(Originally posted here)
Part 1 is here.
If you’re on Facebook you might know the feeling. Somebody you know socially, somebody you like, generally intelligent and sound, has freshly planted on their Facebook page the latest effusion of Greenwald or Hasan, Francois-Cerrah or Self. This can be tough to take. As it floats there like a turd in a swimming pool the ethics of whether or not to clean it up in public can weigh heavy. You might well restrain yourself until you see the depressing number of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ and you read the ghastly comments underneath. This is something up with which you will not put.
If the person actually knew how stupid or dishonest it was they surely wouldn’t have posted it, but can you put your finger on exactly why it is stupid beneath the facade of nuance and balance?
There are experts we can turn to for help. From left and right and centre:
The late, great Norman Geras, whom this blog exists in honour of, was a master at skewering such pseudo-intellectual fraudulence (see his wonderful 2005 piece about apologists. I shall refer to it below). Hitchens, obviously (his savage demolition of the ghastly Chris Hedges is always good for morale. Here’s a free speech lecture). Mark Steyn has turned such exposure of humbug into an absurdist comedy act (on relativism, on free speech). David Aaronovitch is one of the few in Britain’s media mainstream who refuses to pull any punches against his colleagues. (This week he has taken to strangling weasels). Finally, Maajid Nawaz needs to be mentioned because of the specific topic at hand. Brave, pious and self critical, his patient dealing with slipperiness in this clip shows why he has much to offer you.
The respect achieved by those listed above is well deserved but my single advantage over them today, I suspect, is the sheer weight of bullshit I’ve waded through over this last week (due to their death in some cases). The cretins kept writing them and I kept reading them. Perfect sadomasochism. But I have done it so you don’t have to, and in doing so I have noted a few recurring themes and tactics and began to pick up a few tips on how to address them. I share them below.
What follows includes a fair amount of ad hominem argument. But by that I don’t mean insults, there’s some of those too, but I mean actual ad hominem. Because when sometimes brilliantly clever and well educated people stoop to such low arguments, ones they don’t universally apply, you must surely look for a personal but commonly shared fault as part of the cause. And in identifying this fault it aids our understanding.
Finally, a reminder and for perspective: this discussion surrounds the slaughter of satirists with assault rifles. Fucking cartoonists. In Western Europe. In 2015. It’s worth sitting back and mulling that over for a bit before trying to ingest the attempted arguments for the explicable ‘root causes’ of this.
Of course we also mustn’t forget that Jews were attacked for being Jews that day, it’s simply the bulk of subsequent discourse on this has been heavily weighted towards the former incident.
So then… swimming pools, floaters, nets.
Root causism: ‘I’m only trying to explain, why are you so against nuance?’
The ‘root causes’ types are the most common form of floater. We see plenty of examples from them. Jon Snow popped up with a great one.
They are usually kicked off with a preamble saying ‘I am not condoning merely explaining’, too often another form of ‘I am not racist but‘.
And of course, we must all repeat the rubric: nothing – nothing ever – could justify these cruel acts of mass murder. And no, the killers cannot call on history to justify their crimes.
But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week….
My position is this: the murderers are fully responsible for what they did and should be treated with the full force of the law. Nothing justifies the killing of these people. But this is not the whole of this issue.
Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.
This time reformulated to avoid the ‘but’:
We urgently need to understand why this violence is happening and keeps recurring and to do so is neither a justification for any crime nor an apology of violence.
It is tricky to condemn because of course none of us are actually against nuance and are all for the greatest explanation possible.
Chomsky in this piece:
The reaction of horror and revulsion about the crime is justified, as is the search for deeper roots, as long as we keep some principles firmly in mind. The reaction should be completely independent of what thinks about this journal and what it produces.
This is true. There are important variables and competing factors we need to know more about. The marginalisation and alienation that makes the ideology attractive etc. It is important for counter-jihad organisations to understand this and to put the knowledge into practice. However, sometimes this is merely used to shift the blame.
