On the Need for a Wider Debate about Charlie Hebdo
No one can justify the recent brutal murders of the French journalists and police in Paris. However, the belief that this act constitutes an attack on free speech and freedom of the press is in grave danger of being over-stated. What is missing in the debate so far is the understanding that there is a particularly fine line between satirizing people’s beliefs and values and insulting them.
When Attorney-General George Brandis asserted that freedom of speech meant people had the right to be bigots, many Australians disagreed with him. They took the view that to taunt or disparage people gratuitously, because of their ethnicity, religion, age, disability, or gender, is unacceptable – even un-Australian. The Brandis defence of bigotry springs from a perverted version of liberalism driven by extremist ideological assumptions that can only lead to a narcissitic and conflict-ridden society.
Moreover those who rejected Brandis’ view were aware that licensing bigotry all too easily leads to blowback. History shows that people who live under the yolk of unrelenting bigotry, with its associated discriminations and cruelties, have nothing to lose. It is inevitable some at least (especially the alienated young) will turn to irrational and violent actions that are at the very core of extremism. They have no other choice.
In the neo-liberal West there is an increasing insensitivity to the fragile distinction between satirizing peoples and their traditions and being insulting about them. On too many occasions crassness has supplanted subtlety. We hear this almost every day on shock-jock radio and we read it in the splenetic columns of doctrinaire journalists – all claiming to be exercising the freedom of the media as they spread misinformation and inflame prejudice among a gullible public.
This failure to distinguish between satire and insult is symptomatic of cultural arrogance in the West. It is based on moral insecurity and a particularly egocentric form of nihilism. It fosters a corralling of “us” (the “West”) while sneering at “them” (the “Rest”) in ways that can only bring suffering to everyone. The old adage that we shall reap what we sow is as relevant now as it was when it was coined. While witty caricatures of powers-that-be are permissible – even necessary – treating peoples’ cherished beliefs and sacred values with contempt is simply not. It is spiritually wounding to the perpetrators and socially destructive for everyone, especially those at whom it is targeted.
Without doubt there are valuable insights to be gained from intelligent satire – including cartoons – that highlight the foibles, hypocrisy and dishonesty of our own politicians, prelates, public pontificators, pugilists, and anyone else who seeks to exercise authority over us – or bully us. But we should tread sensitively and respectfully when it comes to caricaturing people with whose religio-cultural understandings we are unfamiliar – or perhaps ignorant.
Western liberalism is not the ultimate repository of all human wisdom. Far from it. In a judiciously cosmopolitan world the great and little traditions of humanity’s cultural evolution need to be conversing with each other as never before – with understanding (Max Weber’s Verstehen), mutual respect, frankness, and a genuine desire to explore the common ground they (we) all share. That common ground is broader and more solid than many glibly informed Western liberals understand, or even want to know about. Their positivist certainties wrap them in a dogmatic belief in their own absolutist beliefs that have all the marks of fundamentalism. Their blinkered rationalism and blind faith in scientistic solutions to absolutely everything is a major threat to a humane and cosmopolitan future for our beleaguered planet.
It’s time to draw breath and ask whether Charlie Hebdo is as liberally innocent and culturally iconic as its outraged Western defenders would have us believe. Those defenders need to acknowledge that among its undoubted wit and sharp insights it has also indulged in levels of cynicism and self-righteousness that are quite as egregious as the bad religion it purports to expose and oppose.
Allan Patience is a principal fellow in the Asia Institute in the University of Melbourne. He has held chairs in politics and Asian studies in universities in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Japan: