You Wouldn’t Brand Yourself With #IAmWhaleOil…

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Yesterday morning, social media woke up to the sad recurrence of a morality play that we’ve seen staged time and time again. While I could just about generate a bingo scorecard to cover the array of instances which invariably accompany this sort of thing (the checklist including angry defenders of Freedumb Of Speech At All Costs; pundits *demanding* the Muslim community comes out and overtly *condemns* heinous acts carried out by a few extremists, without extending the same imperative to more mainstream religious communities in analogous instances; debate over “failures of assimilation”; confused armchair prognostications about the extent to which “Religion of Peace” is an appropriate epithet for Islam; and, more darkly, what shape the inevitable reprisals and far-right political capitalization will take … to name but a few); there’s one particular theme I want to focus on in this piece.

The inevitable canonization of a Martyr for Free Speech which invariably seems to accompany these sorts of things.

Now lest I be misinterpreted wildly, it’s vital at this point to state that in no way, shape, or form do I condone the killing of twelve people in response to the frankly turgid output of a satirical magazine. Particularly given some of the victims, like Frédéric Boisseau, appear to have had absolutely nothing to do with the magazine’s actual output; and instead appear to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

*Nobody* should die for bad satire; or for poor or controversial writing. (I state the latter two with a certain degree of self-interest in mind)

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But at the same time, I was a little disconcerted to note how quickly and uncritically scores of my friends on social media were adopting the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (or similar variations).

I can well understand a capacious enthusiasm for the value of freedom of speech. It is, after all, *exactly* what I am privileged enough to be exercising right here on this very blog; and something which our political culture here in New Zealand has considerably benefited from.

I can also understand, and empathize strongly with, the strong sense of revulsion which accompanies reading an account of two masked gunmen threatening the life of a toddler before identifying individually and by name those ordained to die – in a manner akin to Cinna the Poet, for their bad verses.

But that does not mean the developing hagiography of Charlie Hebdo has to be *entirely* uncritical.

That wonderful virtue of freedom of speech (and, for that matter, of conscience) also allows me to cast a critical eye over the cartoons in question; and definitively state that while I totally don’t believe anyone should have died, been injured, or otherwise felt themselves vigilante-threatened for their publication … at the same time I’d be *enormously* uncomfortable, given the magazine’s output, stating something like “I Am Charlie Hebdo”. Even for rhetorical purposes as part of the grand old tradition (although apparently not direct quote) best promulgated by another controversial French satirist of defending to the death even those utterances we find personally abhorrent. (Which, importantly, isn’t necessarily the same thing as advocating for banning it – although I can certainly understand why some would want to – but rather stating in no uncertain terms that I’d definitely think an order of magnitude more than twice before consciously identifying myself *as* it for the purposes of creating an avatar for the virtues of untramelled freedom of speech. Read on and see what I mean)

The first image I came across when looking to get to grips with what, exactly, this magazine published … was this.

The top line reads: “The Sex Slaves Of Boko Haram Are Angry”. Which is fair enough – Stockholm Syndrome notwithstanding, I’m not sure what other emotion would be more appropriate for their situation. But then check out the words that have been put into the mouths of these victims of abduction, rape, and insurgent violence. “Don’t touch our [welfare] benefits!” Then look at how the women in question are drawn, and the overall effect of the depiction.

From where I’m sitting, it looks like the guys at Charlie Hebdo have managed to combine together in a single image various tropes of Islamophobia, Negrophobia/Xenophobia, and one of my strong personal pet-hates, the tired right-wing canard of the “Welfare Queen”, who exploits her fertility as a means to ensure a state-guaranteed income.

There’s a quote from Molly Ivins that runs “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only crude – it is vulgar.