None of these same writers followed up the Breivik slaughter in 2011 with articles explaining exactly why mass Muslim immigration to Europe might actually have driven him to it. They merely went about condemning anyone they didn’t like who Breivik happened to mention in his manifesto. This cartoon brilliantly exposes such inconsistency showing why the instant attempt at nuance is so out of place in any other circumstance. Thus demonstrating why the tactic is, in fact, rarely a search for nuance but is symptomatic of something else.
Try this example: When reporting on attacks and atrocities during the rise of the Nazis, each and every piece from an author is prefaced something like, “Obviously I condemn the incident, but we must understand that the greed of speculators before the 1929 Wall Street Crash led to despair in Germany.” Few doubt the importance of the Great Depression in the rise of the Nazis but surely at some point it’s fair to see such a preface as more than a search for nuance and explanation. Rather it would seem a source of exculpation.
There is something in the sense of it being reflexive, instant, automatic that should make you pause and question the actual motivation here. Assuming you have read thousands of articles on thousands of events, does this formulation not stand out?
Now the comparison with the Great Depression grants that there is some relationship to the event and is therefore suggesting merely the frequency and prominence is misplaced. But apart from my appeal to your reader’s spidey sense that something is up, there are other issues surrounding the concepts of proximate and ultimate causation which condemn these pieces. Namely, often the stuff following the ‘but’ is also broadly irrelevant to the actual incident in terms of moral blame. The Geras piece I mentioned in the introduction deals with this perfectly and I recommend reading all of it.
In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.
The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity, doesn’t show that they, as well as the direct agent(s), are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn’t serve to justify it. Furthermore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house. So simply by invoking prior causes, or putative prior causes, you do not make the case go through – the case, I mean, that someone else than the actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing is to blame.
So why so heavy on instantly searching for ‘root causes’, especially in the case of Charlie Hebdo where the attackers clearly said they were avenging their Prophet and logically it this seems so much more immediate than the wider issues such as poverty, police stop and searches or Abu Ghraib? Let alone taking it back to the Algerian War which ended in 1962! Why this reflexive need to equivocate in Muslim attacks but not all others?
From Western writers, part of it comes from the sense that their self-criticism can make them appear and feel sophisticated. Unfortunately for them it doesn’t when based on abject nonsense, then it looks like nothing so much as public displays of masochism. For extremists and fifth columnists like Asghar Bukhari I presume the reasoning is obvious. For the likes of Jon Snow I suspect it involves an inability to empathise with the killers. I don’t mean sympathise, Snow will do that with the best of them. I mean his old-school liberal mind simply cannot accept that religious extremism actually motivates such people. It must have a root cause elsewhere more explicable from his own experiences. The likes of Milne operate from a vicious strand of anti-Americanism due to his being an unreconstructed communist, if not Stalinist. But I think there is another source of reasoning in the minds of those on what I call the ‘New Left’. You know, the ‘Multi-Culti Left’, the ‘Laurie Penny Left’, what Caroline Fourest calls the ‘Stupid Left’. The crazies who simply won’t allow Muslim terrorists to be responsible for their own actions. They tend to be a ‘Type 1’ in my last piece. My explanation for their mindset goes something thus:
The three stages of stupidity
The three stages are:
1: Holding the urge to protect and support the underdog above all other motivating forces to the point of myopia. Support for the underdog is felt by most humans, thankfully, and should be. But it is so strong in some that it is followed unequivocally and other motivations are ignored.
2: With that as a motivating principle each problem is approached, subconsciously and consciously, by dividing all actors in a situation into the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’. This is done along demographic lines, be them race or gender or sexuality or whatever. If you are part of that group you’re treated as the group. The view struggles with seeing individuals at all.
3: The thinker then falls for Bertrand Russell’s fallacy of ‘The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed‘. The weaker group in the binary situation is of superior virtue. No. Matter. What.
So: Unequivocal support of the underdog, dividing into oppressor/oppressed, assuming the superior virtue of the oppressed.
