Notes on the “freedom to offend”

What shape does offence take? How do you distinguish offence from other emotions and affects? It’s common to imagine that people carry out murders, and, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, a massacre, because they were “offended” by something that got said, something published. But what if such people aren’t offended at all? If you’re going to riddle someone with bullets, wouldn’t your threshold for material that is hard to take need to be fairly low to begin with?

Then there is the attribution of “rage”, cf “The Roots of Muslim Rage” by Bernard Lewis. But if you’re going to plan a massacre at a magazine publisher it probably isn’t rage you require, but dispassionate calm. Those calling for widespread reproduction of Charlie Hebdo cartoons -and particularly the ones they have telepathically identified as the root of the offence- seem to think that this is the last thing the killers want.

Is it? If I was going to shoot a load of people at a magazine dead, I would have a fairly good idea what the likely public response would be, especially if I was from that country, which is apparently the case with the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo killings. And maybe, if I was planning on such an action, I would like to see that response, and then the response it might rouse in others too.

I saw someone yesterday proclaiming that the right to freedom of expression was the right upon which all other freedoms are based. Hence the importance of reproducing Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and in particular the ones imagined to have produced the “offence”. But Walter Benjamin once wrote that

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.

So there is no particular link between democratic rights and free expression. You can still say whatever you like in undemocratic regimes provided it has no effect upon the regime of property.

Whilst it is an atrocious crime to execute cartoonists, it should not be assumed that such cartoonists, because they were executed, produced material that was either a threat or offensive to the people who pulled the trigger. Moreover, it does not follow that giving vent to “free expression”, in defence of the “freedom to offend”, without regard for the effects on marginalised and demonised minorities, is in any way a defence of democracy. It is far more likely, in fact, to be a defence of the more repressive elements of the ruling powers, which lay claim to the mantle of democracy whilst preserving freedom for a select few.  The European rulers united in solidarity on our behalf today over the attack on Charlie Hebdo and “our values” and “our way of life” will swiftly press on, their step emboldened, with the expansion of a repressive and racist security apparatus, with the criminalisation of democratic protest, and with the destruction of social rights that were won in Europe through long decades of democratic and anti-fascist struggle.

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3 responses to “Notes on the “freedom to offend”

  1. Dan

    “So there is no particular link between democratic rights and free expression. You can still say whatever you like in undemocratic regimes provided it has no effect upon the regime of property.”

    Usually, when I disagree as violently with a piece of writing as I do with this blogpost, there will be some nagging dispute about how we frame the discussion. What I call the mass murder of Palestinian civilians, they will call the defense of Israeli civilians. What I call an illegal programme of domestic spying, they will call the protection of the American homeland, and so on and so forth. It’s actually quite a novelty for someone I disagree with as profoundly as I do here to define their argument exactly as I would have (unkindly) characterised it. We find ourselves at a point of perfect disagreement, and that’s weirdly gratifying in some ways.

    I hope you don’t mind if I respond in bold point-by-point – Richard

    First of all, and I don’t intend to labor the point because it is so self-evident it shouldn’t require saying: Freedom of speech is the lifeblood of a free society. I would say it’s more important even than habeas corpus, since it’s less effective for a tyrant to lock up a person than it is to prohibit the expression of an idea. You state above that one “can say whatever [one] like[s] in undemocratic regimes provided it has no effect upon the regime of property.” I don’t know exactly what you mean by “regime of property”, but I will assume you mean the political and financial interests of the ruling elite. If so, you are uttering an incontrovertible falsehood. In countries like Iran (or China or Burma or North Korea), censorship pervades every aspect of society. If regulates how citizens are permitted to discuss history, religion, sexuality, art (if at all) and virtually any other topic of discussion you could conceivably think of. (I have a sneaking suspicion you’re going to claim that “regime of property” actually has some other, completely different meaning in obscure, bullshit Marxist dialectics and, on that basis, attempt to dismiss my entire point. Don’t. If I’m interpreting you incorrectly, kindly do a better job of explaining what the fuck you’re talking about.)