Considering the relative position of the women being referred to on the receiving end of a massive power imbalance with their captors (and, for that matter, the subaltern position of immigrant and/or refugee women of colour in a famously homogeneous Western nation like France); I think it’s safe to say that many reasonable observers would agree with me that that cover was, at best, vulgar – and more properly, “highly offensive” for any number of reasons. I have noted with interest which friends have gone from #BringBackOurGirls a few months ago to #JeSuisCharlie today.

Let’s try another one.

Now I’m *pretty sure* even the most monolingual and unpolyglottaly gifted of us can work out what “Le Coran C’Est De La Merde” means … but that’s not even the chief point of issue I take with this image. The event being referred to is the killing of more than 50 Egyptian pro-democracy activists at a sit-in by Egyptian military personnel on the 8th of July 2013.

The same day this edition of Charlie Hebdo came out, Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the post-coup regime’s use of violence to repress its own people. “Charlie”, by contrast, decided to use the occasion as a chance to make a polemical point against politicized Islam at the expense of half a hundred dead Egyptians, and featuring some pretty triumphalist denigration of somebody else’s scripture into the bargain. Apparently, they haven’t heard that ideas are bulletproof

It would, of course, be cruel and insensitive (or, in the world of Charlie Hebdo, “edgy” and “satirical”) to point out the bitter irony inherent in that cover now. Cartoons, it would appear – as with Holy Writ – don’t seem to do a particularly good job deflecting bullets. (And if you find that statement objectionable – congratulations. You’re now beginning to see what’s wrong with Charlie Hebdo. Did you have the same reaction to the magazine cover…?)

Now while I could go on at some length with further examples drawn from the annals of Charlie Hebdo’s back-catalogue (for instance, this cover which attempts to take on the uniquely honoured position of the Catholic Church in French society … by boldly informing us “The French Are As Dumb As The ‘Negres‘”; or this absolutely delightful image which manages to denigrate and horrendously stereotype Indians, Chernobyl survivors, non-nuclear -and especially blended – families, and the predominantly impoverished and/or immigrant inhabitants of the Seine-Saint-Denis administrative department, all in one go) … but I think I’ve made my point.
When it comes to armed violence, neither journalists nor satirists (nor, heaven help us, bloggers for that matter) are “legitimate” targets. Freedom of speech is, inarguably, a fundamentally important cornerstone of the way we do things in the West here in the 21st century – and, within certain justified limits (as exemplified best by the old chestnut of causing a lethal panic by “falsely shouting ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded theater“; or laws against hate-speech or the incitement of racial hatred such as sections 61 and 63 of our very own Human Rights Act 1993 (section 62 covers hate-speech on the basis of sexuality)), that freedom is *absolutely* worth stepping up and defending.

But we can do both things – and, for that matter, express sympathy for the slain and those they’ve left behind – WITHOUT having to buy into the growing media narrative that Charlie Hebdo was just some sort of impishly irreverent and unproblematically equal-opportunity publication that specialized merely in “taking aim at the powerful”.  It’s not a black-and-white case of being uncritically “either […] with us, or with the terrorists“; particularly as one of the cornerstone arguments for protecting freedom of speech in the first place is the vital utility of being able to engage in measured, reasoned, and critical discourse in pursuit of truth and social justice.

As I hope this piece has demonstrated, these guys saw absolutely zero problem with turning their mockery and denigration upon the power*less* with as much, if not more vitriol than they reserved for the powerful; and were quite happy to consciously invoke, play up, and therefore perpetuate damaging stereotypes and discriminatory tropes at the expense of the marginalized and the subaltern in so doing. Obviously, this does not justify their deaths nor exculpate their murderers; but it does make the growing lionization of Charlie Hebdo as some sort of temple of free speech and Enlightenment/Western values a slightly unsavory one.

Let us be clear. These guys were no Salman Rushdie in terms of literary or artistic merit; and I can but hope that this piece has helped to explain why I find it both uncomfortable and problematic that so many people that I *know* have strong left-wing, anti-discriminatory, and social-justice values are uncritically running around the internet at present declaring that they are Charlie Hebdo.