Muslims in the West are (normally) a racial minority and a religious one. In the world, Muslim nations are weaker than America and the West. So both times they are ‘the oppressed’ regardless of what incident is under discussion. This means for people following those initial three stages, terror attacks cause a problem because they don’t like terror but like the ‘oppressed’. Firstly the individuals are ignored and are reduced to part of a demographic grouping. So rather than just blame three Muslims with Ak47s who made decisions, it becomes a situation of Muslim oppressed vs the Western oppressor and the actions are relativised and excused away with a shift of blame and responsibility. They have to be. Reflexively. Or else the cognitive dissonance is too much to bear.
Of course most don’t think it was ok to gundown cartoonists. But the actual gunmen cannot be to blame as individuals. The oppressor has to be. So you then get to see the articles that begin “Obviously I condemn this action but let me explain why it wasn’t their fault…”.
This is utterly standard and I’ve already supplied examples galore. And many people do it without knowing why. Therefore seeing these pieces, written instantly and with dubious proximate causal-reasoning, we see more at play than an intelligent search for nuance and the greatest understanding.
We are not fighting nuance here but fighting reflexive attempts to relativise away cognitive dissonance and maintain that three stage process.
Take this line from Gary Younge’s piece immediately following the attacks:
They are personally responsible for what they did. But we, as a society, are collectively responsible for the conditions that produced them.
By this logic we can say the same about anything. Everything is all everyone’s fault and therefore it is nobody’s fault. The fact is though the personal responsibility of the individuals is far more important than societal factors. Evidence this is true is that such similar actions are being carried out under very different societal conditions and that people under identical societal conditions choose not to carry them out.
So yes, there are other factors, but they don’t seem contingent. He writes as if they are balanced and equal, but they simply are not. Younge’s line is not an appeal for more nuance, despite his piece being titled ‘The Danger of Polarised Debate’. It is an attempt to ensure we cannot make a member of the ‘oppressed’ the guilty party here and the most that can be gotten away with is that it is our fault just as much as the gunman’s. So that is what is implied. The three stage mental process won’t allow anything different. The blame must be shifted and shared or their heads will explode. But alas, he doesn’t know this.
This helps explain why in their writing, if an ‘oppressed’ nation or peoples does something objectively awful, as a reflex to hold off the cognitive dissonance it is instantly explained away as an inevitable and inescapable reaction to one or other action of the oppressor. Of course fairly soon this becomes de facto racist in that various ethnicities are robbed of agency, choice and responsibility based solely on their ethnicity and its relative power ranking. Remember, individuals don’t count. Any of their work on Israel/Palestine demonstrates this instantly.
These stages require all sorts of mental wrangling to maintain. With some perverse outcomes.
When a person is in more than one group at the same time, a female Muslim for example, cognitive dissonance is pretty high. To solve it a readjustment occurs and the individual in question is assigned to one or other group. Usually the largest or whichever allocation allows the assumptions of the three stages to remain most strongly in place for the duration of that argument.
So let’s say there is an article in the Guardian about the oppression of women in the Muslim world. The Muslim woman becomes part of the oppressed minority of Muslims against the oppressor, which is the West, and her individual struggle as a woman is then subsumed. Despite solicitous studies in the field of intersectionality, you really are only part of one group at a time with this process.
Because the people speaking of feminist ideals become part of the West they have to be bad. For although feminists are on the oppressed side in a UK based topic, these ones are up against Muslim men, who are lumped in simply as Muslims, and therefore the feminists must conform to their larger identity, Westerners. Hence why we see committed feminist writers, plagued by this process, willingly abandon their sisters in a Muslim country under talk of cultural relativism and of different standards applying.
Shifting the blame via reducing the actors to expressions of group dynamics is just one method of apologia though.
“They didn’t deserve to die but they were racist…”. That’s the second most common formulation in evidence this last week. Again the examples are myriad and can be found in several of the pieces I have already linked to. The fact is, it simply isn’t true. They were a far-Left magazine who mocked anti-immigration and racist campaigners. This next point isn’t a slam dunk, but the fact that Stephane Charbonnier’s life partner was Jeannette Bougrab, of Algerian descent and a diversity overseer at the CSA, should at least give pause. And yet so many writers have been willing to reflexively smear the dead as racists. Possibly it could be understood, but not condoned, in the immediate aftermath where people unfamiliar with the magazine were quick to comment and had merely seen unexplained images. But fairly soon such sites as this or this were up and running to unpack the satire and so the excuse of total ignorance became even less valid. I speak worse French than Joey Barton and yet upon reading explanations and speaking to French friends I can clearly see the difference. That standard is not placing a great expectation on a commentator.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a writer and pundit on French political issues. She knows the difference and still was happy to smear the dead on T.V. (Nesrine Malik also calls their efforts “so racist” in that clip).
