An Open Letter to Laurie Penny

By David Paxton

Ms Penny,

Apologies for the rather trite format. I am no fan of open letters but I have long been blocked by you on Twitter and this is the remaining method of contacting you openly.

It’s now been over five weeks since the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. 48hrs subsequent to them you posted the following:

Murder is vile and unconscionable. Freedom of the press must be protected. But racist trolling is not heroism. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.

This single tweet is all this is about. You didn’t say much else about the attack as far as I could find. And I looked.

I was appalled by many responses to the attacks and wrote a piece highlighting my problems with them. Your tweet is featured in it under the section ‘Reflexive Smearing’. Reading it back I was still struck by what you had written and think it valid to revisit. I believe there is a disparity between what you profess to believe in, how you usually conduct yourself and the content of your statement. Something doesn’t add up and I would be much obliged if at the very least you could help clarify it and end my confusion.

My objections to your message are as follows:

1: You force equivalence/balance into the statement via the formulation. Namely: ‘The murderer is wrong but so are the victims.’  It seems to suggest you were incapable, for some reason, of being satisfied merely with condemning Islamist murderers.

2: You reduce Charlie Hebdo’s work to mere ‘trolling’. Under some definitions of trolling this might be accurate but you only ever employ it as a pejorative. I am assuming you have done so here.

3: You chose to distance yourself from those expressing solidarity with them.

4: You deny their heroism.

5: You accuse the dead of being racist. I believe unfairly.

The first objection is probably worth leaving. I explained in my previous piece how the selective use of this formulation is perhaps a symptom of something else. I stand by that. But in its plain meaning it is merely the expression of two opinions side by side. I cannot definitively prove the ill-intent of the implied equivalence so I won’t ask you to deny it here. Although as a writer from whom I have read the term ‘victim blaming’ with some frequency, can you not see why your formulation gives off the strong whiff of it?

The remaining four points collectively amount to something quite egregious. I think it is incumbent on you to explain why you stand by your statement or repudiate it and apologise. I shall explain why this is so.

But before anything else I would strongly recommend you read this excellent piece by Frenchman Olivier Tonneau. It’s called A Letter to My British Friends and I’m sure he means you more than me, a conservative. Perhaps after reading it yourself we can be done with this early and move straight on to your repudiation and apology. There are several pieces explaining Charlie Hebdo’s content and style but I chose this one as a starting point because the author’s views are closest to what I perceive to be your own about most subjects.

I was aware of what Charlie Hebdo was since the 2006 Danish Cartoon controversy. However, I speak lousy French and five weeks ago I could not claim detailed knowledge of its content and history. Many of the first voices to speak out after the attacks were adamant of its malign intentions and conduct and there were cartoons, taken out of context, to back this up. Did you see an unexplained cartoon of Boko Haram sex slaves perchance? Is that what made you write what you did?

Knowing as I did that they were a far left, secular, deeply anti-racist organisation, the initial accusations did not ring true to me and I endeavoured to find the context and explanation of the images being circulated. That did take some time. Therefore I can understand how people under pressure to comment quickly and without foreknowledge may well have relied on these spurious accusations of racism. Perhaps you were one of those people? Did you perhaps not know what you were talking about but were as yet unaware of this ignorance? You follow Graham Linehan on Twitter, he set out early to speak against the victim blaming and was quick to disseminate backgrounds and explanations to the more controversial cartoons. Did you miss his commendable efforts before commenting? More to the point, five weeks on, are you still content in calling them unheroic racist trolls?

Assuming you are:

Let’s look at the trolling accusation. Judging the value or quality of satire is difficult. But Charlie Hebdo consistently and unfalteringly engaged in opposition to the following:

  • Corruption in government
  • Unwarranted power of big business
  • Europe’s disastrous austerity policies
  • Israeli actions in Gaza
  • Restrictions on immigration
  • Anti-immigrant policies
  • Any form of racism
  • Organised Religion
  • The Le Pen family, the National Front and their populist politics

Are there any on the list you wish that they didn’t attack? Or dispute that they did? These seem far closer to your political agenda than my own and I would have thought you a confirmed supporter of their efforts. Have you evidence they did things beyond this you felt worthy of condemnation? Do tell.

Even if you choose to describe their pieces and cartoons as being on the level of a troll’s output, surely the specific and righteous targeting elevates it above that? Why did you feel it reasonable to summarise the work they died for as merely trolling? As often as not your use of ‘troll’ is aimed at the sort of rampant misogynists who hurl rape threats at your feminist comrades. At this point I would invite you to examine this obituary of Elsa Cayat. Please read about this wonderful woman, named and singled out by the murderers, the only woman who was. Was her work trolling? If she was Charlie when she was murdered why aren’t you subsequently? Please spell it out.