By all means, stand up and be counted among the advocates and defenders of freedom of speech. It is, after all, the very same NZBoRA-enshrined right that allows me to even *approach* this issue in public with the assumedly-controversial perspective that I have. (Although truth be told, I am awaiting with interest the likely exegesis in the comments section from some of those self-same free-speech advocates and people apparently called Charlie Hebdo as to why I never should have set finger-to-keyboard on this piece in the first place)

But have a thought and a care for that which you may unwittingly lend legitimacy to by uncritically adopting a hashtag like #JeSuisCharlie – that which you are stating that you *are*; and remember that it’s perfectly possible to advocate in vociferous favour of freedom of speech and against the armed repression of viewpoints you may not necessarily agree with … *without* leaving your disdain for some of the more reprehensible uses of that freedom of speech by the team at Charlie Hebdo at the door. (Which is what the wholesale adoption of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag by large swathes of the population without any further examination on their part of the nature of the publication being defended arguably encourages)

After all; I’m sure I speak for many of the readers and contributors of this blog when I state that when it comes to defending freedom of speech, there’s a whole *slew* of reasons we wouldn’t likely embrace a hashtag like #IAmWhaleOil…

[My thanks to Hussein Mahmud for his assistance with this piece]

28 COMMENTS

  1. You make fair points, but, i wonder if you are misunderstanding the hashtag and in turn, social media.

    1. Forgive me if i’m stating the obvious, but twitter hashtags are used as a way to group information simply to make it easy to find people talking about the same topic. Jesuischarlie trended early after the attack so that caught on fire. NoussommesCharlie (we are charlie) was also used, as was CharlieHedbo and JeSuisAhmed. I do like jesuisahmed, a muslim who died defending the office, but i wouldn’t say we were all Ahmed either. Not many of us can claim to know what it was like to be in his shoes.

    2. Maybe you are taking the jesuischarlie hashtag too literally. It is a form of solidarity and defiance – that we are all human with the right to free speech, just as those at charlie hedbo were. They may have been controversial, but exercising their rights were the likely reason these journalists were killed. And being controversial, ruffling feathers as they liked to do, is never, as you say, a reason for violence. At a time like this, where people feel fearful, it is important to stand side by side with strangers united against the few who threaten us all.

    3. ‘These guys were no Salmon Rushdie’. Does it matter who they are? They were fellow human beings killed because they used art and commentary – and their rights – to make their points.

    4. You cherry-picked a handful of examples of the covers you took most offence to – yes they made those and they made no apologies for them – but they also made others that perhaps weren’t so “vitriolic” as you say, and i wonder why you don’t mention those?

    i could go on and on but i need to work! interesting post.

  2. Using KISS (Keep it simple stupid!), just say that anything or anybody that references Whaleoil in any favourable terms is not worthy.

  3. In France the magazine is not very well-regarded however they have always been seen as well-balanced media. They publish far more cartoons attacking the powerful than the powerless and seem to be a fairly honest reflection of various opinions/events/struggles in French society. Just in regards to Islam, as far as I’m aware, they have published far more cartoons condemning the government’s treatment of the Muslim communities and general Islamophobia in French society than they have cartoons attacking or mocking Islam.

  4. Brave of you to come out and attempt to tread amongst this field of ethical and political landmines – bravo!

    I think you make a lot of good points. But if, God forbid, a bunch of Kiwi left-wing extremists stormed the WhaleOil HQ and slaughtered Slater, his minions, associates, and interns…yes I know it strains credibility to think of NZ’s extreme left being organized enough to pull off such an assassination, but bear with me…I can totally see myself hashtagging #IAmSlater. As much as I want him off NZ’s political scene, I don’t think I would like to see Kalashnikovs used to do the job.