Hasan tries it on by suggesting:
crude caricatures of bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave?
If true this might be a concern. But it isn’t true. I think the characters tend to look the same depending on the cartoonist. Orthodox Jews get curly side burns, Mohammed gets a dish dash and Jesus gets a halo. But unless you do a real compare and contrast study I’m calling bullshit on this. A claim without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Still though, better safe than sorry:
I don’t see a theme of racial caricatures here. Show me I’m wrong. More likely this line of attack is the sound of a barrel being scraped. It seeks to blame the victims, weaken movements of solidarity and enhance the never ending narrative of Muslim victimhood so cherished and promulgated by the likes of Ramadan, Hasan and Bukhari.
Yes some are fifth columnists and their interest in the smear is clear but some are simply unable to allow the blame to reside on the side of any identified victim group (the three Stages again).
Laurie Penny’s first contribution to this debate was, as far as I can tell, the following tweet:
I find this an extraordinary statement. Let us for the sake of argument agree that Charlie Hebdo’s efforts could be fairly reduced to racist trolling. Penny tweeted that the murders were bad but so is racist trolling. In one tweet and as a first comment. That is pure false relativism.
It is just about all she said on the matter. She could basically only bring herself to speak in order to show balance where none was required. She just crowbarred it in. Inappropriately and inelegantly.
But, Charlie Hebdo were not racist, they were deeply anti-racist. It is a smear.
Smearing the dead as racists is so far off the scale of bad, and done so reflexively and casually by people not considered stupid, that it has to be an indicator of underlying problems with the author and their approach. Cartoonists lie dead and Penny wastes no time declaring them racist in the same tweet as she condemns the violence. That’s fucking low. But with the three stages the ‘oppressed group’ cannot be the party in error and people will seemingly abandon all sense and all decency while relativising away their cognitive dissonance.
Imagine, you know you are on the hit lists of serious terrorist groups, for doing your job at a magazine working in the name of secularism, and you continue to do that job until you are murdered in cold blood. If that is not heroic I truly wonder what is. Penny’s notion of heroism might well be different from mine.
I also wonder, will Penny ever get to be face to face with Charb’s life partner and be able to explain to her exactly why her murdered loved one was an un-heroic racist troll? I hope not.
Damn right you’re not Charlie. Disgusting. Is there enough chlorine to clear up this one?
False comparisons and whataboutary
‘What if the cartoons were about X,Y,Z?’. This performance by Bukari on Sky News covers half the fallacious nonsense in this entire post. But this line stands out (Murray’s face from 01:32 is just wonderful, as is his subsequent performance):
We wouldn’t publish black people… as zoo animals
That is not an equivalent of what Charlie Hebdo was doing. It is a false comparison. There is such a thing as anti-Muslim racism. But, Islam is not, per se, a race and mocking Mohammed is not the same as drawing a racial cartoon. Islam is an idea no matter how much it means to you, your physical ethnicity is not.
The second form of this same argument is comparing printing Mohammed to antisemitism. Glenn Greenwald, predictably, went to town with this idea. His lengthy contribution is a prime example of disingenuous output. Try also, this Joe Sacco cartoon in the Guardian.
Many have tried it. Here is Nabila Ramdani on This Week:
try and draw an antisemitic cartoon tomorrow
Another entirely false comparison. Mocking Islam is not the same as antisemitism. Why? Because anti-Judaism is not the same as antisemitism. They were not abusing all Muslims but the main character in their story, therefore the comparison is false. Charlie Hebdo mocked the god of the Old Testament, this should be enough to qualify as a fair comparison. They weren’t murdered for it.
