Charlie Hebdo: The crisis of the public sphere

by josieappleton

Charlie Hebdo embodied the spirit of the early public sphere: the negative-critical consciousness, which questions every authority and holds nothing sacred. This is the scurrilous, anarchistic principle that defined the early French Revolution, with its sudden explosion of critical pampleteering and obscene caricatures.

The universality of Charlie Hebdo‘s targets is shown by the fact that anti-Islamic Michel Houellebecq was mocked on the front cover the day the editorial team were shot for insulting Islam. This is satire pursued with a kind of Socratic diligence, revealing the pretensions or limitations of every position.

Such anarchistic universal irreverence was characteristic of the early public sphere, but has now largely been eclipsed. Therefore, Reason magazine is correct when is says that Charlie Hebdo wasn’t representative of a general culture of liberty, but rather its solitary bearers.

The attackers, by contrast, who were Parisian born and bred, did not represent some strange and foreign principle, even as they employed barbarous and extraordinary methods. Instead, they were enacting a principle that has become a mainstream, even constituting part of public life in Western societies.

This principle is the way in which the use of coercion has become an ordinary way of relating in public life. Virtually every interest group now invests the primary part of its energies in seeking to ban or restrict its political opponents. Gay rights organisations become organisations for the prohibition of homophobic opinions, just as Islamic organisations invest their energies in prosecuting anti-Islamic points of view (including Charlie Hebdo).

Indeed, French republicanism itself has increasingly been defined through the suppression of ‘anti-republican’ points of view or symbols. The debate about republican identity takes the form of definition by exclusion. This is why over the past decade there has been a growing restriction on the Islamic veil. Jacques Chirac said there is ‘something aggressive’ about the veil, and politicians heralded the niqab ban as ‘constitutive of our collective history’, a ‘founding principle of our republic’ . Left liberals now call for a ban on the headscarf in private crèches, which they say ‘puts collective life in peril’.

On the other side, French republicanism is also defined by the exclusion of the National Front (who were in effect barred from the Charlie Hebdo march on Sunday), as well as critics of Islam. In 2012, then foreign minister criticised Charlie Hebdo for ‘provocation’ of Muslims, and recently foreign minister Manuel Valls criticised Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Soumission about the Islamic takeover of France. Yet Manuel Valls was himself sued for ‘provocation of discrimination and hatred’ for comments he made about Islam in 2013.

This dynamic of offence-coercion is a universal and reciprocal way of relating: everybody is trying to prosecute or ban everybody else. In this sense it is distinct from previous forms of censorship – such as obscenity, blasphemy, or sedition – which were about enforcing dominant mores against a minority.

There is a way in which any particular political position cannot bear the existence of its opposite, and experiences any criticism as an unbearable ‘provocation’ and offence. But at the same time, its own position is only defined through the act of coercion exerted over its opposite. One’s own identity, one’s own position in public life, is increasingly defined only through the attempt to suppress opposing points of view. Only through the suppression of an opposing view is one’s own view given shape.

This routine use of coercion – to the extent that it becomes one of the primary ways of relating and of arguing – short-circuits the public sphere. The public sphere which formed in 18th century England and France consciously disregarded relations of status or economic dependence, which stood one person over another. The new public composed of private persons, as Jurgen Habermas says, met as equals, the ‘parity on whose basis alone the authority of the better argument could assert itself against that of social hierarchy…’.

Now, when people meet in debate they are always trying to stand one over the other. Censorship occurs through non-violent means of court cases, online petitions or twitter storms, but there is a violence to the use of coercion which ultimately seeks to eclipse a person or a publication from public life. The plaintiff seeks not to counter an argument in the independent realm of public debate, but to annihilate the argument with which they do not agree, to deny it the right to exist in the public world: to withdraw or destroy a publication or to imprison a speaker.

There is a way in which the terrorists enacted this principle of coercion through violence by their own hands. With Islamic extremism, the dynamic of offence-coercion is mediated through a consciousness of otherness: people who feel themselves to be outside of and hostile to mainstream society. The offence-coercion dynamic is experienced not as a relation between individuals or groups within a society, but between Muslims as outsiders, and that society. So they feel themselves to be their own authority, to do with their own hands and guns what others may seek to do by judicial means. They sought the eclipse of their adversary in fact, firing the shots that left dead bodies: ‘we have killed Charlie Hebdo’.

In the attacks, we see how these men – weed-smoking petty criminals and irregular mosque attenders – constituted their faith primarily through the act of violence against critics. In these terms, their Muslim identity is primarily founded on the eclipse of the ‘insulters of Islam’; it is through the act of violence that they constitute their faith.

Therefore, the truth of events is in some ways the opposite of the way it appears. There is an appearance of the unity of society against the terrorists, everyone is Charlie, whereas in certain ways it was Charlie Hebdo who were the marginal figures, representative of an outdated public spirit, and it was the terrorists who represented the mainstream principle of coercion, albeit in extraordinary and barbarous manner.

On the French radio station France Info on Sunday an artist said that it amused him to see so many ‘hommes politiques’ who have ‘nothing to do with liberty’ lining up in the Charlie Hebdo march. Others noted the presence of Islamic groups who had sought to take the magazine to court, as well as the statesmen of countries without a free press.

And yet in the spontaneous demonstrations of support for the magazine there was something of the nascent sensibility of the public sphere: a sense of ease, conviviality, face-to-face dealing with fellow citizens. In France these demonstrations sprung up in small towns and regional cities as well as Paris. The revival of public spirit should be the correct response to events. That is, not to further restrict the internet, or to limit French citizens’ right to travel overseas – as some are suggesting – but to eclipse coercion from the sphere of public debate.

Another interviewee on France Info said that the demonstrations wouldn’t change everything in themselves, but they would provide a benchmark, something by which people could be held to account next time they called for a publication to be banned or a group to be taken to court. ‘You can hold them to account for the things that they have said today.’ In this respect, we should start with the 54 people being charged for the offence of ‘apology for terrorism’, including the comedian Dieudonné who briefly posted a satirical message on Facebook mocking the Charlie marches.

Are we really all Charlie? If so, this would mean nothing less than the reconstitution of the public sphere in Western societies.

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