A Rock and a Hard Place 19

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, Delilah Campbell has more questions than answers.   

Imagine that three women, wearing face-masks and armed with automatic weapons, went into the office of a leading pornographic magazine and shot several pornographers dead. Imagine that as they left they were heard to shout ‘men are scum’ and ‘we have avenged the women’. Imagine, in other words, a version of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris where the perpetrators were feminists, and the offence to which they were responding was not the circulation of cartoons depicting the Prophet, but the circulation of images depicting the violent sexual degradation of women.

I do not believe I know a single feminist who would defend such an action. Even committed feminist anti-porn campaigners would deny that violence and killing are legitimate responses to the harm they believe pornography does. ‘Not in my name’, they would say. ‘Feminism is a non-violent political movement, and we condemn these brutal killings’.

But in other ways the feminist response would be different from the response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I don’t think we’d be carrying placards saying ‘I am Hustler’, or tweeting messages of support adorned with that hashtag. I don’t think we’d be exalting the freedom of men to make and use pornography as one of the defining features of a civilized society. I don’t think we’d be sharing pornographic images as a tribute to the victims.

I also don’t think we’d be saying, as some people have said about the cartoons that provoked the attack in Paris, ‘they’re only pictures, FFS’. I don’t think we’d be saying that even if the attack had targeted men whose products were not photographs of actual women, but—for instance—the pornographic drawings of girls which are a subgenre of Japanese manga (and are explicit enough to be illegal under the UK’s child pornography laws). Most feminists who oppose pornography do not think its harm is limited to the women actually depicted in it. We think it harms all women, because it influences the way they are looked at, thought about and treated by those who use it.

I am using this imaginary scenario to explain why I have found it difficult to frame a response to the events in Paris. My view on the killings themselves is unambiguous: there is no possible justification for what the killers did. I am also absolutely clear about my opposition to Islamism and other forms of modern religious fundamentalism. These are right-wing political movements and the submission of women to patriarchal authority is a central tenet of all of them. On these points I’m not conflicted, nor at odds with the prevailing view. But my difficulty begins when the conversation turns to the more general issue of freedom of expression.

Before this week I’d never looked at what Charlie Hebdo published, but when I saw the cartoons that were reproduced in the wake of the killings, I found them even more offensive than I’d imagined they would be. I know they belong to a French tradition of overtly and deliberately crude caricature, but even so I was struck, looking at recent covers depicting Muslims, by how much they reminded me of some of the iconography of the Nazis. Take away the turbans, and these malevolent hook-nosed figures could have come from the pages of an anti-semitic pamphlet in 1930s Germany.

Many commentators have made the point that Charlie Hebdo was even-handed in its offence-giving: there was, in fact, one cover in the montage I saw featuring a Jewish subject, and there were also some grotesque depictions of non-Semites, from the Pope to the leaders of the fascist National Front. But the problem with this argument—‘it’s OK because they treated everyone with equal contempt’—should be obvious: the context in which these images circulate is one in which everyone is not, in fact, equal. In France, where Muslims are the main targets of racism and religious bigotry, racist representations of Muslims are not ‘the same thing’ as stereotypical representations of white politicians or Catholic priests. They reinforce a view of the group that contributes to the real social injustice suffered by members of that group. You might as well say that pornography is even-handed because it depicts men as well as women in gross and objectionable ways, or because some of the men who work in the industry have suffered abuse or been coerced. The point remains that in the world at large, pornography does not affect men in the same way it affects women.

Although I think pornography is harmful, I have never supported campaigns for outright censorship, because I think the dangers are on balance greater than any benefits more restriction would bring (I say ‘more’ because it is nonsense to suggest that there is no censorship in western democracies at all). There are particular reasons for feminists to be wary of restrictions on ‘offensive’ speech. This is a time when any statement deemed offensive by a vocal minority can cause the feminist who made it to be ‘no platformed’, or deluged with rape and death threats: we know these are effective ways of silencing dissent.

But none of this means I feel impelled to join in with the chorus of ‘we must defend freedom of expression at all costs!’ Of course I don’t want to live in an authoritarian state where I could be arrested and imprisoned for saying anything the government disapproved of. But still, the rhetorical celebration of free speech in capitalist democracies can feel a bit naive and self-satisfied. Catharine MacKinnon once remarked that what free speech often comes down to in practice is the freedom of the wealthy and powerful, who have privileged access to public platforms, to drown out all other voices. Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the Times, the Sun, Fox News, etc., has the freedom to broadcast his views to millions of people every day; in theory I have exactly the same freedom to broadcast mine, but since I don’t have my own global media empire, that does not make me an equal player in what liberals refer to as the ‘marketplace of ideas’.

