Charlie Hebdo Reaction: Part 2, Know Your Enemy

By David Paxton

Part 1 is here.

If you’re on Facebook you might know the feeling. Somebody you know socially, somebody you like, generally intelligent and sound, has freshly planted on their Facebook page the latest effusion of Greenwald or Hasan, Francois-Cerrah or Self. This can be tough to take. As it floats there like a turd in a swimming pool the ethics of whether or not to clean it up in public can weigh heavy. You might well restrain yourself until you see the depressing number of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ and you read the ghastly comments underneath. This is something up with which you will not put.

If the person actually knew how stupid or dishonest it was they surely wouldn’t have posted it, but can you put your finger on exactly why it is stupid beneath the facade of nuance and balance?

There are experts we can turn to for help. From left and right and centre:

The late, great Norman Geras, whom this blog exists in honour of, was a master at skewering such pseudo-intellectual fraudulence (see his wonderful 2005 piece about apologists. I shall refer to it below). Hitchens, obviously (his savage demolition of the ghastly Chris Hedges is always good for morale. Here’s a free speech lecture). Mark Steyn has turned such exposure of humbug into an absurdist comedy act (on relativism, on free speech). David Aaronovitch is one of the few in Britain’s media mainstream who refuses to pull any punches against his colleagues. (This week he has taken to strangling weasels). Finally, Maajid Nawaz needs to be mentioned because of the specific topic at hand. Brave, pious and self critical, his patient dealing with slipperiness in this clip shows why he has much to offer you.

The respect achieved by those listed above is well deserved but my single advantage over them today, I suspect, is the sheer weight of bullshit I’ve waded through over this last week (due to their death in some cases).  The cretins kept writing them and I kept reading them. Perfect sadomasochism. But I have done it so you don’t have to, and in doing so I have noted a few recurring themes and tactics and began to pick up a few tips on how to address them. I share them below.

What follows includes a fair amount of ad hominem argument. But by that I don’t mean insults, there’s some of those too, but I mean actual ad hominem. Because when sometimes brilliantly clever and well educated people stoop to such low arguments, ones they don’t universally apply, you must surely look for a personal but commonly shared fault as part of the cause. And in identifying this fault it aids our understanding.

Finally, a reminder and for perspective: this discussion surrounds the slaughter of satirists with assault rifles. Fucking cartoonists. In Western Europe. In 2015. It’s worth sitting back and mulling that over for a bit before trying to ingest the attempted arguments for the explicable ‘root causes’ of this.

Of course we also mustn’t forget that Jews were attacked for being Jews that day, it’s simply the bulk of subsequent discourse on this has been heavily weighted towards the former incident.

So then… swimming pools, floaters, nets.

Root causism: ‘I’m only trying to explain, why are you so against nuance?’ 

The ‘root causes’ types are the most common form of floater. We see plenty of examples from them. Jon Snow popped up with a great one.

Who is suggesting tanks? Although it is perhaps preferable to this. But Snow aside, there are countless different examples of root causism. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 etc.

They are usually kicked off with a preamble saying ‘I am not condoning merely explaining’, too often another form of ‘I am not racist but‘.


And of course, we must all repeat the rubric: nothing – nothing ever – could justify these cruel acts of mass murder. And no, the killers cannot call on history to justify their crimes.

But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week….


My position is this: the murderers are fully responsible for what they did and should be treated with the full force of the law. Nothing justifies the killing of these people. But this is not the whole of this issue.


Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.

This time reformulated to avoid the ‘but’:

We urgently need to understand why this violence is happening and keeps recurring and to do so is neither a justification for any crime nor an apology of violence.

It is tricky to condemn because of course none of us are actually against nuance and are all for the greatest explanation possible.

Chomsky in this piece:

The reaction of horror and revulsion about the crime is justified, as is the search for deeper roots, as long as we keep some principles firmly in mind. The reaction should be completely independent of what thinks [sic] about this journal and what it produces.

This is true. There are important variables and competing factors we need to know more about. The marginalisation and alienation that makes the ideology attractive etc. It is important for counter-jihad organisations to understand this and to put the knowledge into practice. However, sometimes this is merely used to shift the blame.

None of these same writers followed up the Breivik slaughter in 2011 with articles explaining exactly why mass Muslim immigration to Europe might actually have driven him to it. They merely went about condemning anyone they didn’t like who Breivik happened to mention in his manifesto. This cartoon brilliantly exposes such inconsistency showing why the instant attempt at nuance is so out of place in any other circumstance. Thus demonstrating why the tactic is, in fact, rarely a search for nuance but is symptomatic of something else.

Try this example: When reporting on attacks and atrocities during the rise of the Nazis, each and every piece from an author is prefaced something like, “Obviously I condemn the incident, but we must understand that the greed of speculators before the 1929 Wall Street Crash led to despair in Germany.” Few doubt the importance of the Great Depression in the rise of the Nazis but surely at some point it’s fair to see such a preface as more than a search for nuance and explanation. Rather it would seem a source of exculpation.

There is something in the sense of it being reflexive, instant, automatic that should make you pause and question the actual motivation here. Assuming you have read thousands of articles on thousands of events, does this formulation not stand out?

Now the comparison with the Great Depression grants that there is some relationship to the event and is therefore suggesting merely the frequency and prominence is misplaced. But apart from my appeal to your reader’s spidey sense that something is up, there are other issues surrounding the concepts of proximate and ultimate causation which condemn these pieces. Namely, often the stuff following the ‘but’ is also broadly irrelevant to the actual incident in terms of moral blame. The Geras piece I mentioned in the introduction deals with this perfectly and I recommend reading all of it.

Trigger Warning: Nah, just kidding. Grow up.


In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.

The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity, doesn’t show that they, as well as the direct agent(s), are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn’t serve to justify it. Furthermore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house. So simply by invoking prior causes, or putative prior causes, you do not make the case go through – the case, I mean, that someone else than the actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing is to blame.

So why so heavy on instantly searching for ‘root causes’, especially in the case of Charlie Hebdo where the attackers clearly said they were avenging their Prophet and logically this seems so much more immediate than the wider issues such as poverty, police stop and searches or Abu Ghraib? Let alone taking it back to the Algerian War which ended in 1962! Why this reflexive need to equivocate in Muslim attacks but not all others?

From Western writers, part of it comes from the sense that their self-criticism can make them appear and feel sophisticated. Unfortunately for them it doesn’t when based on abject nonsense, then it looks like nothing so much as public displays of masochism. For extremists and fifth columnists like Asghar Bukhari I presume the reasoning is obvious. For the likes of Jon Snow I suspect it involves an inability to empathise with the killers. I don’t mean sympathise, Snow will do that with the best of them. I mean his old-school liberal mind simply cannot accept that religious extremism actually motivates such people. It must have a root cause elsewhere more explicable from his own experiences. The likes of Milne operate from a vicious strand of anti-Americanism due to his being an unreconstructed communist, if not Stalinist. But I think there is another source of reasoning in the minds of those on what I call the ‘New Left’. You know, the ‘Multi-Culti Left’, the ‘Laurie Penny Left’, what Caroline Fourest calls the ‘Stupid Left’. The crazies who simply won’t allow Muslim terrorists to be responsible for their own actions. They tend to be a ‘Type 1’ in my last piece. My explanation for their mindset goes something thus:

The three stages of stupidity

I suggest there is a three stage mental process undertaken by thinkers of the New Left. I think this process is prevalent in a large number of those being criticised here. I also think it will be found in those writing every second article on Comment is Free these days. Jones, Orr, Penny, Younge would all be candidates.

The three stages are:

1: Holding the urge to protect and support the underdog above all other motivating forces to the point of myopia. Support for the underdog is felt by most humans, thankfully, and should be. But it is so strong in some that it is followed unequivocally and other motivations are ignored.

2: With that as a motivating principle each problem is approached, subconsciously and consciously, by dividing all actors in a situation into the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’. This is done along demographic lines, be them race or gender or sexuality or whatever. If you are part of that group you’re treated as the group. The view struggles with seeing individuals at all.

