Notes on Freedom

Tag: charlie hebdo

Modern censorship and the return of taboo

In the Enlightenment the usual approach to something with which you did not agree was to republish quotes from the text along with your own devastating critique. Indeed, some works are remembered more by the critique than the original (1).

Now, there is a return to something more like the pre-modern approach to texts and images: disapproved of images should not be shown, texts should not be read. The effects of words and images are thought to unravel automatically, through the dynamics of attraction or repulsion, without the mediation of critical reflection or individual intent.

When the French journalist Caroline Fourest showed Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cover in a Sky News interview, the editors reacted as if they had received an electric shock. They terminated the interview and cut away without so much as a goodbye, apologising to viewers for any offence caused. In a similar way, the Al-Qaeda manual and other terrorist publications cannot be viewed. It is an offence to possess or download any terrorist document (for which two Nottingham University students were arrested: one downloaded the document, the other printed it out as a favour). This makes it difficult for students to complete the terrorism module of international relations courses: how can they critique publications they are not allowed to see?

The question of whether you approve or disapprove of images becomes one of whether they are displayed or hidden away. A disapproved of image is not shown with an accompanying critique: it is invested with a negative charge and cannot be shown. Instead of a conflict over interpretation or meaning – what does this text or image mean?; is it right or wrong? – there is a conflict over the display or seclusion of the item in question. This means a return to an immediate relation to words and images.

It is not just that texts now are held to have a given meaning – as they did for example in the Medieval period, where the meaning of texts was prescribed by a strict religious and political hierarchy.

Now, it is not so much that texts have a given meaning, but something more like a given charge – a positive or negative power – which has certain similarities with the traditional tribal taboo. With the tribal taboo, if a word leaves your mouth or your eyes fall upon a forbidden image, the offence is committed. Taboo objects unleash a contagion in the mind and in the world, like a force of nature. There is no mediation of a person’s critical faculties; no account given for their intent. Offences against taboo are often committed by accident: somebody happens to glance at the king, or says something he should not, and the contagion strikes.

Now too, offences can be committed by accident, and the saying of certain words contaminates the speaker. Hence the lists of words which should only be referred to euphemistically as ‘y-word’, ‘n-word’ or ‘f-word’. For the word to pass one’s lips is itself an offence, regardless of how one is using it. Young black men are told that they cannot say ‘yo nigger’ to their friends, while Jews and gays cannot call themselves ‘yid’ or ‘faggot’. Jeremy Clarkson got into contortions apologising for having appeared to say the ‘n-word’ in unused takes of Top Gear, without being able to say the word (for to say that he did not say it would be saying it). ‘In one of the mumbled versions if you listen very carefully with the sound turned right up it did appear that I’d actually used the word I was trying to obscure’.

In this context, words are not being used by one person to communicate meaning to another: nor are the words grounded in a given set of equal or unequal social relations. Instead, words become yes-words or no-words, approved or disapproved, to be repeated or never to pass one’s lips. It is because words are invested with such an inherent charge that offences can be committed by accident. Your lips are stained, regardless of the meaning intended – indeed, regardless of any meaning which would be clear to anyone else looking on.

What the new and old taboos have in common is an immediate and inarticulate relation to given objects. Of course, in other respects they are completely different. Taboo in tribal societies is a belief in an actual physical charge possessed by objects (‘mana’), which makes that object at once sacred and dangerous. ‘Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of a tremendous power which is transmissible by contact’ (2). The power of taboo objects is the magical role they play in managing relations between members of the group – a king is taboo – as well as the group’s relationship with nature.

Today, by contrast, images and texts are not attributed with a single consistent meaning – everybody has their own list of taboo words – and this is clearly not a question of any magical role. The new taboos do not reflect a new social order, but rather an absence, a lack: the vanishing of the rational-critical individual as a recognised unit of public life. Individuals are imagined to be without governing critical faculties or independent purpose; therefore, words and images flow through them like automatic forces. The power attributed to images or objects is only a reflection of the supposed incapacity of viewers or listeners.

What has been lost is the mediating role of individual scrutiny which developed in the eighteenth century. With the development of the modern public sphere, texts and images were definitively stripped of any sacred or forbidden character. With the emergence of pamphlets, salons and coffee shops, works of writing or art became profane objects for examination and discussion. A book was no longer immediately good or evil: it was held at arm’s length, critically examined. Art lost its sacramental character and became an object for the examination and assessment of the public (3).

New taboos can only accentuate the problem of the waning of the public sphere. The hiding of images and texts serves to degrade the quality of public debate, and to restrict the use of critical faculties. Every banned word further estranges our relationship with language; every hidden image weakens the use of judgement. Ultimately, we need the end of taboos and the return of critique.


(1) Nobody would remember Sir Robert Filmer’s views on the innate rights of kings were it not for John Locke’s critique in his Treatises on Government.

(2) Wundt, quoted in Freud, Totem and Taboo, Routledge 2007, p22

(3) The sacred charge of art objects in the Middle Ages was the result of those objects’ role in forms of religious worship and displays of social status: they were the bearer of status relations. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, MIT, 1999, p36


Charlie Hebdo: The crisis of the public sphere

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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