FOLO: Another Philosopher Thinks About Charlie Hebdo

The Battle of Algiers
Scene from “The Battle of Algiers” (1965)

By Hugh Miller

Many thanks to my friend and Loyola colleague David Ozar for his reflections on the Charlie Hebdo murders. My reflections here are meant as a supplement to his.

I agree pretty much completely with what Dave has to say. I agree wholly with his position on the first group of issues, that is those involving the morality of violent assaults upon persons to prevent such persons from expressing their views.

As to the second group — having to do with the issue of jihad as it is understood and practiced in Islamic contexts — I have nothing to say. I am myself neither Muslim nor sufficiently educated in the concrete issues to be able to say anything useful, not to mention edifying, about the matter. It is really for experts in Islam to make things clearer for us.

On the third set of issues — where the journalism-ethics rubber meets the road, so to speak — I think I also largely agree with Dave. His distinction between “needed information” and “valued information” is very useful. Satire clearly falls in the second category. But we should perhaps note that the division between the two is somewhat porous.

Clearly, one of the functions (or at least results) of the provision of “needed information” often involves being disobliging, to use a polite word, to those in positions of power or authority. As Murray Gurfein once famously said, “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the right of the people to know.”

The mission or aim of satirical humor, as commentators have repeatedly noted, is to cause readers or listeners to criticize the words and actions of their leaders, especially when those words and actions are absurd or harmful to those whom they profess to lead. (See an especially good piece about this by the British author Tim Parks in his New York Review of Books blog.)

The means employed by satire differ from those employed by “straight” reporting; but, in at least some respects, the ends are the same, or at least quite similar. The satirist Harry Shearer made a similar point recently on his radio show, Le Show: Genuine satire always involves critiques of those in positions of power and authority.

It is for this reason, I presume, that in so many newspapers it has been historically the tradition to place editorial cartoons in a different category, and indeed in a different physical location, in the newspaper from the “comics.” Indeed, editorial cartooning faces many of the same push-back pressures and intimidations from those whom it covers as do reporters writing articles. Columns and cartoons alike risk “spiking.”

What has been prompting my own reflections most, though, has been the problem of “offense” which Dave discusses toward the end of his post. And, really, his own reservations and hedging about the possibility of getting clear on the issue are to his great credit, and are more or less the jumping off point for my own ideas.

Philosophical debates about the Charlie Hebdo tragedy that I have read have tended to take various abstract positions. Some have voiced a full-throated support for “Enlightenment values”: for example that in a liberal democracy that practices the separation of church and state one has (or ought to have) a perfect right to say what one thinks, and to have that saying protected, if necessary, by state power — limited only by concerns of public safety, incitement to riot, hate speech, etc.

Others (in what might be called the “ethics of care” position) argue that we have a prima facie obligation to avoid knowingly giving offense to others, absent a very good reason for doing so. But what has struck me, and worried me, about many such positions has been precisely their abstractness.

Abstraction is at once the strong suit and the Achilles’ heel of traditional philosophical practice. In philosophy we tend to think that our job is to get to a position of general or universal conceptual clarity and logical rigor, and from such a standpoint to lay down canons of knowledge and action that (we think) ought to be shared and carried out by “the rational person.”

In doing so we commonly leave behind many of the concrete, historical, individual details of persons and situations, viewing them either as accidental or as something that can be accounted for by tweaking the theory later, once the basic ground rules have been agreed upon. First, we think, let us get our virtue-ethics, or utilitarian, or deontological, or communitarian systematic ducks in a row. Then we can take care of gender, history, power, etc., in a kind of cleanup sweep at the end.

Along with many other contemporary philosophers, I’ve come to think of such a philosophical practice as deeply problematic, if not fatally flawed. For once we step away from the concrete facts and situations and relegate them to the periphery of “accidents,” we seem unable to retrieve them later as anything but that, in fact—as inessential accidents.

We also absolve ourselves too quickly of responsibility for thinking through ways in which our vaunted theories have been applied historically. “Duty,” for example, is a compelling idea, and as Kant articulates it, a powerful foundation for moral judgment. But it is also the key idea deployed by those for whom by obedience to commands is the dominant imperative of moral life—and rigorous obedience to commands can carry us very far indeed from moral behavior.

More generally, “Enlightenment values” were born and developed over a long period in which huge historical moral catastrophes like slavery, colonialism, racial segregation, totalitarianism, capitalist exploitation, the oppression of women and environmental degradation have been dominant facts. Are we to say that those values have no real relation to such events—that they have been only meant to correct such failures? If so, they have been unsuccessful.