For feminism that marketplace is a particularly unequal one. The idea that women are commodities for men’s use is one of the oldest and most entrenched ideas there is; it is also one of the most profitable. It will inevitably dominate the most powerful forums in which the right to free speech (or in many cases, ‘paid for speech’) is exercised.

Charlie Hebdo is not a global media empire, but in the pictures that were published of the contributors who died, it looked a lot like the (white, male) French establishment it lampooned. It may be irreverent, but it’s closer to the centre than the margins of French society, and that has given it a license to provoke the powerful which might not be extended to more radically dissenting voices. If disgruntled Muslims had made what liberals consider the ‘proper’ response to offensive speech—set up their own magazine with liberal secularism as their target—they would probably not have had to wait very long for a visit from the security services, who would have taxed them with aiding and abetting terrorism, and banned their publication as an incitement.

Of course that doesn’t mean that my imaginary Islamist cartoonists, or feminist anti-porn crusaders, are entitled to take up arms and kill people. But it might help to explain where the rage comes from. Nothing is more conducive to rage than being constantly told that you live in an equal, tolerant society, a society in which you suffer no structural oppression, no systematic social disadvantage, no unreasonable constraints on your freedom or irrational prejudice from others, when your entire life experience screams otherwise. And when you know that however reasonably you present your grievances, you will not be listened to by anyone who counts.

Being told we’re not oppressed as women, and being ignored or pilloried when we try to draw attention to injustice, is a common experience for feminists too. It is fortunate for the world that we do generally reject violence as a political strategy, and that we do not belong to the sex which is socialized to see it as a solution to both political and personal problems.

So, although I condemn the actions (and the motives) of the men who killed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, I refuse to glorify the symbolic violence that may be committed in the name of free expression, or under the illusion that it actually exists.

19 thoughts on “A Rock and a Hard Place

  • Kathy from Kansas

    I find it very strange that, as a feminist, you never even make mention in the above of the fact that Islam just happens to be the most misogynist ideology ever foisted on the world. Genital mutilation, child marriage, polygamy, “honor” killings of family members, killing rape victims, wife-beating, marital rape, etc., ad infinitum. Isn’t that context kind of an interesting part of the mix for a feminist considering this issue?

  • Wendy Morgan

    I really appreciate this careful unpicking of the issues around the ‘free speech’ debate and many of the responses to the Paris massacre. All the major religions are misogynist from my perspective while individual Moslems, Christians, Jews, etc. may not be. We always need to separate the individual agent from structures in society when analysing situations.

  • Hecuba

    In reality ‘free speech’ doesn’t exist because here in the UK there are existing laws making racism and homophobia hate crimes but there is no legislation making male hatred of women and girls a ‘hate crime.’ Likewise there are civil laws concerning libel and slander and reason why such laws exist is because white men know they have right not to be subjected to hatred and contempt from other white males.

    ‘Free speech’ means white men have the right to publicly utter their hatred and contempt for women and girls with impunity.

    ‘There are particular reasons for feminists to be wary of restrictions on ‘offensive’ speech. This is a time when any statement deemed offensive by a vocal minority can cause the feminist who made it to be ‘no platformed’, or deluged with rape and death threats: we know these are effective ways of silencing dissent.’

    In reality what is happening is men are flexing their male political power by threatening real Feminists with male sexual violence and effectively silencing women. This is happening not because of ‘offensive speech’ but because men and their Male Supremacist System continues to believe that women and girls aren’t human so therefore pandemic male hatred/male contempt for women and girls isn’t real. This is why the men in political power refuse to act and make male hatred of women and girls a crime. But note that white mens’ racism against non-white men and heterosexual male hatred for homosexual males is real and mens’ Male Supremacist system does act when racist/homophobic insults/male threats of violence are uttered against non-white men and/or homosexual males.

    The murders of white male misogynists by non-white men is all about men waging war on men and as usual mens’ centuries old war on women continues to be invisible. Remember only if and when it is men who are the ones being murdered does the event become an important one.

  • Kim

    Wow, Kathy from Kansas. You do know that all of the things you listed are practiced by Christians, too, right? As a patriarchal religion, I have no use for Islam. However, I know enough about the world around me to realize that it’s not worse than any of the other male worshipping ideologies out there.

  • Florence Humbert

    Thank you for this very good analyse. Free expression is always the expression of the group who has the power of reclaiming free expression. I think that pornographs are not to be compared with cartoonists but to be compared with terrorists. When a group of masked pornographs would attack a feminist journal and shot the journalists down, because they think feminists meanings are dangerous for them….would the whole population solidarise and tell “We are feminists” ? Unfortunately I believe they wouldnt. Most of the men (and also women) would feel understanding the attackers and say that the feminists provoque the attack.

