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.