As for choosing to expressly deny solidarity, I think the case for declaring solidarity is overwhelming, regardless of approval of the content. I made this case here and so will save myself the bother of making it in detail once more. However, a summation would be that for you to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted you’ve a duty to show solidarity with those threatened for free expression regardless of whether you approve of the expression. What is more, not stating “Je suis Charlie” is the simplest way to not express solidarity but to state “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” is something else altogether. The former hashtag came first and the latter was a repudiation of it. You therefore positively stated opposition to standing with them. Is there not something questionable in choosing to make your only contribution to the aftermath of a massacre include a repudiation of solidarity with the victims? I can scarcely imagine the crimes one would have to commit for me to make such a clear statement of separation from them after their cold-blooded murder. Why the hell did you?

“…not heroism”: Well this is a tricky one because surely such things are relative? Allow me to put my refutation in the form of a question. Imagine, you’re an editor of a magazine dedicated to secularism and you know for doing this job you are on the hit lists of active terrorist groups who have already taken serious risks to kill others. You acknowledge that you are under the most dire of threats and following a previous attack you say, and clearly mean, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees”. You can quit any time, but you don’t. Is that not heroic?

Now imagine that after this situation has transpired two religious-extremist thugs enter your place of work, call you out by name and shoot you in the head with an assault rifle. Assume you’ve enough time after realising certain death is imminent to contemplate that a fellow feminist, anti-racist, left-wing writer with 106,000 followers decides to publicly denounce your effort as unheroic. Ok, that might be the last thing on his mind but what if that was the final thing on Stéphane Charbonnier’s mind? Are you happy with that?

I have met two VC recipients and multiple MM/MC recipients, all of whom are heroic by virtue of combating pretty nasty people while being fortunate enough to be armed and trained. I know none who have faced the same people with nowt but a pen and a metaphorical prayer. If that isn’t heroic, Ms Penny, tell us what is? Can you name examples of people who are significantly more heroic? I honestly cannot. We’re up near Dietrich Bonhoeffer levels here. Tell us who has more steadfastly done what they considered right in the face of such apparent risks? Charb knew the risks, they were grave and they manifested in his murder. If you wish to claim this is not heroic that’s up to you but without explaining why, forgive me for thinking you not only wrong but so very clearly wrong that one has to start to question what motivation would lead you to choose to label such clear heroism as the opposite. Would you deign to enlighten? I contend you owe it to the dead whom you so casually choose to belittle.

Finally we’re left with racism. I’ve read thousands of your words so, although never having met you, I think if I were to sum up what you’re about politically, in a few bullet points, ‘anti-racist’ would feature high up and you wouldn’t disagree. I’d then also assume you know the following: Good people have exerted enormous effort to make the charge of racism, when proven, an enormous stigma. In fact it’s so virulent that it’s an enormous stigma even when unproven. The former case is a cause for celebration and for much of the advancement our societies have made regarding racism. The latter is, unfortunately, a temptation for those who wish to discredit or silence people they disagree with by misusing the power of the charge.

There is something uniquely pernicious about casual and false accusations of racism. This is because it diminishes the weight of the accusation that so many have fought to make weighty. I contend your attribution of racism is both false and casual and therefore you are making it easier for racists to express themselves without pause. You are making the social penalty harder to apply. Why did you choose to apply it?

There’s a burden of proof problem here. I could blow another couple thousand words explaining why these avowed anti-racists are not racist but ultimately one cannot prove a negative. The burden of proof is on you. If you are going to make an accusation that defies the stated mission of the newly dead, is the burden not on you to show why? Why have you shirked it?

No matter how hard one tries to think the best here it seems inescapable that you smeared the dead as racists. And with no valid justification. It’s not just an insult to the victims it clearly works against any serious effort to fight racism. How low is that? How do you live with that?

I wonder how firm you are in your convictions? Let’s try this…

12 Dead In French Magazine Shooting

This is the unheroic, racist, troll Stéphane Charbonnier. The man who contributed his talent to the National Movement Against Racism by the way and the one whose activities you felt comfortable to condemn in the same tweet as condemning his murder.

This was his partner:

Jeannette-Bougrab-portrait-en-2007_exact1024x768_l copy

Her name is Jeannetter Bougrab. Of Muslim parentage she had, by the time she got her PhD in public law from the Sorbonne, become a secular atheist. At one point in her career she was the Chair of the French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission.

If something is true, it is true at anytime, in any place and in any company. So I ask you if you would be earnestly able to explain to this woman why her loved one was not just a troll, not just unheroic but also a racist? Do you think this news would be a shock to her? That she had given her love to a racist by being duped and that somehow you know better than her? Or do you suggest she knowingly loved a racist? Do you think your evidence would be strong enough to convince her? Or perhaps you merely smeared her loved one from a condition of total ignorance or for reasons of malice? Which is it? Is there another option?