    (Besides which, not even Charlie, to my knowledge, published their opponents’ addresses online in “chop chop for Nicky” style retribution, so the comparison isn’t entirely analogous)

    • Kind of along the lines of what I was thinking even though the thought of clicking on his site makes me feel in urgent need of a shower

  5. Totally right. Satire really only works if it is satirising the powerful against the powerless, otherwise it is really just propaganda if it is the powerless being stigmatised.

    I don’t really know enough about the publication itself to comment on how good/bad right wing/left wing it was.

    Actually quite like the idea of the ‘lefties’ taking over the whale oil blogsphere and hashtag. I have never bothered seeing Slater’s site but filling it with left wing propaganda like we have to swim through the right wing MSM propaganda could be a good strategy. This is what the right wing attack politics do all the time so to reverse it by infiltrating right wing sites with left wing discourse – give them a taste of their own medicine.

    Similar to playing classical music in places where hoodlums like to congregate to disperse them. Apparently a great way to clean up antisocial behaviour.

    • “Similar to playing classical music in places where hoodlums like to congregate to disperse them. Apparently a great way to clean up antisocial behaviour. – See more at: https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2015/01/09/you-wouldnt-brand-yourself-with-iamwhaleoil/#sthash.3bcKA9H9.dpuf

      Have you given thought to the idea that it is you that exhibits anti-social behaviour by suggesting “hoodlums” don’t have the right to hang out together in a public place?

      And how would you react if your classical music in the park was interrupted by loud, bombastic, techno beats intentionally designed to “disperse” those congregated?

  6. I agree with most of what you are saying Martin.

    Violence is never, ever o.k. or acceptable.

    But the cartoon’s you showed I found extremely offensive. And I myself prefer to be respectful of others religious beliefs and gods, even though I have no religious beliefs myself.

    • I have no concerns about anybodies religion provided they keep it to themselves and don’t try to press it on anyone else or interfere in the affairs of others.
      I also fail to see the value of a belief that once you confirm that belief you are in serious trouble if you express any doubts about it.
      Also prohibiting contraception and encouraging large families so that eventually their religion becomes dominant and the leaders are in a position to alter and affect the laws of the country is not only repellent but a danger to society and the environment.

    • Where there is no abuse of human rights then not respecting a person’s right to believe and practice what the wish is a abuse of rights.
      Given that many of these beliefs and their proscriptions / rules are founded in early non-scientific pastoralist / semi-sedentary or such like societies they are often in conflict with human rights, especially where literal interpretations are applied.
      Additionally the nature of faith based beliefs and the ascription to a “divine source” favours absolutist positions”. Consequently irrespective of the merit of the intentions, as with many well-meaning defenders of cultural relativism / tolerance and secular systems of political and economic governance, they “tolerate intolerance” This paradox and the resulting outcomes has been criticised by philosophers such as Karl Popper.
      For many atheists and/or others whose existential / world / ethical view is not faith based the actual belief is ridiculous whatever the tradition, i.e. those of the Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) tradition or Hinduism or some other form of non-evidential spiritualism / animism.

      Therefore in this matter and the wider issues arising from the tragedy in Paris, one must concur with the statement of Ayaan Hirsi Ali that the “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.”

  7. So, so, so, yes, I was horrified about what happened in Paris, and I strongly condemn the terrorist attack by some extreme, brain-washed and misled youth, who thought they’d do the “right thing” by killing cartoonists that made mockery of Islam.

    But I was so sickened by the MSM media reports, and especially these “state leaders” and whosoever else condemned the “attack on freedom of thought” and “the media”.

    Indeed, we have due to increasing competition, commercial pressures by having to earn enough advertising revenue, and for other reasons, like “mob hysteria” syndromes, a very worrying development of many in “the media” becoming more and more sensationalistic, emotive and “scandalising” in regards to news, as otherwise “they won’t sell”. Then there is the increased commercialisation and privatisation, where most media, the dominant force, is privately run and owned, and only accountable to sales and other managers. Editors tow the line, having to write what is supposed to “appeal” (or rather SELL).