3: The thinker then falls for Bertrand Russell’s fallacy of ‘The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed‘. The weaker group in the binary situation is of superior virtue. No. Matter. What.

So: Unequivocal support of the underdog, dividing into oppressor/oppressed, assuming the superior virtue of the oppressed.

Muslims in the West are (normally) a racial minority and a religious one. In the world, Muslim nations are weaker than America and the West. So both times they are ‘the oppressed’ regardless of what incident is under discussion. This means for people following those initial three stages, terror attacks cause a problem because they don’t like terror but like the ‘oppressed’.  Firstly the individuals are ignored and are reduced to part of a demographic grouping. So rather than just blame three Muslims with Ak47s who made decisions, it becomes a situation of Muslim oppressed vs the Western oppressor and the actions are relativised and excused away with a shift of blame and responsibility. They have to be. Reflexively. Or else the cognitive dissonance is too much to bear.

Of course most don’t think it was ok to gundown cartoonists. But the actual gunmen cannot be to blame as individuals. The oppressor has to be. So you then get to see the articles that begin “Obviously I condemn this action but let me explain why it wasn’t their fault…”.

This is utterly standard and I’ve already supplied examples galore. And many people do it without knowing why. Therefore seeing these pieces, written instantly and with dubious proximate causal-reasoning, we see more at play than an intelligent search for nuance and the greatest understanding.

We are not fighting nuance here but fighting reflexive attempts to relativise away cognitive dissonance and maintain that three stage process.

Take this line from Gary Younge’s piece immediately following the attacks:

They are personally responsible for what they did. But we, as a society, are collectively responsible for the conditions that produced them.

By this logic we can say the same about anything. Everything is all everyone’s fault and therefore it is nobody’s fault. The fact is though the personal responsibility of the individuals is far more important than societal factors. Evidence this is true is that such similar actions are being carried out under very different societal conditions and that people under identical societal conditions choose not to carry them out.

So yes, there are other factors, but they don’t seem contingent. He writes as if they are balanced and equal, but they simply are not. Younge’s line is not an appeal for more nuance, despite his piece being titled ‘The Danger of Polarised Debate’. It is an attempt to ensure we cannot make a member of the ‘oppressed’ the guilty party here and the most that can be gotten away with is that it is our fault just as much as the gunman’s. So that is what is implied. The three stage mental process won’t allow anything different. The blame must be shifted and shared or their heads will explode. But alas, he doesn’t know this.

This helps explain why in their writing, if an ‘oppressed’ nation or peoples does something objectively awful, as a reflex to hold off the cognitive dissonance it is instantly explained away as an inevitable and inescapable reaction to one or other action of the oppressor. Of course fairly soon this becomes de facto racist in that various ethnicities are robbed of agency, choice and responsibility based solely on their ethnicity and its relative power ranking. Remember, individuals don’t count. Any of their work on Israel/Palestine demonstrates this instantly.

These stages require all sorts of mental wrangling to maintain. With some perverse outcomes.

When a person is in more than one group at the same time, a female Muslim for example, cognitive dissonance is pretty high. To solve it a readjustment occurs and the individual in question is assigned to one or other group. Usually the largest or whichever allocation allows the assumptions of the three stages to remain most strongly in place for the duration of that argument.

So let’s say there is an article in the Guardian about the oppression of women in the Muslim world. The Muslim woman becomes part of the oppressed minority of Muslims against the oppressor, which is the West, and her individual struggle as a woman is then subsumed. Despite solicitous studies in the field of intersectionality, you really are only part of one group at a time with this process.

Because the people speaking of feminist ideals become part of the West they have to be bad. For although feminists are on the oppressed side in a UK based topic, these ones are up against Muslim men, who are lumped in simply as Muslims, and therefore the feminists must conform to their larger identity, Westerners. Hence why we see committed feminist writers, plagued by this process, willingly abandon their sisters in a Muslim country under talk of cultural relativism and of different standards applying.

Shifting the blame via reducing the actors to expressions of group dynamics is just one method of apologia though.

Reflexive Smearing

“They didn’t deserve to die but they were racist…”. That’s the second most common formulation in evidence this last week. Again the examples are myriad and can be found in several of the pieces I have already linked to. The fact is, it simply isn’t true. They were a far-Left magazine who mocked anti-immigration and racist campaigners. This next point isn’t a slam dunk, but the fact that Stephane Charbonnier’s life partner was Jeannette Bougrab, of Algerian descent and a diversity overseer at the CSA, should at least give pause. And yet so many writers have been willing to reflexively smear the dead as racists. Possibly it could be understood, but not condoned, in the immediate aftermath where people unfamiliar with the magazine were quick to comment and had merely seen unexplained images. But fairly soon such sites as this or this were up and running to unpack the satire and so the excuse of total ignorance became even less valid. I speak worse French than Joey Barton and yet upon reading explanations and speaking to French friends I can clearly see the difference. That standard is not placing a great expectation on a commentator.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a writer and pundit on French political issues. She knows the difference and still was happy to smear the dead on T.V. (Nesrine Malik also calls their efforts “so racist” in that clip).

Hasan tries it on by suggesting:

crude caricatures of bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave?

If true this might be a concern. But it isn’t true. I think the characters tend to look the same depending on the cartoonist. Orthodox Jews get curly side burns, Mohammed gets a dish dash and Jesus gets a halo. But unless you do a real compare and contrast study I’m calling bullshit on this. A claim without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Still though, better safe than sorry:

Hebdo 1 Hebdo 2

Here is Mohammed with normal features.

I don’t see a theme of racial caricatures here. Show me I’m wrong. More likely this line of attack is the sound of a barrel being scraped. It seeks to blame the victims, weaken movements of solidarity and enhance the never ending narrative of Muslim victimhood so cherished and promulgated by the likes of Ramadan, Hasan and Bukhari.

Yes some are fifth columnists and their interest in the smear is clear but some are simply unable to allow the blame to reside on the side of any identified victim group (the three Stages again).

Laurie Penny’s first contribution to this debate was, as far as I can tell, the following tweet:

I find this an extraordinary statement. Let us for the sake of argument agree that Charlie Hebdo’s efforts could be fairly reduced to racist trolling. Penny tweeted that the murders were bad but so is racist trolling. In one tweet and as a first comment. That is pure false relativism.

It is just about all she said on the matter. She could basically only bring herself to speak in order to show balance where none was required. She just crowbarred it in. Inappropriately and inelegantly.

But, Charlie Hebdo were not racist, they were deeply anti-racist. It is a smear.

Smearing the dead as racists is so far off the scale of bad, and done so reflexively and casually by people not considered stupid, that it has to be an indicator of underlying problems with the author and their approach. Cartoonists lie dead and Penny wastes no time declaring them racist in the same tweet as she condemns the violence. That’s fucking low. But with the three stages the ‘oppressed group’ cannot be the party in error and people will seemingly abandon all sense and all decency while relativising away their cognitive dissonance.

Imagine, you know you are on the hit lists of serious terrorist groups, for doing your job at a magazine working in the name of secularism, and you continue to do that job until you are murdered in cold blood. If that is not heroic I truly wonder what is. Penny’s notion of heroism might well be different from mine.

I also wonder, will Penny ever get to be face to face with Charb’s life partner and be able to explain to her exactly why her murdered loved one was an un-heroic racist troll? I hope not.

Damn right you’re not Charlie. Disgusting. Is there enough chlorine to clear up this one?

False comparisons and whataboutary

‘What if the cartoons were about X,Y,Z?’. This performance by Bukari on Sky News covers half the fallacious nonsense in this entire post. But this line stands out  (Murray’s face from 01:32 is just wonderful, as is his subsequent performance):

We wouldn’t publish black people… as zoo animals

That is not an equivalent of what Charlie Hebdo was doing. It is a false comparison. There is such a thing as anti-Muslim racism. But, Islam is not, per se, a race and mocking Mohammed is not the same as drawing a racial cartoon. Islam is an idea no matter how much it means to you, your physical ethnicity is not.

The second form of this same argument is comparing printing Mohammed to antisemitism. Glenn Greenwald, predictably, went to town with this idea. His lengthy contribution is a prime example of disingenuous output. Try also, this Joe Sacco cartoon in the Guardian.