    I think it’s fairly simple: I’m talking about a Rule of Law that establishes who owns what. I don’t say ‘private property’ because we could be talking about a State that lays claim to everything as public property. I am pretty sure that in North Korea one is free to denounce the running dogs of US imperialism as much as one wishes; it’s only when speech effectively challenges the rule of those in power that expression is not free. In Irish society, for example, you can say pretty much whatever you want. Unless of course you want to say something about certain litigious billionaires. Or, in certain cases, your boss. Obviously you will not be executed. But you may meet with material destitution. That isn’t free expression but expression that comes at a cost. Now, what is the cost of republishing whatever of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were deemed to have caused the offence to the killers? I’d say it is very low.

    The fact is, there is scarcely a view worth articulating that isn’t deeply offensive to someone. Marxist sentiments are often deeply offensive to the religious right, and vice versa. Abortion, Israel/Palestine, Enda Kenny… it would be impossible to offer any opinion, however tepid, on any of these subjects that couldn’t conceivably cause grave offense somewhere.

    I don’t dispute any of this. And nowhere have I said that there should be any kind of legal restriction on causing offence. But with that said, there are real effects that arise from the circulation of material. I am not concerned with people getting offended by things, I am concerned by the way in which anti-Muslim sentiment can be roused through acts of self-important chest-puffing demagoguery, and how this sentiment then takes shape in the bombing of mosques, in intensified surveillance of migrant populations, in racist chauvinist populism, and so on.

    Indeed, there is kind of narcissism, or an egomania, involved in being offended. The offended party invariably thinks it’s about them. That offender set out with the sole intention of offending them. The Catholic mother (and this has happened in my own family) accuses her offspring of becoming gay simply to cause injury to that mother’s feelings. The Thai restaurant owner accuses his foreign customer of dropping a banknote on the floor with the intention of offending his country’s king, who face adorns their currency. (Like I give a flying fuck about the king of Thailand, the note just happened to fall out of my wallet, you dildo.) Similarly, you Richard seem to assume the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo drew picture of Mohammad with the specific intention of offending Muslims. When in all probability they were satirising Islam the same way they satirise virtually every other faith, creed and political persuasion because they’re satirists that’s their fucking job.

    I ‘seem to assume’, you say. In fact, I don’t assume anything about their motives. I don’t think I even say anything about them

    In fact, the only thing that really marks Islam out from any other interest group in the butthurt stakes is that when Muslims are offended a tiny minority of that faith’s adherents are liable to retaliate violently. So what’s the solution, that we capitulate to threats and intimidation? Or that they cop on and learn to accept the principles of a free society? (Obviously, I’m not talking about the deranged gunmen here. But rather the Muslim leaders who condemn the murders while continuing to contend that the cartoons had no right to be published.)

    I don’t share your generalisations about Muslims. I don’t think ‘Islam’ is an interest group or any other such ideological abstraction. You seem to think that the gunmen in this case were ‘retaliating’. One of the things I am questioning in this post is precisely this idea. That it is a retaliation. Where is the evidence that it is any such thing? It strikes me as far more likely that the action was intended to intensify a dichotomy, on the one hand, between people that ought to be shunted under this vast ideological abstraction of ‘Islam’, and, on the other, ‘the West’.

    I’ve rambled on a bit longer than I intended to. But before I go, here’s a question I’d really appreciate an answer on. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the year is 1988 and you, Richard, Cunning Hired Knave or whatever your name is, own a small independent cinema in Dublin. The cinema is scheduled to screen Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s a film you’ve hear a lot about and you know your regular customers are looking forward to seeing it. A few days before the film is due to be screened, you receive a letter from the Iona Institute (or the Legion of Mary or the archbishop) opposing your screening of the film. There is no implied threat of violence. However, you are informed that if you screen the film it will cause grave offense to Catholics living in Dublin and around the country. What do you do? I’d appreciate a straightforward, coherent answer.

    I’d show it. Of course I would. Where did I question Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever cartoon they saw fit? My concern here is with the idea that the massacre was motivated by ‘offence’. Do you have any evidence that it was?