    Pornographs are actually so dangerous as terrorists, I think.

  • Mike in England

    Hard to agree with Kathy when I consider that Christians and many others have authorised all the evils she lists, apart from the two that Islam doesn’t authorise either – that is to say, genital mutilation and killing rape victims. Sorry, wrong: some 19th-century American and European Christians did practise clitoridectomy on medical grounds. “Honour” killings were, the last time I looked, more prevalent among Christians than among Muslims in Jordan. One mustn’t automatically associate local or national customs with any given religion. But meanwhile, the other religions have got a hell of a long way to go before they catch up with the number of killings carried out by Christian cultures. And of course, when it comes to “Islamist” terrorist murders, the number of American and European victims is negligible compared to the suffering of Muslims.

  • Bushra

    Kathy, you are neglecting to mention that there is a strong feminist stance within Islam too that is challenging some of the misogynist cultural practices. The things you mentioned, i.e., genital mutilation, child marriage, killing rape victims, wife beating and marital rape, are NOT part of mainstream Islamic teachings. And the mainstream interpretation of polygamy is that it is only for certain exceptional circumstances. Please read or listen to Muslim feminists and stop describing Islam as if it is just one homogenous bloc. This article reflects my feelings also. While the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were abhorrent and totally contradictory to Islamic teachings, I do not think that it was a particularly heroic (or even funny) magazine.

  • tom schuller

    Thanks for this. I had been struggling to articulate, for myself and my partner, something along these lines, but had failed to find a good analogy. Yours works pretty well.

  • Simba

    Kathy from Kansas. I think your ignorance should be taken with a pinch of salt. Besides your other idiotic stereotyping, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is a tradition in the North Eastern, Eastern part of Africa. Besides the muslims, the Christian Ethiopians, animist tribes of that region widely practice this cruel method. Its not a Muslim thing. Do your research well otherwise your ignorance can be par with the 3 killers.

  • Kausar

    If you question about whether a thing had happened or not during the World War 2, you will realize it is illegal to even question it, leave aside speaking about it.Some freedom of speech that we are asking for when in fact it only belongs to the powerful few.

  • Jack

    Interesting that a “feminist” should defend religious fundamentalists. Islam, like Christianity and the others, have killed many millions and have super-wealthy backers (e.g. the Saudis are not exactly impoverished) – so they are quite able to defend their own interests and do not need your feminist support! You also appear to have a knee-jerk reaction to the Charlie Hebdo covers rather than the content – you should read it; it’s actually left-wing and pro-immigration. I agree that it is not a muslim thing; it’s a religious fundamentalist thing. And why should religions that call for death or hellfire for non-believers not be considered hate speech or incitement to violence?

  • DebbieBerg

    Funny innit, it takes a dreadful massacre by Islamists for someone to notice CH routinely cartoons included grossly offensive stereotypical representations. In fact, prior to CH’s obsession with Islam in general, they regularly included similar depictions of Jews and Israelis (same thing for many it seems). This appeared not to upset anyone. One cartoon had both an “Arab” and a Jew whose hook-nosed faces were more or less identical, just the clothing styles different (and featuring the clothing of minority groups within these questionable categories).

    I support free speech but lament the acceptance of such distortions, going back to Robert Crumb and worse, which pretend to be from a left (sometimes right) libertarian perspective. Is it so difficult to include BME people in caricatures recognisably without resorting to exaggerated distorted facial features that “they” allegedly have? Why do we tolerate these? This is why I have a problem with cartoons/caricatures. Also, irreverence is not revolutionary, not transformative. It is a quick cheap laugh (usually at someone’s expense and they don’t always deserve it) which changes nothing. It’ll take more than a pic of Mohammed to restrain IS, Boko Haram etc.

    I’m not Charlie.

  • Francois Tremblay

    “‘Not in my name’, they would say. ‘Feminism is a non-violent political movement, and we condemn these brutal killings’.”

    That’s a pretty ahistorical thing to say, isn’t it? Or are the suffragettes forgotten already?

  • Dogtowner

    I find this a rational analysis and wish to thank you for it.

    I would add to the man who said Charlie Hebdo is “actually left-wing and pro-immigration” that the magazine supported every recent war of destabilization/invasion. I get my information from Tariq Ali, whom I trust far more than your statement that the magazine was “left-wing.” Liberal perhaps, left-wing unlikely.

    I have no personal objection to cartoons of Jesus, Mohammed, or Moses. But my question is, Why? Why when there are living war criminals such as the French president, the UK president, the US president, are you drawing cartoons of dead prophets? Because it’s easy and you think it’s funny? In my opinion, there are no greater stinking cowards in the world than white males.

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