Hasan in his piece:
Has your publication, for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No? How about caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the twin towers? I didn’t think so…
There are plenty of jokes playing on 9-11 in the media, even people falling from the towers. Try this, it’s brilliantly funny. Or see the following picture:
Do I really need to explain the difference between mocking a religious figure and mocking the murder of 6 million people? Or 3000? When the close relatives of victims and survivors are still alive? Is he seriously making that comparison? Well clearly he’s making it but no way can he be considered serious.
A similar attempt to show double standards is made when referring to Muslim protests at soldier’s funeral processions. Do such people now need to have the difference explained between the taboo of upsetting grieving relatives and the taboo of depicting an historically significant person who died a millennium and a half ago? Again, a false comparison. And surely embarrassing by its making.
Mehdi’s argument, and those of others, is that it is just as offensive to the receiver. Mehdi is a man who loves his prophet more than his children so this may well be the case. But the level of offense claimed by an individual is entirely subjective. He might claim drawing a cartoon of an historical figure is as offensive as mocking the death of your family member, just like I may claim Mehdi’s perfectly trimmed facial hair offends me more than mocking every genocide that was ever undertaken.
A funeral isn’t a 1400 year dead man and a religion isn’t your mother.
To ignore the fundamental differences is stupid at best, slimy, opportunist and dishonest at worst. I’m not granting the benefit of the doubt here.
‘No absolute right to free speech’ and the Motte and Bailey
The ‘no absolute right’ line is a strawman. Only the craziest of libertarians come close to denying this. But it is also used as a Motte and Bailey argument.
Are you aware of a Motte and Bailey argument? If you are I am sorry for the egg sucking lesson, but I am new to the concept myself, have found it extremely useful and have started seeing them everywhere. This awareness has made me kick myself at not seeing earlier how so many people I disagreed with were getting away with cheating for so very long. A brief explanation is worthwhile as the tactic is used in more than one instance here:
A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.
For my original purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents philosophical propositions with similar properties: desirable to their proponents but only lightly defensible. The Motte represents the defensible but undesired propositions to which one retreats when hard pressed.
Diagnosis of a philosophical doctrine as being a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is invariably fatal. Once made it is relatively obvious to those familiar with the doctrine that the doctrine’s survival required a systematic vacillation between exploiting the desired territory and retreating to the Motte when pressed. Clearly, the diagnosis is not confined to philosophical doctrines: others may suffer the same malady.
This describes perfectly the use of ‘no such thing as an absolute right to free speech’. In Mehdi Hasan’s HuffPo piece he says:
None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn.
‘There are limits to free speech’ is a rewording of the same point. It was used during Thursday night’s Question Time, yet again by Hasan.
Both are pretty hard to disagree with. Of course there are limits. This is therefore the Motte in this instance. Many have used that claim in their preambles and discussions this week. They then either directly say these cartoons should not have been published or try and trade off the assumption which they leave hanging after making the initial statement. Namely that you shouldn’t publish x or y. This latter area is their Bailey. That is the space the wish to inhabit in their piece. Don’t let them leave that assumption hanging. They are using this because they are trying to suggest Charlie Hebdo has brought this on themselves. It is apologia.
If you question them with things like ‘so you are saying they had no right to publish?’, they may say ‘no’, then try ‘are you suggesting satirists should self censor when it comes to religion?’ or ‘is a picture of Mohammed something outside of our rights of expression or beyond the ‘limits’?’ then they tend to retreat back to their Motte. The same goes for asking ‘what are the limits?’. If they don’t retreat and tell you their line is drawn before Charlie Hebdo, then fine, they are, despite their protestations elsewhere, calling for censorship or self-censorship. There is a social penalty to saying such things are beyond satire, but that is what they hint at without being willing to say. Make them say it. Let them endure the penalty.
Once the retreat has been made you may ask ‘then what is the relevance of your statement that there is no such thing as an absolute right to free speech?’. Again they don’t usually have an answer. Feel free to put the boot in and ask ‘so why did you choose to include it so prominently?’. If doing so on Twitter, be aware that this is the exact moment you get blocked.
