thanks to France’s colonial involvement in North Africa, and to the comparative paucity of other “others” in metropolitan France, it has always been more acceptable to disparage Muslims there – directly or in more subtle ways – than in the United States.

The satirists at Charlie Hebdo do not appear to have felt any particular animosity towards Muslims, but the cultural ambience may at least partly explain their readiness to mock the Prophet. It certainly explains the readiness of Muslims in France and elsewhere to take the bait.

The larger part of the explanation, however, has to do with institutional factors; with the ways enlightened, republican France deals with its Muslim citizens. Muslims get no respect, and their political influence is nil.

It is very different with Jews. Would Charlie Hebdo run cartoons depicting Jews in ways that were commonplace in French anti-Semitic publications before the end of the Second World War?

Not only does the question answer itself; it is plain that were it or any other French publication to try, the authorities would promptly shut it down. Notwithstanding the liberal pieties voiced January 11, they wouldn’t even bat an eye.

In 2005, Charlie Hebdo, along with other defenders of free expression, reproduced the cartoon depicting Mohammed as a terrorist that had been published in the right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Would any of them have published a picture of someone associated with the Jewish religion – Moses, perhaps – fitted out as a Shylock? Some such thought has doubtless occurred to Muslims in France and elsewhere.

Nor could they have failed to notice that the military is now out in force protecting Jewish institutions in France and Belgium. Who will protect Muslim institutions?   Their need is palpably greater inasmuch as they really do face a clear and present danger.

To be sure, in countries, like France, where Nazi collaborators once abounded, there is an understandable reluctance to tolerate speech, even satirical speech, that hints at anti-Semitic motifs.

In those countries too, Jews are understandably on edge. How could they not be when Zionists, eager to move Jewish bodies to Israel to counter the Palestinians’ “demographic bomb,” won’t let them forget?

But Muslims have historical – and on-going – grievances as well. Was what the French did to Jews when France was controlled by the Third Reich really that much worse than what it did to Muslims in the Maghreb when, for example, the dying French empire struggled on its own initiative to quash the Algerian national liberation movement?

There is no metric for comparing evils, but it would be fair to say that France has much to answer for in both cases.   Yet it answers for one, and not the other.

This hardly excuses radical Islamist atrocities.   But it does at least partly explain the context of the crimes committed at the Charlie Hebdo office and at the kosher grocery store.

While America was still segregated — officially in the South, unofficially everywhere else — the French were famously hospitable to expat African Americans; the fondness, on both sides, persists to this day.

The French take pride in this – justifiably. But much like their self-congratulatory paeans to Enlightenment values January 11, their claims to superiority in race relations have always been more than a little disingenuous.

The African American expats welcomed in France were, for the most part, musicians, writers and artists, not unemployed lumpenproletarians. Immigrants from former French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa have never been treated as well. Neither have Arabs from the Maghreb.

France is and always has been especially closed to Arabs – not because they refuse to assimilate, and not because they have an inherent “terrorist” streak, but because history, France’s colonial history, has turned them into an eternal “other” – much as Jews had been and now, for the most part, no longer are, even in rightwing circles.

The attitudinal and institutional racism afflicting African Americans has a different history, but there are nevertheless lessons to be drawn from comparing the two situations. These lessons are relevant to some of the issues raised by the events around Charlie Hebdo.

Thanks to the civil rights movement and to the still generally progressive political culture of the 1970s, changes put in place decades ago have enabled a few African Americans to reach the pinnacles of power. There are now highflying African American capitalists and politicians; there is even an African American President.

Attitudinal racism has declined too; institutional racism not so much. But, even there, the trend has been positive and significant. Nevertheless, African Americans still comprise an “underclass” in the United States just as surely as North African Arabs do in France.

Still, no one who is not an unreconstructed white supremacist would think of drawing cartoons that would offend African American sensibilities the way that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons offended the sensibilities of Muslims in France and around the world.

For this, we can only partly credit “the moral arc of the universe” that Martin Luther King made so much of.   And neither can we credit African Americans’ political or economic clout, notwithstanding the progress made in recent decades.

For the fact that no one dares utter “the n-word,” and that no one would even think of caricaturing African Americans in the ways that were once commonplace, we have mainly the urban uprisings of the 1960s and the ensuing Black Power movement to thank.

Respect does come from moral progress, and economically successful and politically influential peoples are seldom disparaged.   But intimidation works too; sometimes it works for the good.

Militants in the Black Power movement wanted to do more than just discourage offensive words and images. Their larger goal was to empower African Americans and to improve their lot. Some of them wanted to transform society itself.

Those larger goals remain unachieved, but offensive words and images are, by now, largely gone from mainstream public discourse.

Radical Islamist intimidation seems to have a different, far less worthy, purpose.  Their overriding aim appears to be only to win recruits for their cause. To that end, they are willing, even eager, to harm Muslim communities, and to kill their co-religionists.

For what cause?   It is hard to say – not just because what they do is more revealing clinically than politically, but also because taking them at their word would only insult them further.

But unless they are actually working for the military-industrial-national security state complexes of Western countries, or for Israeli intelligence, there seems to be no alternative other than to believe what they say. Their goal, they tell the world, is to restore ways of thinking and acting that have been superseded for more than a thousand years.

American neoconservatives have dumb goals too and so do their kinder-gentler successors, “humanitarian” interventionists of the Susan Rice-Samantha Power variety. And just as it is obvious that radical Islam hurts Muslim communities, it is also obvious that Western operations directed against radical Islamists harm the West.

Forget the drivel about a clash of civilizations. The leaders of one side are in way over their heads, while the leaders of the other side are insane. Ironically, though, they are more rational, in the most basic sense of the term, than the clueless defenders of “truth, justice and the American way”; they are better at adapting means to ends.

Why then help them act on those ends? This is what Charlie Hebdo did, and is still doing. They have a right to do that; this everyone concedes. But what worthwhile purpose could they think exercising that right serves?

Art for art’s sake makes sense for those who think that making art is good in itself.   Offending for the sake of offending makes no sense, except to those who think that giving offense has intrinsic value too. Who could think that?

It could be argued, however, that giving offense has, or can have, beneficial consequences.

But how? Perhaps because testing and exceeding the limits of what the public deems acceptable helps make the practice of tolerance more secure. But there are good and bad ways to test limits; gratuitously offending an oppressed community is not among the good ways.

Going after the powerful, mocking them, insulting what they hold sacred, is another story.

But rubbing oppression in the face of the oppressed; what is the value in that? All it does is make a bad situation worse.

It is wrong-headed, even when it is not mean-spirited. It is also imprudent. As the Charlie Hebdo staff surely knew, it can provoke a violent response. It did on January 7 and 8.

It hardly matters whether they were well intentioned or deliberately malicious. They acted wrongly.

They also acted bravely. Even had they not paid with their lives, they would merit high marks for standing up for a principle. This is a virtue sorely lacking in our “free press” today.

But they took a principled stand in a noxious and reckless way. It was noxious because it took aim at the weak. It was reckless because it put lives at risk for no reason.

Bravo to all who think that freedom of expression – and liberty generally – are ideals worth dying for; but shame on those who use free speech to make oppression worse, even when that is not their aim.

All religions merit ridicule. But in today’s world, using free speech to offend Muslims, even if only by ridiculing their faith, is foolish and perverse.

The Charlie Hebdo victims paid the highest possible price for their failure to grasp this simple truth. Because they did, the world must now pay too.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).