    And for the governments, that have done all to excuse the increased spying, surveillance, the interventions worldwide, to “protect” commercial and “strategic” interests, they did hardly care much for “the media”, they were too concerned to make them sing according to the piper’s tone.

    We have one PM here in NZ, who was involved in “dirty politics”, using bloggers of the type mentioned in this intelligent blog post, to hit out at opponents and critics, at least his staff did.

    He have a MSM here in NZ that is hardly “free” at all, it simply spread the biased and self censored “news” that the corporations and other businesses, the “stakeholders” that control this economy and society, want the be broadcast to their “underlings”.

    Now for them, the Camerons, Merkels, the Hollandes and others to “condemn” the “attack on the media”, that is a bit rich. They all love compliant media, the ones that pampers and idolises and assists them, that delivers “news” they view as useful and good for their purposes. These “leaders” made their private “deals” with the NSA, other agencies, so their secret mobile phone numbers are no longer tapped, but they do not give a crap about their common citizens.

    What utter BS and hypocrisy there is, all over the MSM, and in the politosphere.

    “Freedom” is an abused, a hollow word for most, who have only the “freedom” to work for whatever hours and jobs they compete for and may get, to earn the dollars to spend again right away, to keep economic systems going that only protect and further enrich the powerful few percent.

    Who actually reports on what goes on in the lives of the underdogs, and why things happen, why there is violence, neglect and crime? There is a CAUSE for everything, and that is what the MSM have given up to research and report on. So they are BS, not even “the Fourth Estate”, they dare to claim that now.

    At least I give credit to the BBC, I think it was, who were showing on the news tonight, what the terrorist attackers were or are in persons, where they come from, and what their home environment was. I see and hear none of that by TVNZ, TV3, Sky and so forth, it is all now just “good or evil”, “black or white”, and one must win over the other, no more.

    Freedom is no longer, we are just little slaves, mercenaries, consumer idiots and exploited, manipulated and misled little experimental lab rats, I fear, that is the reality, dear friends.

    I am the speaker of truth, not the hollow talker we get quoted 24/7 at present, thank god there is some alternative stuff to read here!

  8. I am getting more than a little tired of all you special snowflakes squealing that Charlie Hebdo is “racist” on the basis of five minutes with Google. Have you ever read a copy? Can you even read basic schoolboy French, never mind the robustly demotic stuff one finds in French BDs? Had you even heard of the publication before this week?

  9. It appears that the Whaleoil taggers have been busy on this site. Wonder when your Blubberboy leader will open his site to similar feedback? Ah I remember now, he screens out anyone who doesn’t agree with him, real courageous eh?

  10. Good Post @ Curwen Ares Rolinson .

    I think Charlie Hebdo is a bogan rag full of dopy gibberish . A piss-take of a thing .

    To think that all this trouble is because of a psychosis manifesting itself as an adoration of an invisible flying being with a beard who can only be met by dying . We humans man ? What fuck-ups we are .

    And then those most effected by their psychosis will do unspeakable acts of violence for the love/fear of their mental aberrations .

    One could argue ; religious people are simple minded folk who’re easily manipulated .

    Look at us Kiwis for example ? We worship The Dollar God and see how that’s working out for us .

    • @ Andy Wilson .
      ” Too much word eloquence, little substance.”

      Since you seem a little word-shy I’m drawn to ask ; have you heard of the word ‘ oxymoron ‘ ?

      We have to remember that people like @ Curwen do their best to put forward a point of view . That , in fact , is the very definition of free speech . And it takes up a bloody lot of energy for no reward other than knowing that perhaps you can spread some comfort about . Personally ? I quite like ‘ word eloquence ‘ . It shows up an individuals writy thing and I like that too . In these heady times of crushing sameness it’s nice to see some free style expression .
      As for little substance . Are you kidding me ? You did read the Post didn’t you ? Or were you too bamboozled what with all them there annoying words getting in the way ?

      I don’t know about your criticism @ Andy Wilson. Seems like you’re a bit miffed is all .