I’ll sum up:

I easily understand why fifth columnist extremists head straight for the implications you made. They seek to shift the blame from their own Islamic ideology. However, I don’t understand how you’ve ended up on the opposing side to Caroline Fourest. Do you understand this? Can you justify it?

Stating you’re not Charlie is on the one hand a contemptible denial of support but on the other a clear statement of fact. You don’t deserve to be considered alongside those that died that day or whom managed to continue producing their magazine in the aftermath. At least not for as long as you are willing to stand by your opinion.

Now this time has passed and you are able to reflect upon what you wrote, have you altered your opinion any?

I would like you to do one of the following:

1: Justify your opinion. For although you have the right to make it, such a strong opinion, especially about those unable to reply, requires justification.


2: Repudiate your previous statement. Do so publicly and set straight those whom you influence and may have taken your ignorant and precipitant declaration as somehow based on thought and knowledge. Of course, with this should also come an apology and an explanation. What serious person could provide less?

29 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Laurie Penny

  1. I think this is an excellent article and one that is fair to the Charlie Hebdo victims (including the police officers who were murdered in the line of duty that Laurie tarred with her statement) and also gives the benefit of the doubt to Laurie Penny and the right of reply, whilst also outlining the criticisms of her statement in profound detail.

    Well done.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I returned from a weekend in Paris a week after the murders at CH and in Vincennes. During the weekend we spent an evening in the Marais where most of the restaurants and bars had signs saying Chez Charlie. We were glad to have been and spent time there, discreetly guarded in places by armed police. When I got back I spoke to a few friends who all trotted what I now call the Laurie Penny position. What is interesting is that in doing this they never showed the slightest interest in hearing about a real experience in the city where these terrible murders happened. Nor any sympathy for the Jews murdered at the supermarket. I guess that whatever Laurie Penny does to inure herself against feeling is something they were able to do too.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Super. I can’t think much past “sixth-form essay” for anything she writes. Here, she got it so, so wrong, as well as mixed-up thinking, hypocrisy and just about every other mistake you can make in one tweet.


  4. Absolutely brilliant. I am not a conservative, and we would flatly disagree on economic issues I am sure. However, I have dedicated much of my time to challenging such hateful, bigoted, shameful rubbish from the so-called ‘left’ as this. Laurie Penny is ridiculous anyway, but this was a low for her. Luckily many people on both the left and right seem to be standing up to this new, post-modern, relative ‘liberalism’ with all its false equations. I can only thank you for contributing your voice to them.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. So she replied in a fashion. She says her thinking has evolved since then.
    Fair enough I’d say.
    And I don’t think you can just presume that you can have large Muslim populations in your countries – and draw cartoons like some ”holy prophet” as a dog or whatever.
    The two things are like oil and water to each other.
    You can have one but not both I think.
    Not without there being serious trouble.


  6. Laurie Penny is not the first of the Guardian’s “left-wing” writers to have used the accusation of racism against anyone who challenges some of the extreme misogyny in Islam. Here’s anarcho-syndicalist Ally Fogg in an article I wrote Is Ally Fogg also calling the National Secular Society racist for publishing this article criticising religion?

    “Portraying all members of a religion, even those running an acclaimed humanitarian charity, as being responsible for the worst crimes of their social group is an extremely and inescapably racist thing to do.”

    It is of course only by portraying those who criticise Islam as racists that he and Penny can avoid having to confront the gaping contradiction in their own ideology and having to come to terms with it.


  7. Wonderful to see the swivel-eyed racists who get off on the pitifully unfunny Charlie Hebdo humiliated by Penny Red. She by no means condoned terrorism – pretending she did is puerile – but she rightly stands up to hate publications. It’s very noticeable that those commenting on this embarrassingly pompous justification for racism are all lonely non-entities living with their cats. Lol.


    • Norman,

      “She by no means condoned terrorism – pretending she did is puerile”

      Not quite as puerile as pretending I pretended she did.

      “It’s very noticeable that those commenting on this embarrassingly pompous justification for racism are all lonely non-entities living with their cats. Lol.”

      Pomposity is certainly one of my many vices. Yours however is joining in with unsubstantiated accusations of racism. Shame on you.

      Feel free to justify your accusations with evidence at any time.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Good ideas, wrong forum

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  10. I’m not Laurie Penny but agree with her tweet. I’d respond to your points as follows:

    1) Do you believe that opposition to western atheists printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is compatible with with the view the killing were evil and wicked? If you believe these views are compatible, why do you object to someone expressing both views?

    She expressed both views and you portray her as “incapable, for some reason, of being satisfied merely with condemning Islamist murderers”. These seems an odd way to portray someone who chose to express two opinions.

