Sunday, 11 January 2015

"Je Suis Charlie" says Gloria Mundi - part 2

Will Self put it neatly on Channel 4 TV news the other evening. He pointed out that if you make freedom of speech (and drawing) a universal, non-negotiable right, you are turning it into something like a religious absolute, something to be seen as the same everywhere. 

The murderers in Paris last week were, they said, acting in the name of a religious absolute.

Self pointed out that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, in a French concept, are directed not at those in power, but at the relatively powerless French Muslims. I suppose you could argue that those cartoon aimed at the Prophet were aimed at a very powerful figure, but in the context of France today, I can see his point. 

Typically, political and social satire/caricature has been aimed, in this country at least, at those in power. The great caricaturists of the 18th and early 19th century attacked the Establishment, including at times the monarchy (if with a degree of caution) No-one murdered them.

Freedom of speech must be continually re-assessed in the societies in which it occurs. We do not and should not tolerate words and images designed to stir up anti-semitism; that is not necessarily to say we should automatically outlaw cartoons about Jews or Jewish matters.

And incidentally, "we must respect all religions." I don't know about that. It depends what religions and their followers say or do. The Christians have a saying: "by their fruits shall ye know them." Respecting religion, whatever it advocates; caricaturing anyone, in whatever fashion? H'mmm. I'd rather satire served its ancient purpose of making the powerful loook ridiculous when they are being ridiculous. 

 A cartoon would need to be examined for its intentions, as it were, and likely effects - the sort of thing that happens in a court of law sometimes. The difficulty seems to arise when the view of what is acceptable, "fair game," as it were, collides with an absolute, of the sort that characterises doctrinaire religious or political beliefs.

No-one in the Soviet Union of the 1940s got away with satirising Stalin for long. Absolutists have little sense of humour and take themselves absurdly seriously.

So the issues around Charlie Hebdo may be more complex and challenging than many on the streets of Paris today would accept. But the cartoonists drew pictures, and they were met with cold-blooded murder. The asymetry horrifies people around the world, and whatever the cartoons were like, today, it is simply and I feel rightly a matter of "Je Suis Charlie."

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