What this means is that, for me, and for others who think like this, moral reasoning must be contextualized and made concrete, every step of the way. Out first responsibility is to think critically, especially self-critically, of what we claim as our values and how we claim to be able to apply them to a situation. We must first investigate the concrete details thoroughly. We must listen—really listen, not just record facts distractedly while our real attention is directed to our theories—to the parties involved.

We must learn the history, the details, the particulars, and especially the relations of power and powerlessness that mark and have marked the participants. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, that means looking at the status of the various Muslim communities in France, at the very least since the Second World War and the Algerian struggles for independence.

What of the young disenfranchised Muslim youth in the banlieues of Paris and the other great cities of France? How are Muslims treated in France, now and historically? What effect has the struggle over the public ban on the wearing of the hijab been on the Muslim community?

For that matter, what is the historical tradition of polemical satire, like that of Charlie Hebdo, which is common not only in France but in many countries in Europe? Is such polemical satire really a blow for freedom, as its (current) defenders insist, or also an instrument of ridicule of oppressed and discriminated-against minorities, women, etc.?

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, there have been a number of incidents (for example, in 2006, 2011 and 2012) where publication of provocative and offensive cartoons have caused both foreign governments and French leaders themselves to call for restraint and greater sensitivity to offense. Simply to continue to plump for a rigid application of an exceptionless liberty of expression in such conditions seems not just insensitive but the height of moral obtuseness.

I don’t mean to say that there are no universal moral principles. But I do think that there are no meaningful or useful moral principles that do not arise from a careful critical engagement with the concrete facts of the situation. In particular, they must arise from a committed engagement, by all sides, genuinely to listen to each others’ stories, to criticize their own presuppositions and privileges, to attempt to see others’ points of view, and to assume responsibility for their own thoughts and actions, and even for the thoughts and actions of others.

I think it especially important to make this point in the light of an impassioned plea on January 26th by the Moroccan journalist and activist Zineb El-Rhazoui, who worked for Charlie Hebdo, for all of us to support free speech. (She escaped being killed because she was in Morocco at the time the massacre occurred.)

At an interview in Montreal she appealed to the West to stand up against Islamic fundamentalism. What was interesting about her argument was that it was not based upon a claim of the cultural superiority of western secularism to Islam (even though she admitted she believed in that superiority, and embraced it).

Rather, she said, there was a subtle, paternalistic racism implicit in those who urged sensitivity to Muslim outrage. Those who claim that we should leave Muslims to their own culture and not criticize them, lest we be called racists, she said, are in essence saying, “Those people are not capable of universalism, that they don’t deserve it, that the only thing they deserve is to be ruled by [medieval] rules.”

Those who have read Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism (1978) will recognize the argument: the West has culturally patronized the Arab/Turkish/Persian/African “East,” both elevating itself against that “East” and demeaning it as unworthy of Western values.

My point is that we must understand El-Rhazoui’s position as well: many women (in particular) have found liberation and protection from their experiences of gender discrimination by seeking refuge in exile in the West.

We must listen to their voices as well. But we must situate their claims in a larger context, and recognize that their experiences do not mean that we must abandon our sensitivity to the many other situations of cultural conflict, domination and discrimination. Of course, no one is incapable of, or unworthy of, “universalism.” But the question remains: when one adopts “universal” values, what comes along with that adoption? And what might be left behind?

This is a lot of work. It is easier to formulate a code and then just to apply it, even if it means having to bang the square pegs quite hard to wedge them into the non-square holes on the moral playing board.

But that is hardly a decent way to proceed. The ethics of publications like Charlie Hebdo have to be worked out now, going forward, in an atmosphere of respect, of listening, and of mutual concern. That would not be censorship. It might, in fact, be the birth of a kind of satire that would be genuinely liberating for all concerned.

Advertisements

About profugo55

Hugh Miller is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, where he has taught since 1989. He took a BA in philosophy and physics at Yale University and his MA and PhD degrees at the University of Toronto, where he held a University of Toronto Open Fellowship and a Mary H. Beattie Fellowship. A specialist in contemporary European approaches to ethics, philosophy of religion, and aesthetics, he is at present completing a book-length manuscript on the ethical theory of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He has published several articles on ethics, taught ethics seminars at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and been a regular call-taker with the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists since its inception in 2001.