Many have tried it. Here is Nabila Ramdani on This Week:

try and draw an antisemitic cartoon tomorrow

Another entirely false comparison. Mocking Islam is not the same as antisemitism. Why? Because anti-Judaism is not the same as antisemitism. They were not abusing all Muslims but the main character in their story, therefore the comparison is false. Charlie Hebdo mocked the god of the Old Testament, this should be enough to qualify as a fair comparison. They weren’t murdered for it.

Hasan in his piece:

Has your publication, for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No? How about caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the twin towers? I didn’t think so…

There are plenty of jokes playing on 9-11 in the media, even people falling from the towers. Try this, it’s brilliantly funny. Or see the following picture:


Do I really need to explain the difference between mocking a religious figure and mocking the murder of 6 million people? Or 3000? When the close relatives of victims and survivors are still alive? Is he seriously making that comparison? Well clearly he’s making it but no way can he be considered serious.

A similar attempt to show double standards is made when referring to Muslim protests at soldier’s funeral processions. Do such people now need to have the difference explained between the taboo of upsetting grieving relatives and the taboo of depicting an historically significant person who died a millennium and a half ago? Again, a false comparison. And surely embarrassing by its making.

Mehdi’s argument, and those of others, is that it is just as offensive to the receiver. Mehdi is a man who loves his prophet more than his children so this may well be the case. But the level of offense claimed by an individual is entirely subjective. He might claim drawing a cartoon of an historical figure is as offensive as mocking the death of your family member, just like I may claim Mehdi’s perfectly trimmed facial hair offends me more than mocking every genocide that was ever undertaken.

A funeral isn’t a 1400 year dead man and a religion isn’t your mother.

To ignore the fundamental differences is stupid at best, slimy, opportunist and dishonest at worst. I’m not granting the benefit of the doubt here.

‘No absolute right to free speech’ and the Motte and Bailey

The ‘no absolute right’ line is a strawman. Only the craziest of libertarians come close to denying this. But it is also used as a Motte and Bailey argument.

Are you aware of a Motte and Bailey argument? If you are I am sorry for the egg sucking lesson, but I am new to the concept myself, have found it extremely useful and have started seeing them everywhere. This awareness has made me kick myself at not seeing earlier how so many people I disagreed with were getting away with cheating for so very long. A brief explanation is worthwhile as the tactic is used in more than one instance here:

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

For my original purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents philosophical propositions with similar properties: desirable to their proponents but only lightly defensible. The Motte represents the defensible but undesired propositions to which one retreats when hard pressed.

Diagnosis of a philosophical doctrine as being a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is invariably fatal. Once made it is relatively obvious to those familiar with the doctrine that the doctrine’s survival required a systematic vacillation between exploiting the desired territory and retreating to the Motte when pressed. Clearly, the diagnosis is not confined to philosophical doctrines: others may suffer the same malady.

This describes perfectly the use of ‘no such thing as an absolute right to free speech’. In Mehdi Hasan’s HuffPo piece he says:

None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn.

‘There are limits to free speech’ is a rewording of the same point. It was used during Thursday night’s Question Time, yet again by Hasan.

Both are pretty hard to disagree with. Of course there are limits. This is therefore the Motte in this instance. Many have used that claim in their preambles and discussions this week. They then either directly say these cartoons should not have been published or try and trade off the assumption which they leave hanging after making the initial statement. Namely that you shouldn’t publish x or y. This latter area is their Bailey. That is the space they wish to inhabit in their piece. Don’t let them leave that assumption hanging. They are using this because they are trying to suggest Charlie Hebdo has brought this on themselves. It is apologia.
If you question them with things like ‘so you are saying they had no right to publish?’, they may say ‘no’, then try ‘are you suggesting satirists should self censor when it comes to religion?’ or ‘is a picture of Mohammed something outside of our rights of expression or beyond the ‘limits’?’ then they tend to retreat back to their Motte. The same goes for asking ‘what are the limits?’. If they don’t retreat and tell you their line is drawn before Charlie Hebdo, then fine, they are, despite their protestations elsewhere, calling for censorship or self-censorship. There is a social penalty to saying such things are beyond satire, but that is what they hint at without being willing to say. Make them say it. Let them endure the penalty.
Once the retreat has been made you may ask ‘then what is the relevance of your statement that there is no such thing as an absolute right to free speech?’. Again they don’t usually have an answer. Feel free to put the boot in and ask ‘so why did you choose to include it so prominently?’. If doing so on Twitter, be aware that this is the exact moment you get blocked.

‘With free speech comes responsibility’

Another classic and usually another Motte and Bailey. Will Self and many others have used this claim. From Self’s interview on Channel 4, ‘Should Satire only attack people in power‘:

My value is free speech, unquestionably, but I think we need to be aware that with free speech comes with responsibilities, any right comes with responsibilities

‘Unquestionably?’. That’s a nice ‘but‘ he has there. Now I agree rights come with responsibilities. They have to. But what are these responsibilities? I assumed it was ensuring you don’t try and repress the right of others to express themselves and that our responsibility is to ensure there is a free space in the public sphere for expressing ourselves without fear of violence. Perhaps it is to keep things fair and honest, to not employ demagogic language and engage in sophistry. Responsibilities the people examined here singularly fail to live up to.

Perhaps a responsibility of free speech is to ensure you don’t vacuum up all the intelligence documents you can and then fly them to Chinese and Russian controlled places. Something I have not heard Self or any of those mentioned here condemn.

You know what to do now: ‘What is that responsibility?’ is the question which must be asked. Followed by: ‘Why didn’t you put it in the article’? Make them spell it out.

From Hasan’s piece:

I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility

It is telling that he doesn’t chose to explain what that responsibility is. Few do. Once however, when forced, he did have a stab at it. This was when he was previously discussing Charlie Hebdo. He said:

…with rights come responsibilities and I’m saying in a society where we all have to rub along together, where we all come from different backgrounds you have a responsibility not to go out of your way to piss people off, to try and kick off a riot etc. etc. put the law to one side…

Remember, Mehdi loves Mohammed more than his own family, I understand this is emotive for him and that he might feel as far as he is concerned that offense = riot. But who thinks Charlie Hebdo was indeed trying to kick off a riot? I know they’re French but was that really the purpose of their satire? Was it merely to piss people off rather than target power or hypocrisy? Mehdi should be asked.

Either Mehdi is saying that Muslims are so basic they will inevitably riot (he isn’t), or he uses this tactic to condemn the offending of religious sensibility with a strawman. We know he would rather Mohammed wasn’t depicted in satire, in this example he got as far as saying he shouldn’t be, but he refuses to say he shouldn’t be because such subjects should be socially protected from satire. He is merely implying a protection. It’s clear this is what he is doing yet he has stated he isn’t doing it. This is shifty. Motte and Bailey. And in doing so he reduces Muslims to an ‘other’ who just cannot hold their temper. Shameful.

But he is adept and it is difficult to nail him down. Further on in that exchange Aaronovitch comes close in a lovely moment where Hasan is cornered and he attempts to sidestep a straight forward question by effectively saying he is unable to comment on British society because it is Christian and he isn’t. Desperate, laughable stuff. Though I wish he’d remember his inability to comment before he next chooses to accept a Question Time invitation.

Get them to fully defend the Bailey or beat them back into the Motte and proceed to burn it down

‘Shouting fire in a crowed theatre’

Speaking of burning things down, this cliche pops up often in free speech debates. Hasan brought it up some time ago, again in his debate at the L.S.E. vs Aaronovitch. There he attributed it to John Stuart Mill rather than Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It was used by Diane Abbott on This Week following the attacks. To be fair though, Abbott is not a floater, she has been generally solid on this issue.

The main comeback to this is also becoming a cliche and is dependent on it being misquoted (Holmes included the word ‘falsely’). I first heard it from Steyn and then from Hitchens, namely that you are obligated to shout fire in a crowded theatre if you happen to believe there to be a fire there worth shouting about. Charlie Hebdo saw fires up and down French society, from National Front racists, to clerical bullies and Islamofacists. And they shouted ‘fire’ loudly and humorously.

