There’s a nice line in Game of Thrones from the character Benjen Stark:
Nothing someone says before the word “but” really counts
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks I wrote the following:
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.
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?
The shooting in Garland has seemingly provided a test to some principles. In an earlier piece I had written this:
Here is a statement of principle:
Once art/writing/satire is threatened with violence and murder it becomes important beyond its content.
To threaten the production or dissemination of artifacts of free expression with violence and murder is an attack on all free speech. And therefore the approval of the content is not relevant. It is an attack on your most fundamental right even if you despise the speech in question.
I repeat: It doesn’t matter if you agree with the content or not. You are duty bound to protect it.
Defending those at Charlie Hebdo is somewhat easy for me as I tended to like their style and believe they were taking a principled stand. I therefore found the weasel words of so many disgusting not just because of the principle of freedom of speech but because I thought they were falsely smearing the dead. With the likes of Pamela Geller, who is the most famous of those present and seemingly a focal point, this isn’t really the case. I don’t like her very much. But…
Right now I am wondering if there isn’t an important difference between these two examples:
1: Of course an attempt to massacre people at a ‘Draw Mohammed’ festival is wrong but some of the people there were ghastly bigots…
2: Some of the people at the festival were ghastly bigots but any violence to prevent speech is wrong…
I think there is. Or is this just word games?
Arguments are going on right now where people are upset at any attempts to condemn the potential victim in the same breath as condemning the attacks. I can see why this is the case and one needs to be very careful about doing so. One should be able to condemn the attacks without reference to the victim. Then again, perhaps such condemnation of the attacks might be considered so obvious as to be unnecessary.
I was at pains in my first example above to explain why the search for nuance and back story isn’t wrong per se. It was the formulation used that seemed so out of place and as such implied an attempt at exculpation. However the formulation in ‘example 2’ is saying something else. Namely that it just doesn’t matter if the people were bigots and you didn’t like them, it is before the ‘but‘ and therefore, in the words of Benjen Stark, it is doesn’t really count. What follows is the meat of it. And in this case it is total condemnation of any violent reactions to speech that offends and is total support of those who wish to exercise their rights to traduce, offend and upset. Even if, as in this case, I often wished they wouldn’t say what they say.
I didn’t really use the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ line, mainly because I felt it was so easy for so many to say it and I doubted the meaning and depth of what they were willing to do to demonstrate this support. Also I find it somewhat trite. I was though willing to repost their cartoons. About this I wrote:
Christopher Hitchens said:
“If you don’t want to sound like the Pope, who apologises for everything and for nothing, then your apology should cost you something.”
Well I suggest the same should be true for expressions of solidarity. It should cost you something. Because otherwise it too easily seems to be aiding the expresser and their image more than the recipient. And then what’s that about? You look good marching through Paris holding a candle and looking solemn and it is nice to show support. But unless you are taking some risk from the shoulders of others, unless you are doing your bit to ensure the likes of Charlie Hebdo are not walking point for the whole of society, you can’t really call it ‘solidarity’.
Well messages of support for the likes of Pamela Geller do at least come with some social cost. This minimum of cost is I think enough for me to wish to express solidarity in that in that easiest of forms. In short it isn’t so easy or so trendy.
Right now there are points like this being made:
So whereas I struggled with #JeSuisCharlie, I think it currently important to say, for want of a better expression, #JeSuisPamela. Oh and here is her website. The more people such as her are threatened the more we should read and share her works.
I disapprove of a whole bunch of Geller’s output, I don’t like her, BUT….
[I have written this with limited information regarding the nature of the attack, I am assuming the following: It was an attack by Islamists. It was a response to blasphemy. On that level it s directly comparable to January’s attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. If these assumptions are incorrect, well I shall have some editing and updating to do.]