‘With free speech comes responsibility’
Another classic and usually another Motte and Bailey. Will Self and many others have used this claim. From Self’s interview on Channel 4, ‘Should Satire only attack people in power‘:
My value is free speech, unquestionably, but I think we need to be aware that with free speech comes with responsibilities, any right comes with responsibilities
‘Unquestionably?’. That’s a nice ‘but‘ he has there. Now I agree rights come with responsibilities. They have to. But what are these responsibilities? I assumed it was ensuring you don’t try and repress the right of others to express themselves and that our responsibility is to ensure there is a free space in the public sphere for expressing ourselves without fear of violence. Perhaps it is to keep things fair and honest, to not employ demagogic language and engage in sophistry. Responsibilities the people examined here singularly fail to live up to.
Perhaps a responsibility of free speech is to ensure you don’t vacuum up all the intelligence documents you can and then fly them to Chinese and Russian controlled places. Something I have not heard Self or any of those mentioned here condemn.
You know what to do now: ‘What is that responsibility?’ is the question which must be asked. Followed by: ‘Why didn’t you put it in the article’? Make them spell it out.
From Hasan’s piece:
I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility
It is telling that he doesn’t chose to explain what that responsibility is. Few do. Once however, when forced, he did have a stab at it. This was when he was previously discussing Charlie Hebdo. He said:
…with rights come responsibilities and I’m saying in a society where we all have to rub along together, where we all come from different backgrounds you have a responsibility not to go out of your way to piss people off, to try and kick off a riot etc. etc. put the law to one side…
Remember, Mehdi loves Mohammed more than his own family, I understand this is emotive for him and that he might feel as far as he is concerned that offense = riot. But who thinks Charlie Hebdo was indeed trying to kick off a riot? I know they’re French but was that really the purpose of their satire? Was it merely to piss people off rather than target power or hypocrisy? Mehdi should be asked.
Either Mehdi is saying that Muslims are so basic they will inevitably riot (he isn’t), or he uses this tactic to condemn the offending of religious sensibility with a strawman. We know he would rather Mohammed wasn’t depicted in satire, in this example he got as far as saying he shouldn’t be, but he refuses to say he shouldn’t be because such subjects should be socially protected from satire. He is merely implying a protection. It’s clear this is what he is doing yet he has stated he isn’t doing it. This is shifty. Motte and Bailey. And in doing so he reduces Muslims to an ‘other’ who just cannot hold their temper. Shameful.
But he is adept and it is difficult to nail him down. Further on in that exchange Aaronovitch comes close in a lovely moment where Hasan is cornered and he attempts to sidestep a straight forward question by effectively saying he is unable to comment on British society because it is Christian and he isn’t. Desperate, laughable stuff. Though I wish he’d remember his inability to comment before he next chooses to accept a Question Time invitation.
Get them to fully defend the Bailey or beat them back into the Motte and proceed to burn it down
‘Shouting fire in a crowed theatre’
Speaking of burning things down, this cliche pops up often in free speech debates. Hasan brought it up some time ago, again in his debate at the L.S.E. vs Aaronovitch. There he attributed it to John Stuart Mill rather than Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It was used by Diane Abbott on This Week following the attacks. To be fair though, Abbott is not a floater, she has been generally solid on this issue.
The main comeback to this is also becoming a cliche and is dependent on it being misquoted (Holmes included the word ‘falsely’). I first heard it from Steyn and then from Hitchens, namely that you are obligated to shout fire in a crowded theatre if you happen to believe there to be a fire there worth shouting about. Charlie Hebdo saw fires up and down French society, from National Front racists, to clerical bullies and Islamofacists. And they shouted ‘fire’ loudly and humorously.
Even then, I don’t see how the grammar of this metaphor translates to general free speech situations. What exactly are the doorways where people will be crushed and trampled in this situation unless we are saying that Muslims seeing a cartoon are the same as people stampeding from the fear of death from fire.