Even then, I don’t see how the grammar of this metaphor translates to general free speech situations. What exactly are the doorways where people will be crushed and trampled in this situation unless we are saying that Muslims seeing a cartoon are the same as people stampeding from the fear of death from fire.

Mill is often cited as the source of reasoning for the Holmes quote. Mill actually said:

An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard

That’s the closest Mill gets to supporting such a view. And it is surely an incitement argument. But a French newsstand is not a mob outside the house. They are simply ‘circulating through the press’. So when you hear Holmes’ poor metaphor uttered in a free speech argument, especially this one, feel free to point out its facile uselessness.

‘Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’

This is an HL Mencken quote that has been doing the rounds. It seems Will Self pulled it into the debate in his Vice article. He wrote:

Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from HL Mencken’s definition of good journalism: it should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. The trouble with a lot of so-called “satire” directed against religiously-motivated extremists is that it’s not clear who it’s afflicting, or who it’s comforting.

This was used again to me in a very telling Twitter exchange with his wife Deborah Orr. As often with Twitter the full flow of the exchange is difficult to follow due to multiple answers to single tweets but it begins here. Her argument in the exchange is all over the place. Anyway, the offending tweet:

Note that in Self’s quote Mencken is talking of ‘good journalism’ and Self is asking what is ‘truly satire’. So let us say it is bad satire, that is a taste judgement, or a value judgement. Either this is totally irrelevant to the free speech or solidarity argument and therefore shouldn’t be there, or it is yet again part of the refusal to lay the blame on those with the weapons and as such another surreptitious attempt at victim blaming. Like if their satire had been ‘good’ or ‘proper’ they would still be breathing.

This is all part of the ‘punching downward’ line. Which is not being used in a relevant way. But even if it were, I disagree with the premise:

Was Charlie Hebdo attacking all ‘Muslims’ or the religion itself? It is not the same thing. And attacking jihadists is not attacking ‘Muslims’ either, but merely Jihadist Muslims.
How often have you heard this week that they were offending 1.6 billion people? Well, if that is true then I think a religious figure important to 1.6 billion people is pretty powerful. It is punching upwards. How many people would come to violently avenge an insult to Stephane Charbonnier? None I am assuming. Is that not a measure of power? Be careful claiming a billion offended victims while trying ‘powerlessness’ in the same argument.

Islam is a system of power, like Christianity. To mock its tenets and its characters is punching upwards and it is satire. And mocking the tenets is not to mock Muslims en masse. Many racists are poor and alienated, was Charlie Hebdo punching downwards when it mocked Marine LePen or racist attitudes in general? No. So stop being silly.

We must not let the ‘punching downwards’ stand on factual grounds, they weren’t, or on taste grounds, it is irrelevant. The continued use of it is yet another form of victim blaming.

Side note: Telling us 1.6 billion Muslims are offended does no favours to those Muslims that aren’t. It will make those that believe it look upon all Muslims as irrational when they are not and will renforce the Us vs Them narrative. It doesn’t take a genius to work this out so surely those that advance that line for their own arguments are unserious about their stated desires of progress and cohesion?

Secular Religion/Fundamentalists

This is like ‘fundamentalist atheist’. The cheap attempt to make you just the same as those you oppose. So adherence to secularism is the equal of adherence to religious dogma.
Once again we turn to Will Self:

The whole notion seems to be that free speech is some kind of absolute right and that’s exactly the same as a religious point of view interestingly, it places human ethics outside of human society…

Self teaches ‘Modern Thought’ and unfortunately for our future that seems appropriate.

It’s another strawman because I know of no ‘absolutists’ beyond a barely heard bunch of crazies. But ok, if an absolutist exists, my claims in Part 1 of this piece mean I must be one of the closest to one. Is it like a religious point of view to me? No. I think the right of a human to freely express themselves, although a beautiful and luminescent idea, is founded on a utilitarian basis rather than a supernatural or dogmatic one. My support is not from ‘faith’.

I am however tempted to allow this to stand. Because then when people start saying ‘we should respect each other’s religions’, I’ll be able to reply ‘well my religion is unfettered free expression, so you must respect it you horrid blasphemer’. Of course my religion has no vengeful warriors, so you’ll be safe in your place of business if you happen to insult Paine or Voltaire.

For the sake of argument though let us grant Self and others the premise and call this belief in free speech or secularism a religion. My erztaz religion, in power, allows for maximum freedom of thought and expression, actual religions require the opposite. And Self’s implied middle way requires the state or/and supposed enlightened complex-thinkers such as he to adjudicate between groups and measure and judge offence. When compared thus his line of attack makes little headway. It’s not true and if true it loses. It does however obscure clear thinking behind clever sounding bollocks. Which Self does very well. I presume this is why this view is popular with many modern intellectuals. When faced with a simple moral standpoint that is difficult to live by and a complicated one that is easy, they will choose the latter all too often.

Violence and Orwellian word games

As a final note, be aware of the attempts to couch offensive language in terms of violence. This may be to compare an insult to a punch or to claim that an insult affects health.

But more slippery is the use of terms like ‘violently offensive’ or ‘safe space’.

This example comes from a ludicrous article by Abdal Hakim Murad:

To laugh at the Prophet, the repository of all that Muslims revere and find precious, to reduce him to the level of the scabrous and comedic, is something very different from “free speech” as usually understood. It is a violent act surely conscious of its capacity to cause distress, ratchet up prejudice and damage social cohesion.

When I hear ‘violent’ I think something along the lines of this:

using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something

And so does anyone else with a care for language and its meaning. The attempt to piggy back onto our rational fears of physical harm his wish to see beliefs protected is both dishonest and an insult to sentient beings everywhere.

Tariq Ramadan refuses to condemn stoning women yet is welcome to teach women at Oxford who seemingly require safe mental spaces from harmful ideas. ‘Safe space’ is cheating language as it pretends the desire to have an unchallenged mind is a ‘safety issue’. It isn’t. Sticks and Stones. Words will hurt you, but stones will fucking kill you. And all the safe spaces in the world won’t protect you from the words that really hurt you in life.

Violence means violence and the sly appropriation of well understood words to advance an agenda is Orwellian.


There are a lot of words above and I feel vulnerable to the ubiquitous ‘somebody is wrong on the internet’ cartoon (no fear, I won’t kill you over it). But my introductory reference to the Facebook scenario has a grain of seriousness to it. Unguarded but good people fall for these shysters and bullshitters. They are seduced by deceivers who peddle knowingly false arguments and fools who do so unknowingly, then they take their shaky conclusions with them to ballot boxes. This subject is much too serious to allow such underhand or stupid practice to go unexposed, let alone respected for reasons of being ‘an alternative voice’ or being on the side of an imagined oppressed. It should be countered wherever it is found. The stakes are high.

If you are one of those that smells a floater but isn’t entirely sure why, I hope some of the examples and counter arguments on here help you articulate why the turd is indeed a turd. I’d be thrilled to hear they did. Good luck fishing them out.

The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo included an editorial. The translation I took from Slate and have included excerpts here. They sum it up better than I ever could.

 Still, a question keeps gnawing at us: Are people finally going to banish the dirty words “secular fundamentalists” from their political and intellectual vocabulary? Are they going to stop inventing clever semantic convolutions to qualify assassins and their victims as somehow equivalent?

These last few years we’ve felt a little lonely in our attempt to push back, with the stroke of a pen, against the pure crap and pseudointellectual criticisms that have been thrown in our faces and in the faces of those who firmly defend secularism: Islamophobes, Christianophobes, provocateurs, irresponsible, throwing fuel on the fire, racists, had it coming. Yes, we condemn terrorism, but. Yes, sending cartoonists death threats isn’t good, but. Yes, burning a newspaper is bad, but. We heard it all, and our friends did too. We often tried to laugh about it, since that’s what we do best. But now we’d really like to laugh about something else.