    Maybe you are concerned the tweet suggests they are equivalent wrongs. If you so, I think you are reading too much into it. If she had written “Printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is wrong, but murdering cartoonists is utterly evil” would you have been happier?

    I agree with Ms Penny’s tweet, and don’t think they are equivalent wrongs and I don’t think she’s claiming they are equivalent wrongs.

    2) Wikipedia’s definition of trolling reads along the following lines: sowing discord… posting inflammatory content with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response.

    Surely printing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad fits this definition? (And by all means find another definition if you don’t like this one)

    You wrote “You reduce Charlie Hebdo’s work to mere ‘trolling’.” This is reading too much into what Ms Penny wrote. I interpreted it as a condemnation of the act of printing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, not a condemnation of Charlie Hebdo’s work in general.

    3) Mark Zuckerberg tweeted “Je Suis Charlie” and then two weeks later Facebook censors images of the Prophet Muhammad to avoid being banned in Turkey. I’m sure many of the people tweeting “Je Suis Charlie” did so sincerely, and after thinking about what they were saying, but overall I found it trite in a jumping-on-the-bandwagon type way. I distance myself from them for that reason. (You could accuse me of misunderstanding it or being overly cynical about this, and I won’t defend myself from that accusation.)

    4) I don’t consider printing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad heroic.

    5) You make a good point about Charlie Hebdo’s record on other issues, so I’d agree the accusation of racism seems harsh. Some of the drawings of the Prophet Muhammad do exaggerate racial characteristics though, so I could see how someone just looking at the cartoons – and unaware of Charlie Hebdo’s stance on other issues – could reach the conclusion they were racists.

    So I stand by her tweet.


    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I shall respond in the order you presented them.

      1: “Do you believe that opposition to western atheists printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is compatible with with the view the killing were evil and wicked? If you believe these views are compatible, why do you object to someone expressing both views?”

      Yes they are compatible. As I clearly stated in my letter they are merely two opinions side by side and therefore unprovable as wrong. However, as I outlined in my previous post “Part 2” which I linked to in the letter, the continued formulation speaks to a motivation beyond that. I think it is unfortunate that at that time, and when it is one’s only comment on the subject, the equal billing to the two thoughts is unhelpful. And with many others is a sign of malign intent.

      I think much better to have merely condemned the murders. Why the need then to make a taste comment also? Does that habit not strike you as a bad one? The murder is wrong but the victims were in bad taste.

      I think that, is at best, in very bad taste.

      2: I also stated in the letter that the term ‘trolling’ could be accurate. Your provided definition confirms why I was right to indicate that. However I don’t think it is how Penny usually uses the term. I have only heard her use it in the pejorative and strongly so. So I stand by that. I think she was condemning them for it rather than merely describing their work.

      3: I too think the hashtag trite and easy to use. I never thought it would have much effect and would be a cover for people to do nothing. The solidarity is in sharing the risk by disseminating threatened speech. I never tweeted it myself for that reason though I once used it at the bottom of a blog post (with a Mohammed picture). However, Penny didn’t just not use the hashtag, she used one which repudiated the sentiment. As I clearly stated above she made a positive and active move to express the opposite of solidarity. That is what I complained about. Are you happy to stand by that action too? I think that especially egregious.

      4: Ok. Why not? Or at least let us remove it from the specific.
      You are printing something because you believe doing so is the right thing to do. Terrorists threaten to kill you for it. You keep doing it. They kill you.
      How is that exercising of free speech not heroic? I simply cannot understand.
      Do you believe they didn’t think it the right thing to do? Is that relevant? Have you a different definition to heroism than I? Please elaborate how continuing a peaceful action under realistic threat of death is not heroic. This baffles me. Does your statement only extend to a depiction of Mohammed?

      5: “Some of the drawings of the Prophet Muhammad do exaggerate racial characteristics though, so I could see how someone just looking at the cartoons – and unaware of Charlie Hebdo’s stance on other issues – could reach the conclusion they were racists.”
      If you say so. For me they tend to be artist specific and not especially racial. Either way, that’s not enough for me. They weren’t racist people, I don’t think they had racist intent. That’s enough for me.
      I say it is a false accusation of racism. You say it is ‘a bit harsh’. I’m not willing to split the difference there. What a thing to say about the freshly murdered at the same time as condemning murder. Bizarre.

      I stand by all the objections in my letter.


  11. Laurie Penny is one of the many reasons I don’t even bother with The Guardian on-line any more. I gave up commenting on CiF after I pointed out that Steve Bell once did a cartoon (published in one of his If … books) which showed Ayatalloh Khomenei as a game show host with two burka-clad hostesses. Having made that comment, all my future comments were moderated (ie blocked). The Guardian, liberal, my arse.


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