Thursday, 5 February 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Free Speech and its Enemies

Reflections on the Right to Blaspheme

LEFT: "100 LASHES IF YOU DON'T DIE LAUGHING"; RIGHT: "IT'S HARD TO BE LOVED BY IDIOTS"
PART ONE: ALL ARE GUILTY

One of the most pernicious arguments advanced to persuade us that the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo were unworthy martyrs to free expression - or were even deserving of much in the way of sympathy - has been the notion that they were the victimisers of a persecuted minority:
But the question needs to be asked: were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo really satirists, if by satire is meant the deployment of humour, ridicule, sarcasm and irony in order to achieve moral reform? 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. 
My objections to this argument, formulated here by the author Will Self in an article for Vice magazine, are great and numerous. For a start, I would have thought it self-evident than anyone who thinks it acceptable to answer cartoons by murdering cartoonists is in pressing need of moral reform, thereby invalidating Self's objection by his own lights.

Furthermore, the job of the satirist is to scorn hypocrisy, double-standards, fallacious reasoning, and pomposity wherever it occurs and without political prejudice. That Self would prefer it if satire were a kind of comedy-activism, preferably mocking only those deserving of his own contempt, is beside the point. H. L. Mencken is of no use to Self here since (a) the quotation he cites is misattributed and originally intended to satirise journalistic moral vanity not endorse it, (b) journalism is not the same as satire, and (c) in any case, journalism ought to concern itself with the pursuit of truth, not the affliction of comfort.

But most important of all, in the service of an argument designed to transform victimisers into victims and vice versa, Self misrepresents the motives of the assassins. It was not the mockery of religious extremists to which they objected, but the disrespect shown to a religious figure they venerated. "We have avenged the prophet!" they cried as they fled the scene of a bloodbath they had committed in his name.
Will Self

Muhammad, Islam's purported seer, claimed to be the vessel of the final and perfect word of god, and he is consequently considered to be a figure of considerable power and authority by Islam's ~1.5 billion Muslims. (He has also been dead for nearly 1400 years, which is about as comfortable as it is possible to get.)

Were Islam a quietist faith, whose adherents wanted nothing more than to be able to retreat from the fallen world, Self's argument that its absurdities are the business of no-one but its adherents might be more persuasive. But Islam is proselytising faith, and in its radical political form - also known as Islamism - it constitutes an aggressive ideology which is expansionist, totalitarian, and revolutionary in character, as well as being both triumphalist and (paradoxically) self-pitying.

Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the assassins of Charlie Hebdo's journalists, are said to have been the cadres of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and as such would have held extremely definite and retrogressive views about the ways in which, not just journalists, but also women, gays, and non-believers of all stripes are required to behave, and all of which derive from a literalist interpretation of Muhammad's own ostensibly inerrant utterances.

In the Shi'ite theocracy of Iran, the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, and the nascent Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, radical Islam enjoys the privilege of State power and its cruelty and retrogressive effects on individual rights and liberty are manifest. But in the West's liberal democracies, radical Islam is (mostly) the province of immigrant minorities from North Africa and the Asian sub-continent. An analysis that goes no further than identifying the underdog will spare its ideology scrutiny and ridicule, and insist that it be treated with the deferential respect its adherents demand. Even, apparently, as religious proscriptions are enforced at the point of a blazing kalashnikov.

Those for whom power imbalance is the only prism through which to understand the moral calculus in a given conflict make two mistakes. The first is to place scant significance on what either side is actually fighting for - if one's person's terrorist really is another's freedom-fighter then it makes no difference whether democrats are fighting to overthrow totalitarian State or totalitarians are fighting to destroy a democratic one. The second mistake is a failure to appreciate the coercive power of the weak: the use of arbitrary violence to intimidate, destabilise, and terrify.

To Self such objections appear to be of negligible importance, and he scorns the assistance Charlie Hebdo accepted from the French government in the aftermath of the violent catastrophe visited upon them, as if this tarnishes a claim to ideological purity to which he has already made it clear the magazine is not entitled: "[S]o, now the satirists have been co-opted by the state, precisely the institution you might've thought they should never cease from attacking."

He chides the journalists of Charlie Hebdo for their lack of responsibility, secure as he is in the knowledge that his own sensitivity to the plight of the weak means he will never have to answer to their vengeful hatreds. This strikes me as not just conceited, but also foolish. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that some capricious jihadi might take it upon themselves to demand the suppression of a Will Self novel because it violates this or that medieval edict, and it is not hard to imagine the high dudgeon that would immediately result.

And let it not be overlooked that four Jews were also murdered by the Kouachi brothers' co-conspirator for no other reason than that they happened to be Jews; a reminder that Islamism's murderous rage is by no means confined to those who denigrate the faith. In 2006, Self publicly renounced his Jewish heritage - an ostentatious display of disgust occasioned by some Israeli policy or other that failed to meet with his approval. I'm dubious as to whether this will inoculate him against Islamist anti-Semitism, should he ever find himself at its mercy.