We are going to hope that starting January 7, 2015, a firm defense of secularism will go without saying for everyone, that people will finally stop—whether because of posturing or electoral calculus or cowardice—legitimizing or even tolerating communalism and cultural relativism, which only open the door to one thing: religious totalitarianism. Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a reality, yes, international geopolitics is a series of dirty tricks and maneuvers, yes, the social situation of “populations of Muslim origin” in France is profoundly unjust, yes, racism and discrimination must be fought relentlessly. Fortunately, there are several tools that can be used to try to resolve these serious problem, but they’re all useless without secularism. Not positive secularism, not inclusive secularism, not whatever-secularism, secularism period.


There are apologists among us.

For Norm.

Charlie Hebdo Reaction: Part 1, Moral Weakness and the Case For Solidarity

by David Paxton

“Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.”

Preamble to the Laws of Cricket.

By the time I had got onto the internet following the Charlie Hebdo attack people had already begun to discuss how to react to those who murder for blasphemy, I quickly wrote a piece on it explaining why I thought it appropriate to reprint the offensive material and why it was unfortunately incumbent on all of us to call those in the media to account for not doing so. I think it has held up quite well. However, the weight of terrorist apologia, victim blaming, misplaced equivalence, intellectual laziness and moral weakness that has been ejaculated onto the web in the subsequent days suggests many people still cannot fathom the real message from this atrocity.

That message is this:

The maintenance of the full spectrum of free speech, except for those common law protections against harm, is an essential aspect of our society which all citizens have a duty to protect. This duty includes sharing the risks endured by those who may use their speech in ways you disapprove of and who express opinions you cannot countenance. The sharing of those risks includes media outlets reprinting offending material, both due to them being newsworthy by definition and because of the effect it will have in rendering attacks less effective. We need to arrive at the point where this position is the norm and any efforts that bring that to pass are required of us all.

How far from this we still are is seen by this Guardian piece addressing the latest cover.  In it Joseph Harker, Assistant Comment Editor at the paper says of Charlie Hebdo:

In depicting the prophet Muhammad it is deliberately offending the vast majority of Muslims around the world. And in caricaturing him holding a “Je suis Charlie” placard, they are adding insult to injury by claiming the prophet would support the values of the magazine, which for years has been widely criticised for targeting Muslims, in particular, under the cover of free speech.

Yes. That is right. He said they have ‘added insult to injury’. Those vile and cruel, mostly-dead bastards. How tasteless of them. How insensitive.

As it happens I think the latest cover is a masterpiece. It is perfectly judged. It shows they will not be cowed by theocratic nutcases, and as Padraig Reidy states in that same Guardian piece:

It is a challenge to those who in the past week, after throat-clearing on the horrendous murder of Charlie’s staff and their protectors, have attempted to switch the focus to the magazine’s supposed Islamophobia.

The very fact that the latest edition exists is remarkable and the fact that many media outlets have actually done the right thing and reprinted its cover is cause for optimism.

But because so many are still not grasping what’s at stake and that, unbelievably, in 2015 the arguments for supporting unfettered free expression still have to be made, this piece sets out from first principles the argument being advanced. This isn’t just an individual taste thing, it’s a wide and universal principle that we must show solidarity with the threatened.

Free speech and its importance:

A Starting Point

I don’t believe in this ‘absolute right of Free Speech’ learned apologists and appeasers keep informing us we do not have. Who does? It is a strawman.

America has it about right. We should have a negative right to freedom from restriction of expression and that traditional common law restrictions such as libel, forgery and incitement are accepted. I think Official Secrets protection is sensible and can accept some restrictions based on obscenity (e.g. child pornography).

The restrictions described above show clear cases of harm prevention and are based around the balancing of opposing rights. There is no right to not be offended and nor should there be. I therefore see no balance required between free speech and preventing offence.

I would add that I’m skeptical about some of the additional restrictions in modern Britain including our hate speech laws. Although supporting the motivation for having them I think the tendency for ‘mission creep’ in their application is real and liable to have detrimental effects. Especially those extending to religion. However it is perhaps not of immediate priority here.

With the above established the rest is a free for all as far as I am concerned. Yes people have a responsibility to be polite in their lives, manners are oil to the gears of life. But this is not a legal responsibility, if you want to be gratuitously offensive, you can. More than that, some people, French satirists for example, will see the generation of material that would be likely to cause offense vital for their cause and their attempts to progress society in their chosen direction. Nobody likes to be mocked or ridiculed and the ability to do so is a powerful weapon of speech. And must be protected. You may well prefer it when it ‘punches upwards’ or ‘afflicts the comfortable’, but that is a taste judgement and irrelevant here.

All this should be uncontroversial and fairly basic. However it is clear others do not agree. People talk of a ‘balance’ required, of ‘responsibility’ and even of ‘consequences’. All fine words on their own but if they contradict the state of affairs I have expressed above then I think them wrong. However, this is not an ‘agree to disagree’ moment. I refuse to ever reach that point on the broad strokes of this issue. Here is why:

Collective Responsibility

In contradiction to the rhetoric from activists of all stripes I think 21st Century Britain provides a relatively easy life compared to most of the world and all of our history.  It can therefore be understood why a person may think that the full spectrum of free speech available to them is a luxury they might do without. You’d be forgiven for thinking you have little need for the right to transgress, provoke or offend and that the loss of that freedom is a price worth paying for the mental comfort of those who may be offended. However, there are three clear problems with this view.

1: It is ahistoric

One of the key reasons our lives are better than most of those who have gone before us is that we have been able to use unpopular speech. Be it gay liberation movements fighting for equality, be it women fighting for suffrage, be it the struggle of rational thinkers against clerical supremacy, causes which have been of benefit to us have progressed through the ability and desire to transgress, provoke and offend.

2: You don’t know what the future holds

You may suggest you are cognisant of its previous worth but think those days of necessity are gone. We haven’t reached an end to history and so nobody knows when they will next have to use such speech which may shock or offend others. Comfort now does not mean comfort later.

3: It isn’t just your right

If you think you have little need for the full range of speech and collude in the trading of it for greater comfort, you aren’t just trading away your rights. You are trading away mine. You may be giving up the rights of somebody being oppressed in ways you are unaware of. This is not acceptable.

The third problem is what I want to concentrate on here and also is perhaps where this argument gets tricky.

When making the case for mass reprinting of offensive material I suggested that all people and not just journalists need to bear their share of the risk. I described us all as non-fighting combatants in the war against those who would murder for speech. This would include office cleaners, IT engineers and other staff. In a subsequent discussion I was asked ‘well what if the cleaning staff don’t believe in free speech’? My short answer was ‘well they don’t have any bloody choice’. I stand by it. They have a collective responsibility to protect free speech and I will endeavour to explain why.

Existential Threat. 

To suggest that free choice and free expression is so important that you have no choice about it seems self-contradictory. It is a paradox. I would compare it to the dilemma of when an anti-democratic party that would install a dictatorship is doing well in an election. In this instance there is a clear argument for the suspension of that party’s right to seek election as they would rob from future generations the right and ability to decide their own government.

The imposition of conscription, the suspension of habeas corpus, the curtailment of free speech and the appropriation of property are all things that were seen in the US or/and Britain during World War II. Such actions are extreme and we have to ensure such measures are always temporary and that the threat is real and warranting such action. This is mentioned to establish the principle that some form of compulsion to fulfill societally ascribed duties is an accepted norm when it is deemed necessary for the survival of the state or its peoples.

When not engaged in a general and all out war I believe the maintenance of the full rights to free speech earlier expressed are worthy of something comparable to this compulsion. Not from the state, with penalties, but socially, it should be a basic part of press ethics. To achieve and maintain this we have a duty to call people on not fulfilling their duties. There must be a societal norm and expectation to do so.  Because the prolonged absence of free speech rights is a recipe for such calamity as to be able to be deemed an existential threat to our way of life and eventually our lives. It may not be as an immediate threat, or as clear a threat. But it is a threat,

By way of example of such a threat, imagine a fascist and growing force that is seeking to have some of its ideological basis deemed beyond the bounds of normal expression and able to remain untouched by satire and ridicule. Surely there we can see something constituting an existential threat?