  2. ejh

    As it happens, when The Last Temptation of Christ was shown in Paris it was the subject of what we would probably call a terrorist attack.

  3. Dan

    I don’t know how to reprint you quotes in bold (maybe you can put them in bold for me), but I will follow your lead in responding to these points one by one.

    “I am pretty sure that in North Korea one is free to denounce the running dogs of US imperialism as much as one wishes; it’s only when speech effectively challenges the rule of those in power that expression is not free.”

    Not so. Read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. Censorship governs every aspect of life in North Korea including areas like health, sexuality, sport, things you wouldn’t believe posed anyone or were remotely relevant to anyone other than the person concerned. The Nazis banned entire schools of (apolitical) arts for being “decadent.” I personally have witnessed junta representatives in Burma walk into an art gallery ahead of an exhibition opening to the public and remove (again totally apolitical) paintings from the wall for no reason other than to demonstrate that they could.

    “In Irish society, for example, you can say pretty much whatever you want. Unless of course you want to say something about certain litigious billionaires.”

    I’m a journalist and a freelance contributor both to one of that guy’s papers and one of his radio stations. I watch what I say even on Twitter and it sucks. I shouldn’t have to do that. One corrupt oligarch should not be allowed have that much power. Nonetheless, the worst he can do in Ireland is to sue me (which he wouldn’t, because I’m poor) or throw me out of a job. (I could probably find another profession.) Besides, there are lots of things all of us can’t do or say in our jobs. I’m guessing that’s possibly why you run this blog anonymously. But it is not a criminal offense to speak one’s mind. You can’t be thrown in jail for anything you say. And that is the vitally important distinction here.

    “what is the cost of republishing whatever of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were deemed to have caused the offence [?]”

    The supposed value of republishing the cartoons (beyond a publication simply exercising its right to free speech), is that if enough media outlets reproduce the cartoons it makes it impractical for extremists to target every single offending paper so, eventually, they become accustomed to it end up learning to put up with it the same way every other religion reacts to being offended. (Call it the “I am Spartacus” principle.) We can argue about the advisability or wisdom of this tactic, indeed most major outlets have chosen not to follow suit, but it does not negate the principle that they have the right to do so if they wish.

    “You seem to think that the gunmen in this case were ‘retaliating’. One of the things I am questioning in this post is precisely this idea. That it is a retaliation. Where is the evidence that it is any such thing?”

    The gunmen were quoted saying “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo!” Now obviously, I don’t know for certain that the gunmen were genuinely offended by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and wanted revenge. But I’m quite certain they were hoping to capitalise on the offense those cartoons had caused in the wider Muslim community.

    “And nowhere have I said that there should be any kind of legal restriction on causing offence.”

    No you don’t. But you do appear to put a greater onus of responsibility (not for the shootings obviously, but for the prior controversy) on the party causing the offense rather than the party being offended. The former are just doing their jobs. It is the latter who have created this whole kerfuffle by insisting that a harmless cartoon is somehow injurious to their faith. I mean, I know a lot of Christians consider gay marriage an affront to their system of values. But fuck ’em, that’s their problem. Same principle applies here, as far as I’m concerned.

    Overall, it seems to me a Marxist view of the world – and apologies in advance if I’m (unintentionally) mischaracterising your politics slightly – can be useful when critiquing the banks, the political system, or American foreign policy. But less useful when discussing other matters. In the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the key, and opposing, issues in play are religious fanaticism and freedom of speech. (Neither concept figures large in Marxist ideology, so your instinct appears to be to ignore or dismiss these aspects.) Issues like immigration, multiculturalism and the history of Western misdeeds in the Middle East are also relevant to the controversy to a certain degree. The perfidy of property ownership, however, seems to me to have fuck all to do with anything here. Freedom of speech is the fundamental principle of a free society. It is the surest defense against tyranny. Religious fanaticism is among the worst blights on the modern landscape. In the words of the late Pete Seeger then, which side are you on?

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