Mill is often cited as the source of reasoning for the Holmes quote. Mill actually said:
An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard
That’s the closest Mill gets to supporting such a view. And it is surely an incitement argument. But a French newsstand is not a mob outside the house. They are simply ‘circulating through the press’. So when you hear Holmes’ poor metaphor uttered in a free speech argument, especially this one, feel free to point out its facile uselessness.
‘Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’
Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from HL Mencken’s definition of good journalism: it should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. The trouble with a lot of so-called “satire” directed against religiously-motivated extremists is that it’s not clear who it’s afflicting, or who it’s comforting.
This was used again to me in a very telling Twitter exchange with his wife Deborah Orr. As often with Twitter the full flow of the exchange is difficult to follow due to multiple answers to single tweets but it begins here. Her argument in the exchange is all over the place. Anyway, the offending tweet:
Note that in Self’s quote Mencken is talking of ‘good journalism’ and Self is asking what is ‘truly satire’. So let us say it is bad satire. That is a taste judgement, a value judgement. Either this is totally irrelevant to the free speech or solidarity argument and therefore shouldn’t be there or it is yet again part of the refusal to lay the blame on those with the weapons. Another surreptitious attempt at victim blaming. Like if their satire had been ‘good’ or ‘proper’ they still would be breathing.
This is all part of the ‘punching downward’ line. Which is not being used in a relevant way. But even if it were, I disagree with the premise:
Was Charlie Hebdo attacking all ‘Muslims’ or the religion itself? It is not the same thing. And attacking jihadists is not attacking ‘Muslims’ either, but merely Jihadist Muslims.
How often have you heard this week that they were offending 1.6 billion people? Well, if that is true then I think a religious figure important to 1.6 billion people is pretty powerful. It is punching upwards. How many people would come to violently avenge an insult to Stephane Charbonnier? None I am assuming. Is that not a measure of power? Be careful claiming a billion offended victims while trying ‘powerlessness’ in the same argument.
Islam is a system of power, like Christianity. To mock its tenets and its characters is punching upwards and it is satire. And mocking the tenets is not to mock Muslims en masse. Many racists are poor and alienated, was Charlie Hebdo punching downwards when it mocked Marine LePen or racist attitudes in general? No. So stop being silly.
We must not let the ‘punching downwards’ stand on factual grounds, they weren’t, or on taste grounds, it is irrelevant. The continued use of it is yet another form of victim blaming.
Side note: Telling us 1.6 billion Muslims are offended does no favours to those Muslims that aren’t. It will make those that believe it look upon all Muslims as irrational when they are not and will renforce the Us vs Them narrative. It doesn’t take a genius to work this out so surely those that advance that line for their own arguments are unserious about their stated desires of progress and cohesion?
This is like ‘fundamentalist atheist’. The cheap attempt to make you just the same as those you oppose. So adherence to secularism is the equal of adherence to religious dogma.
Once again we turn to Will Self:
The whole notion seems to be that free speech is some kind of absolute right and that’s exactly the same as a religious point of view interestingly, it places human ethics outside of human society…
Self teaches ‘Modern Thought’ and unfortunately for our future that seems appropriate.
It’s another strawman because I know of no ‘absolutists’ beyond a barely heard bunch of crazies. But ok, if an absolutist exists, my claims in Part 1 of this piece mean I must be one of the closest to one. Is it like a religious point of view to me? No. I think the right of a human to freely express themselves, although a beautiful and luminescent idea, is founded on a utilitarian basis rather than a supernatural or dogmatic one. My support is not from ‘faith’.
I am however tempted to allow this to stand. Because then when people start saying ‘we should respect each other’s religions’, I’ll be able to reply ‘well my religion is unfettered free expression, so you must respect it you horrid blasphemer’. Of course my religion has no vengeful warriors, so you’ll be safe in your place of business if you happen to insult Paine or Voltaire.