So where it may be a duty both morally and legally during a war to hand over property or provide your labour or fighting ability to the effort, I believe the same applies in peacetime to maintaining free speech and protecting all people’s rights to exercise it free from threat. I think this a primary and universal responsibility.

Injuring the Game

The best analogy I can muster to explain this primary and universal principle is from the game of cricket. The laws of cricket are biblical in length but there in paragraph one, page one, of the Preamble to the Laws of Cricket is the following:

Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game.

Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.

This opening expresses the realisation that all players who wish to play the game first accept that the game itself is more important than their own ambitions within it. And that without that commitment to the condition of the game itself, the value of the results of their own ambitions is thus diminished. The good condition of the game therefore is the first responsibility and it is shared by all players on opposing sides.

In The Tolerant Society Professor Lee Bollinger states

…the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters.

So as a society, we must first open the space for a free and rigorous exchange of ideas, we can then move on to bowling bouncers at opponents heads all day in pursuit of the win. But all share that primary responsibility first. A key part of that responsibility is to protect ALL speech. The game itself. Not just the parts that help your team win.

In Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky states:

If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.

The use of this cricket analogy is dependent on free speech being vital. I have explained above why I consider it so. I will also add that it is the most important right. I have been looking for some time for a quote I remember hearing and have failed to find it. So the following sentence is a paraphrasing of a thinker whose name escapes me.

Take away all my rights but leave me with free speech and I will use it to regain the others.

The right to free speech is the first and foremost right. It is the very basis for freedom of religious practice, it is the weapon for gaining new rights and is essential for the protection of rights already won. And all people share an equal burden in maintaining it.

The case for solidarity (reprinting the offending material):

Here is a statement of principle:

Once art/writing/satire is threatened with violence and murder it becomes important beyond its content.

To threaten the production or dissemination of artifacts of free expression with violence and murder is an attack on all free speech. And therefore the approval of the content is not relevant. It is an attack on your most fundamental right even if you despise the speech in question.

I repeat: It doesn’t matter if you agree with the content or not. You are duty bound to protect it.

It seems that the only way so far suggested to counter such attacks is what I describe as ‘option 2’ in my last piece which reiterated what I said in an earlier one on Sony and The Interview. Namely the widespread dissemination of offensive material by all and sundry when threatened. I quote:

the moment people threatened and indeed proceeded to kill over them, any news organisation worth its name had an obligation to publish. Firstly because it is news, but secondly and I suggest more importantly, as an act of defiance to the threat, of solidarity with the threatened and to ensure that the most ugly of precedents is not set.

This proposed action, I suggest will have the following positive effects:

1: When in response to a threat, rather than an attack, it acts to dissipate the risk onto as many shoulders as possible and thus diminishing the benefits of an attack. In short, you can’t kill us all.

2: The Streisand Effect will render threats and attacks counter-productive.

3: When an established norm it will provide the comfort for voices to speak as they wish without fear. This is good for all society.

4: It makes it clear they don’t stand a chance in changing our society in the way they’d hope. It will reiterate that our fundamental rights will be protected no matter what and as a society we are intent on maintaining them. So the required change in behaviour is incumbent on those wishing to silence speech.

5: It works against the trend of infantilising those lumped in with the ‘offended’ group who are instantly presumed to have been victims of controversial thought.

I know of no other suggestion. ‘Option 2’ is all there is. However when we speak of solidarity it must include the reprinting. Not the farcical and fraudulent expression of solidarity like the New Statesmen attempted to get away with. They managed to print an editorial titled Solidarity With Charlie Hebdo, where they proceeded to reprint several of Charlie Hebdo’s more racy covers including the Bishop of Rome in drag dancing at Mardi Gras. They did however manage to miss out printing any of the cartoons that actually got them killed. They are not standing with Charlie as much as affecting a desirable stance that looks like standing with Charlie.

Most other organisations have also failed to stand with Charlie. They have avoided printing newsworthy items because of fear and/or a desire not to offend. This too is unacceptable.

‘Getting to option 2’

There are three types of people in media not printing in solidarity or for news purposes.

Type 1: The first is honest, they won’t print because of fear of offense. These may well be people who revel in offending in other circumstances but they have identified a victim group here so it is a line they cannot cross.

Type 2: The second is dishonest and says they won’t print due to fear of offence but actually it is fear of violence.

Type 3: The third is those that accept they should reprint but do not because of fear of violence.

The first is probably lost to the cause and should be constantly called out on their failure. In my next piece I will try and analyse who these people are and what should be done about them. The latter two are worth trying to get on board and in the right circumstances will do so.

The reaction to the Danish Cartoons Controversy in 2006 was poor. Very few organisations disseminated the cartoons and some that did were pursued in court. It was a moment lost and had an incredible chilling effect on speech on this subject. As evidenced by Mohammed’s depiction being censored in South Park episode ‘201’ in 2010 whereas it hadn’t been in the earlier episode ‘Super Best Friends’ in 2001.

Things almost seemed to get better after the 2010 South Park controversy when Molly Norris proposed ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’. Unfortunately when the going got tough, Molly got going and it appears she is still gone 4 years later. Things were bleak.

The sheer ridiculousness of the Maajid Nawaz retweeting controversy in the UK, culminating in this laughable segment on Newsnight, seemed to help shift opinions. It had tipped into farce. The surrounding debate eventually included Newsnight showing the depiction in question. This was progress.

As depressing as much of the reaction to the attacks has been I think there are signs we have got further towards the goal from where we were in 2006 or 2010. The BBC seems to have amended editorial guidelines, the discussion of the requirement to publish is louder and larger than before and Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack edition increased its print run from 60,000 to 3m. It sold out in minutes and an additional 2 million are being printed. The Streisand effect if you will. This is good. Better still is that the depth of the atrocity combined with the brilliance of the cover means that organisations really looked stupid not publishing it. So many now have.

I’m sure Britain’s major editors have each other’s phone numbers. I am sure they will have used them to discuss such things as Leveson. Has it really been beyond their wits to get together, do the right and proper thing and decide to publish as one? I suggest no. And it is time they did.

I think that the next time this issue arises we will hit the tipping point where the refusal to do this appears so egregious that people will be forced, by others and by their own conscience, to publish. And for the reasons outlined above, I hope this is the case. The chill will begin to thaw.

It seems strange to need another terror attack or threat to achieve one’s goal. But then if there is no further incident, there will be no further problem anyway, rendering this discussion irrelevant. Unfortunately, I know which option my money is on.


I have largely avoided including all the counter arguments and examples of egregious thinking that have been out there. This is entirely due to length and I will deal with them in Part 2. There I will address the nature and tactics of those arguing the various positions that differ from the one expressed here.

The very deep thoughts of Deborah Orr

Twitter is an astounding thing. Remembering back to when I first used it, we’d describe it in terms of a great leveller, able to break down barriers between the public and the previously unseen conversations of certain elites. It allowed students like me to gain insight and access to the worlds that really fascinated and alluded them: politics and the press.

Whilst this peak behind the curtain should have been an exciting insight in to the workings of the British media, it was in fact a monumentally depressing view into a culturally vapid, morally relative, boring community of slack-jawed fuckwittery with little or nothing to recommend it except for the extreme hard work of their editors and my own schadenfreude. This took some time to get used to, but I think it probably does society the world of good to see the all too human failings of those who would like to pronounce on how we should think, feel and act.

Anyway… back to the point. Deborah Orr is pronouncing on the good (or bad) taste of publishing the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. I’m not going to delve in to how ironically tasteless I find her pronouncements – given the people who drew them were murdered in cold blood for doing so a matter of mere days ago, I am sure you can all judge for yourselves. I do, however, find the idea that she is not in the least embarrassed by assuming this role (of deciding what is or isn’t suitable for public consumption based on her own distaste of the topic/image/idea), and she is therefore doing it in view of the public, utterly astounding.

Good God, we’re adults for crying out loud, are you going to come round my house and go through the bookshelves to remove the books that make you blush, or feel uncomfortable, or challenge you?