      ‘ Actions speak louder that words ‘ ? No they don’t . I don’t care what that silly old saying says .

      My feeling is that , that quaint oldee wordlee saying should be modernised . Something like this . Words and Actions Unite !

    • Prediction for NZ 2033 Mike Butlers last paragraph read “This glimpse of a race-based New Maoriland is a cautionary tale of what could happen once the principle of equal rights based on citizenship is abandoned and the 50/50 treaty partnership myth is imposed on our political and commercial lives”.

      Exactly a tale he lives in fear of the unknown that somehow maori are going to influence the political system in 2033 is not reality & can not be predicted.

      NZ if not decimated by nuclear war by 2033 will still be a mono-cultural society he is correct that our GDP will slide backwards not because of maori rather the huge national debt that we have now additionally TPP maybe the game changer for NZ if implemented and very likely may change any future outcome for NZ & our democratic society.

      It’s not maori that Mike Butler & supporters should fear it’s the implementation of the one world government that should be feared the most in 2033. I believe the article is racist however it’s clear that Mike Butler & supporters feel their lives & way of living is are under threat which is sad because of maori, there are more important things in NZ to address like inequality, poverty & ensuring the health of all kiwi’s that we all need to focus on in the present to ensure a good future.

  11. I do not condone murder, but….

    Instead of your weasel words why do you not just say what you are thinking; “those fascist pigs sure got their comeuppance”.

  12. Ask yourself why are offended? Isn’t that the point, Monty Python offended the straight stiffs, now we all laugh at it. No pompous institution or religion was safe from their satire, with a cheeky amount of nudity thrown in to upset the censors. Your missing the point and the problem I see with most of society today is egotistical, conservative geeks who are so up their own arses they are offended at their egos being bruised. This could be the beginning of a much needed REVOLUTION a pushing forward of society, and your offended go figure!

  13. The Rushdie case is interesting – the fatwah really served both sides – the faithful and oppressed literature students were briefly spared his worst efforts, and the man himself obtained a spurious celebrity independent of his… talents.

  14. Some of you bloggers go on and on.
    You say:
    ‘As I hope this piece has demonstrated, these guys saw absolutely zero problem with turning their mockery and denigration upon the power*less*…’
    The imams are not powerless, neither are the a.seholes with guns, nor the executioners in Chop-chop Square, Riyadh, nor the ISIS thugs, nor the millions of Muslims who believe apostates should die – that allow corruption and officially sanctioned murder in the name of their religion.
    You haven’t informed yourself on this issue and you should stop now in the name of INFORMED free speech. Such self-indulgent vanity raves as yours do not contribute anything except to your arrogant blogger’s ego.

  15. I agree with the basic premise of this post. As ex-media I certainly believe we must stand to maintain our right to free speech. I’ve commented and written a few posts over the Paris shootings. I did not use, and would not choose to use the “I am Charlie” avatar. Quite a few of my posts have been around the “call to arms” to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and the vehement vilification directed towards those who choose not to. I did not because I do not believe that insensitivity and disrespect towards the vast majority of the world’s 1.6b population that identify as Muslim who are not extremist terrorist murderers is in any way an antidote or mitigation to the horrific violence of Paris. I guess this comment I posted on someone’s post who is normally tolerant sums up my view: “Many people have been quoting Voltaire, more correctly, apparently, to be attributed to his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, summing up the view of her subject, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – and as an ex-media professional I agree with this unequivocally. But the right to say something, and whether it serves any higher purpose for it to be said are two different things. I feel that this quote from Nietzsche has never been more relevant:
    “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

  16. If Slater were being censored, silenced or shot, I would have to think about holding up #IAmWhaleOil , ugly though that sounds. That is what freedom of speech means. (I would have to think further about, like Voltaire – or his biographer – fighting to the death for his right to say what he does.)

    And you don’t know who you speak for. Speak for yourself.

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