For the sake of argument though let us grant Self and others the premise and call this belief in free speech or secularism a religion. My ersatz religion, in power, allows for maximum freedom of thought and expression, actual religions require the opposite. And Self’s implied middle way requires the state or/and supposed enlightened complex-thinkers such as he to adjudicate between groups and measure and judge offence. When compared thus his line of attack makes little headway. It’s not true and if true it loses. It does however obscure clear thinking behind clever sounding bollocks. Which Self does very well. I presume this is why this view is popular with many modern intellectuals. When faced with a simple moral standpoint that is difficult to live by and a complicated one that is easy, they will choose the latter all too often.
Violence and Orwellian word games
As a final note, be aware of the attempts to couch offensive language in terms of violence. This may be to compare an insult to a punch or to claim that an insult affects health.
But more slippery is the use of terms like ‘violently offensive’ or ‘safe space’.
This example comes from a ludicrous article by Abdal Hakim Murad:
To laugh at the Prophet, the repository of all that Muslims revere and find precious, to reduce him to the level of the scabrous and comedic, is something very different from “free speech” as usually understood. It is a violent act surely conscious of its capacity to cause distress, ratchet up prejudice and damage social cohesion.
When I hear ‘violent’ I think something along the lines of this:
using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something
And so does anyone else with a care for language and its meaning. The attempt to piggy back onto our rational fears of physical harm his wish to see beliefs protected is both dishonest and an insult to sentient beings everywhere.
Tariq Ramadan refuses to condemn stoning women yet is welcome to teach women at Oxford who seemingly require safe mental spaces from harmful ideas. ‘Safe space’ is cheating language as it pretends the desire to have an unchallenged mind is a ‘safety issue’. It isn’t. Sticks and Stones. Words will hurt you, but stones will fucking kill you. And all the safe spaces in the world won’t protect you from the words that really hurt you in life.
Violence means violence and the sly appropriation of well understood words to advance an agenda is Orwellian.
There are a lot of words above and I feel vulnerable to the ubiquitous ‘somebody is wrong on the internet’ cartoon (no fear, I won’t kill you over it). But my introductory reference to the facebook scenario has a grain of seriousness to it. Unguarded but good people fall for these shysters and bullshitters. They are seduced by deceivers who peddle knowingly false arguments and fools who do so unknowingly, then they take their shaky conclusions with them to ballot boxes. This subject is much too serious to allow such underhand or stupid practice to go unexposed, let alone respected for reasons of being ‘an alternative voice’ or being on the side of an imagined oppressed. It should be countered wherever it is found. The stakes are high.
If you are one of those that smells a floater but isn’t entirely sure why, I hope some of the examples and counter arguments on here help you articulate why the turd is indeed a turd. I’d be thrilled to hear they did. Good luck fishing them out.
The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo included an editorial. The translation I took from Slate and have included excerpts here. They sum it up better than I ever could.
Still, a question keeps gnawing at us: Are people finally going to banish the dirty words “secular fundamentalists” from their political and intellectual vocabulary? Are they going to stop inventing clever semantic convolutions to qualify assassins and their victims as somehow equivalent?
These last few years we’ve felt a little lonely in our attempt to push back, with the stroke of a pen, against the pure crap and pseudointellectual criticisms that have been thrown in our faces and in the faces of those who firmly defend secularism: Islamophobes, Christianophobes, provocateurs, irresponsible, throwing fuel on the fire, racists, had it coming. Yes, we condemn terrorism, but. Yes, sending cartoonists death threats isn’t good, but. Yes, burning a newspaper is bad, but. We heard it all, and our friends did too. We often tried to laugh about it, since that’s what we do best. But now we’d really like to laugh about something else.
We are going to hope that starting January 7, 2015, a firm defense of secularism will go without saying for everyone, that people will finally stop—whether because of posturing or electoral calculus or cowardice—legitimizing or even tolerating communalism and cultural relativism, which only open the door to one thing: religious totalitarianism. Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a reality, yes, international geopolitics is a series of dirty tricks and maneuvers, yes, the social situation of “populations of Muslim origin” in France is profoundly unjust, yes, racism and discrimination must be fought relentlessly. Fortunately, there are several tools that can be used to try to resolve these serious problem, but they’re all useless without secularism. Not positive secularism, not inclusive secularism, not whatever-secularism, secularism period.
There are apologists among us.