The truth is often unpleasant, life is nasty, brutish and short. Worthy journalism, worthy writing, is there to report on that truth, to help us to comprehend the world in which we live and to bring in to sharp focus the narrative and connection between events. We really are in a sorry state of affairs if distaste becomes the basis by which we embargo news stories. The images are context without them the story is anchorless. They are part of a long and complicated narrative that talks of the ageing and maturing of European revolutionary politics, globalisation, inter-cultural relationships, secularism, Islamophobia, Islamo-facism, intolerance and tolerance and more besides. This is the history and the context in which we live.

There are many reasons editors might not want to publish the images (the safety of their staff not being a small matter), but taste should never, ever be one of them. Deborah, avert your damned eyes if you don’t like it, but how dare you condescend to tell us, in the name of good taste, what truth should be kept from us.


Paramount Interest

By David Paxton

“We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theatergoers,”

Employers have responsibilities. But then so do all of us as members of society. What happens when these clash? What interest is in fact, paramount?

So Sony have decided not to put out their film. It is a comedy, it doesn’t seem to be high-brow, of large social import or making a vital political statement. And yet none of that is relevant. The moment Sony were threatened it became important beyond its content.

Upon reading their press release I was instantly struck by the similarity with the Danish cartoons incident of 2005. Those cartoons may well have been things that most news organisations would not wish to publish, however the moment people threatened and indeed proceeded to kill over them, any news organisation worth its name had an obligation to publish. Firstly because it is news, but secondly and I suggest more importantly, as an act of defiance to the threat, of solidarity with the threatened and to ensure that the most ugly of precedents is not set. However, almost no organisations published the cartoons. And the reason most commonly given was that they had a duty, a paramount interest if you will, to the safety of their staff.

When a member of your family is kidnapped, their safe return is of paramount interest to you. Who could make the case to you that the wider picture, namely future kidnap victims, is in fact more important and expect to be agreed with?

Although paying a ransom is not technically illegal in America, to do so to a known terrorist group will leave you open to prosecution for terrorist funding and the Federal government have used this fact to prevent previous attempts at payments. Despite no law preventing the UK and US governments themselves paying, they choose as a matter of policy not to. The US and the UK do not negotiate with kidnappers and terrorists. The last time a group in the UK worked without that assumption was 1980 at Princess Gate. The whole world saw how that ended and it seems plenty of people took note. To reward the behaviour is to encourage it. This is why this doctrine is in place, to prevent repeats.  But once adopted that policy takes backbone, stoicism to maintain. A policy others, the French or Italian governments for example, seem far less well equipped to uphold.

But with a family and a kidnap, their lack of wider moral awareness is easily and instantly accepted. Can we really grant businesses the same latitude? Or conversely, are we able to expect them to take a longer term view like our governments? In corporate culture people have clear roles and responsibilities. They are defined, they come with accompanying flow-charts and diagrams, they are signed for and lawyers are circling ready to jump on any lapses come tribunal time. Nowhere in Sony’s corporate policies will it speak of a moral obligation to uphold the intangibles of the culture of freedom of speech, to not reward the bullying behaviour of autocrats, and certainly not to accept, on behalf of their employees, mortal danger for these reasons.

Their legal responsibilities have been met but surely not their moral ones. They can only be sued for the former however. This is the world of cover-your-arse, of just following orders, of defining the interest most beneficial to themselves in isolation and calling it ‘paramount’.

Sony caved first, they told the cinema chains which they have deals with, that it was ok not to show it as previously agreed. Then “Regal Cinemas, AMC Entertainment and Cinemark Theatres – the top three theatre chains in North America – subsequently announced they were postponing screenings, and Canada’s biggest theatre firms also pulled out, leaving Sony seemingly no choice but to postpone the film.”

If indeed they were thus threatened I would suggest that releasing details of that threat, perhaps a warning with the ticket purchase,  and then allowing cinema goers to choose to take the risk would be an adequate fulfillment of the duty. It would allow the public to demonstrate what they think of threats from bullies. This is not going to happen.

This incident has occurred in the midst of the leak from Sony of a multitude of corporate information following a hack. Unfortunately it may well be that issues around this leak are for Sony the interest most paramount rather than the apparent threat to safety in cinemas. One can only speculate as to whether the film would have been pulled due to a threat without this massive leak. The thing is, now they have pulled the film it is surely only a matter of time before another controversial film garners a threat. Then we will of course find out. But would that make this decision better or worse?

Let us assume the threat to cinema goers is the real reason. If so Sony must release the film for free as soon as possible. That way at least they will both serve their ‘paramount interest’ as they state it, and the actual paramount interest as I do.

Siding With The Philistines: Exhibit B and Index on Censorship’s Julia Farrington

Promotional still for Brett Bailey’s artwork Exhibit B.

On the 24 September, the UK saw the closure of yet another controversial artwork in response to the mobilisation of protests. The installation Exhibit B, conceived and directed by the South African artist and provocateur Brett Bailey, takes as its starting point the 19th century phenomenon of ‘human zoos‘, and is described by Bailey as follows:

What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them. But what we are doing here is nothing like these shows, where black people were brought from all over Africa and displayed in villages. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies.

Since 2012, Exhibit B has played in some 19 cities before arriving in London and received considerable acclaim. Lynn Gardner in the Guardian called it “both unbearable and essential”, Allan Radcliffe in the Times called it “remarkable . . . powerful and upsetting”, and Neil Cooper, reviewing the installation for the Edinburgh Festival (and perhaps putting his finger on the masochistic pleasure in which Bailey invites his Western audiences to marinate), revealed that “the guilt [Exhibit B] provokes is devastating”.

Others, like Laura Barnett at the Telegraph were less sure. Acknowledging its merits, she nevertheless found Exhibit B to be “a highly problematic” and possibly exploitative piece of work. She did not, however, call for its closure. Nor, to my knowledge, did any other serious-minded writer, whatever their view of its worth. And, whether it succeeded or not, Bailey’s work was generally agreed to have been at least intended as an indictment of Western colonialism.

But soi-dissant anti-racist activists were in no mood to be so tolerant or broad-minded, and they did not hesitate to accuse both artist and production of outright racism. In Berlin, Bailey’s work was greeted with furious protests and, upon learning that Exhibit B would be performed at The Barbican in London, a Birmingham activist named Sara Myers started an online petition, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Bailey’s “racist” work. “If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery” Myers instructed, “this is not the way to do it.” This sentiment was rewarded with nearly 23,000 signatures.

Protests outside the venue followed, blockading the road, and on 24 September, the Barbican announced, with regret, that it was cancelling all shows:

Due to the extreme nature of the protest outside the Vaults, regrettably we have cancelled this evening’s performance of Exhibit B as we could not guarantee the safety of performers, audiences and staff. We respect people’s right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners.

For those committed to the defence of free inquiry and artistic expression, this is not a complicated matter. And it would be only slightly more complicated if the work in question were indisputably racist. The right of artists to express themselves as they see fit must be inviolate, as must the right of audiences to make up their own minds about the merits of what they produce. It bears repeating that an axiom of free speech advocacy is the willingness to defend the expression of opinions with which one vehemently disagrees.

But in a dismal op-ed for the anti-censorship advocacy organisation Index on Censorship, its associate arts producer, Julia Farrington, found herself unable to do any such thing. Her article, it should be noted, appeared on the Index website on 22 September – that is, after the petition and protests had been launched but before Exhibit B‘s cancellation. By 25 September, Index had found it necessary to issue an unsigned clarification of their official position, stating:

Those who read [Julia Farrington’s] article following the cancellation and our short comment on it have interpreted our stance as one that in some way excuses or condones the protesters and the cancellation of the piece. This was certainly not our intention . . . People have every right to object to art they find objectionable but no right whatsoever to have that work censored. Free expression, including work that others may find shocking or offensive, is a right that must be defended vigorously.

This must be news to Farrington, whose defence of Bailey’s right to conceive and present his work is tepid in the extreme. Instead, her article takes the side – with minimal equivocation – of those noisily declaring themselves offended by it.

Although Sara Myers’s petition explicitly demands the Barbican cancel its performances of Bailey’s work – and although Farrington does mention this fact – she persistently misdescribes Myers’s transparently censorious campaign against venue and artist as “a boycott”. And it is the protestors to whom she awards credit, without irony, for “ensuring dialogue is happening”.

Like them, she had not seen the work for herself at the time of writing. Nevertheless, “what interests me here,” she explains, “is the mindset of the institution presenting this piece of work and whether it considered, if at all, the possibility of a hostile response.” Contrary to appearances, it is the Barbican which is unmasked as the real villain. They did, she concedes, commission a public debate on the matter, but their hand was forced by the protests which, she argues, were themselves a product of the venue’s insensitivity and incompetence. Farrington justifies this conclusion by declaring her belief that:

The role of the arts institution . . . is to manage the space between the artist and the audience.

And with that she burdens the venue with responsibility for the row. Actually, the role of an arts institution – be it a cinema, theatre, or gallery – is neutral: to provide space for the exhibition of work and to promote said work as it sees fit. Those who elect to exhibit challenging material should be supported in their efforts, not presented with further obstacles.

To insist that venues and institutions “manage the space between the artist and the audience” as a precondition to exhibiting potentially controversial content will only help further deter the emergence of provocative art. (“We are thinking of exhibiting Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò at your local. Please read the attached synopsis and let us know your thoughts.”)

Not only would such a process be time-consuming, cumbersome, and – I would imagine – expensive, but it would also present a number of practical problems. Who, for instance, decides what level of potential offence and provocation demands prior consultation with outraged community activists? And who decides which of the activists’ subsequent demands are reasonable? And, most importantly, what exactly does this alleged obligation to “manage the space between the artist and the audience” actually require of the venue?

To Farrington, I imagine the phrase seems collaborative and cuddly. But in this context “manage the space between the artist and audience” sounds a lot to me like a euphemism for “listen to community concerns and make the requested changes accordingly.”

It is instructive to listen to Sara Myers debating one of the actresses in the work on Newsnight. Amid Myers’s various complaints about offence and bad taste, and her demands for an apology and “holistic reparations”, she averred that she would “not necessarily” seek to interfere with an artist’s vision. All she wanted, she announced, was to be consulted.

But then would she feel satisfied if, once her views had been heard and taken into account, the work in question remained unchanged? Interestingly, by way of an answer to this yes/no question from presenter Kirsty Wark, Myers turned her attention to the moral deficiencies she perceived in the production:

There’s no whiteness in that exhibition. All there is is black people standing in various cages with chains…

A reductive piece of critical analysis, to be sure. To Wark’s hypothetical that scenes involving the degradation of blacks required a “white representation,” she nodded: “Yes, it needed to be balanced.” I don’t know what I dislike more; the presumption of the words in that sentence or the pedagogical tone in which they were uttered.

Myers never did get around to giving Wark a straightforward answer, but it was evident to me that she was not about to be appeased by any amount of consultation so long as the show went ahead unaltered. Had it done so, I imagine she would have denounced the consultation efforts as a cosmetic sham designed to shut her up and pressed for further direct action.

But Farrington was not satisfied that the protestors’ concerns had been adequately dealt with either. She described the two hours alotted to the public debate commissioned by the Barbican as “woefully inadequate”, and welcomed the activists’ call for further “engagement and dialogue”:

As anticipated the debate changed nothing in the short term, the work will open this evening as planned, but there was an urgent call for a longer, fuller discussion which hopefully Barbican will respond to as a matter of urgency.

Myers’s petition is unambiguous in its demand for the censorship of Exhibit B. And the jubilation with which she and her supporters welcomed the news of the performance’s closure, two days after Farrington’s article appeared, speaks to their true motivations. These are not people interested in opening dialogue but in policing it and closing it down.

How on earth did a free speech advocate find themselves so far on the wrong side of an elementary free speech debate? The nature of the performance, its subject matter, and perhaps most importantly, the skin colour of the protesters, appear to have presented Farrington with a conflict. She is a free speech advocate. But she is also clearly sympathetic to the view that structural racism and institutionalised white privilege are the ‘root cause’ of everything. Certainly, as far as UK arts and culture goes, she accepts its alleged ‘institutionalised racism’, a priori. As she puts it:

Surely it cannot be possible for the Barbican to stand by a work that purports to confront “colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today” and not see that it is holding up a mirror to itself.

Index on Censorship does not speak for the victims of ‘structural racism’. There are other organisations which devote their time and resources to that. In her capacity as a writer for Index, Farrington ought to have shelved her reservations about such matters, and concentrated on the most immediate threat to free speech: the intimidation of artists and venue by a censorious campaign.

But she prefers to resolve her ideological dilemma with a rhetorical sleight of hand. She concludes her article:

I defend Brett Bailey’s right to present these horrendous atrocities from the past – anything else is censorship . . . But the more potent issue here, is the perpetuation of institutionalised mono-cultural bias preventing the Barbican, and the vast majority of British arts institutions, from fostering and delivering a truly relevant cultural programme. This untenable form of censorship must be addressed and continue to be addressed long after Exhibit B has been and gone.

So it turns out that Farrington has been anti-censorship all along. Not the common-or-garden type right in front of her eyes, of course, but something more profound and subtle; the censorship of minority voices by stealth.

In support of her accusation, Farrington relies on two rather dubious expert witnesses. She quotes Mark Sealy, artistic director at Autograph Black Photographers, who demands that public funding be withdrawn from those who don’t fall into line by employing the right people or producing the right kind of content. The basis for this draconian recommendation is a highly implausible (and unsubstantiated) claim that “since 1980s it is progress zero”. Part of what is needed, we may infer, is the involvement more people like Sara Myers who will arbitrate on what kind of material is and is not acceptable to their respective communities.

Then we meet Jenny Williams, described as an “independent arts consultant”. Williams appears to think what’s needed is a thoroughgoing policy of Multiculturalism in the arts and a stricter balkanisation of funding allocated to minority communities:

The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.

The outrage of this apparently monstrous pie-dividing injustice, by the way, appears to rest on an assumption that black and minority ethnic audiences won’t look at or listen to anything not made by their own ethnic or racial group. But by enlightened roads such as these will we journey to a land where all art and culture is politically acceptable and socially responsible.

As Farrington must surely be aware, the fanatical pursuit of this conformist dystopia is not restricted to the arts. A recent article in Spiked by Frank Furedi entitled “Academic Freedom Is a Big Deal” looks at troubling examples of this kind of doctrinaire thinking on campus:

Intolerance towards the academic freedom of other colleagues is invariably represented as not what it really is – the silencing of unconventional or objectionable views – but rather as an enlightened defence of those who would be offended by unconventional or objectionable views. From this perspective, the advocacy of a genuinely open intellectual culture, where scholars are encouraged to take risks and question everything, is an abomination.

Academic freedom and artistic freedom – both of which, in different ways, are dedicated to the pursuit of truth – are extraordinarily precious components of open societies. And both are in danger of being compromised, not just by moral puritans of the right, but also by moral puritans of the left – those for whom the enforcement of their own idea of ‘social justice’ and the immediate redress of grievance trump all scholarly and aesthetic concerns.

It is fantastically unwise for an organisation like Index on Censorship to indulge such people. Anti-censorship advocates, whatever their views about related issues, owe it to themselves to defend art and scholarship from the manoeuvres of activists like Sara Myers, and to do so without equivocation. Farrington’s article subordinates that responsibility to ideological views concerning the nature of racism, social justice activism, and identity politics, which are wildly beyond her brief. In a confused attempt to position herself as the friend of the weak, Julia Farrington has misidentified both villain and victim and sided with censorious philistinism. The people power embodied by Myers and her fellow malcontents, of which Farrington writes with such admiration, was a sinister and coercive force from the start.

I take no pleasure in criticising Index on Censorship. They do valuable work and are, by some accounts, a rather embattled organisation at present. But in their handling of this controversy, they abdicated their responsibility to defend those in whose interests they speak. When their associate arts producer marvelled at the 22,500 signatures the petition to close Bailey’s work had by then accrued, she should have stopped to consider this: it is precisely at times like these that artists and performers engaged in challenging work most need the support of people like her.

This is a cross-post from the Jacobinism blog.