Self is a man whose languid verbosity tends to be taken for wisdom by the unwary. It would be silly to deny the man's talents as writer, but they prop up childish political instincts. His tutorial on the limits of free speech is followed by the news that he won't be conscripted into a defence of "the Enlightenment project". His objection is of the "who-are-the-real-monsters-anyway" variety.

The reasons that a revolution built upon the Declaration of the Rights of Man spiralled into the gory despotic excesses of the Red Terror are complex and fascinating, but for Self they illuminate nothing more than the unfitness of the Enlightenment's inheritors and "boosters" to pass judgement on anyone but themselves. Like the religious fanatics they denounce, the West's fundamentalists of reason are in pursuit of a chimeric utopia "that if it's perfected it will render the entire population supremely free and entirely good."

No source is provided for this ventriloquised hyperbole because, as far as I'm aware, none exists within the realm of sane commentary. Not content to have damned the Enlightenment's messy inception, Self proceeds to deride its progressive legacy:
[S]uch rarefied progress is precisely what is mocked, not only by the murdering of Parisian journalists, but by the drone strikes in Syria, Iraq and Waziristan, which are also murders conducted for religio-political ends. It is mocked as well by the clamouring that follows every terrorist outrage for the suspension of precisely those aspects of the law that exist to restrain our worst impulses; in particular the worst impulses of our rulers: namely, due process of law, fair trials, habeas corpus and freedom from state-mandated torture and extra-judicial killing.
Self opens his article by announcing he wishes to be clear, before demonstrating a thoroughgoing contempt for moral clarity. He describes the premeditated murder of journalists for perceived lapses in taste and propriety as "evil", but with his casual ruminations on responsibility and the nature of satire, he floats the notion - without having the courage to actually defend it - that the murdered journalists and cartoonists were partly culpable in their own deaths.

And he is at pains to remind us that, while we share the Kouachis' capacity for evil, in our moral complacency we may have exceeded it. Terrorists pursue their delusory utopia at our expense using automatic weapons, while we pursue ours at theirs using drone warfare. In Self's mind, Islamist barbarism convicts us all, its chauvinism and cruelty simply reflects our own. All are guilty, so none are guilty; an exoneration of terrorism by default.

Not only does such lamentable moral equivalence fail to distinguish between the firefighter and the fire but, at a time when much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan are being torn to pieces by religious fanaticism, are the civilisational benefits of universalism, rationalism, and self-criticism really so difficult to discern?

It would be nice if beneath all this contempt there lay some sort of coherent moral argument. Alas, all I can find is the perverse vanity of radical self-disgust. For if the pitiless Deobandi fanatics of the TTP wish to subjugate Pakistan's Swat valley, or if the demonic Takfiri lunatics of the Islamic State wish to enslave Yazidis, crucify Christians, and massacre Kurds, then what right have we to object, still less assist those resisting such violence, when we are burdened with the legacy of Robespierre, Danton, and Saint-Just?

As Christopher Hitchens remarked when he found himself confronted by an argument of comparable masochism at the 2007 Freedom from Religion Foundation:
Well, there you have it ladies and gentlemen. You see how far the termites have spread and how long and well they have dined. When someone can get up and say that in a meeting of unbelievers - that the problem is Western civilisation not the Islamic threat to it - that's how far the termites have got.
PART TWO: RE-PUBLISH OR BE DAMNED
I think next week there should be a European media week of solidarity. Every major newspaper, broadcaster and platform should re-publish a selection of the title covers of Charlie Hebdo - as Slate magazine has already done - carefully explaining why we're doing this: We wouldn't usually do this, but we are doing it show that violent intimidation does not pay. That the assassins' veto will not prevail. I think that without that solidarity, fear will have won and the assassins' veto will have won. 
~ Timothy Garton-Ash
Islamism's attack on democracy and liberalism operates in two ways. The first is to menace and terrorise. The second - more insidious and dangerous - is to undermine from within. The latter serves to compromise our ability to resist the former. A combination of the two explains why, in the UK - unlike in France and Germany - very few papers were prepared to re-publish Charlie Hebdo's back-catalogue of Muhammad cartoons.

But it is important, I think, to distinguish between those who resisted the urgings of Garton-Ash, Index on Censorship, and others because they were afraid, from those who have been persuaded - violence or no violence - to see things from the fanatics' point of view.

In a series of tweets posted in the immediate aftermath of the murders [here, here, here, here, here, here, and here], Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, was admirably frank about his hesitancy:
Easy to attack papers for not showing cartoons. But here's my editor's dilemma. Every principle I hold tells me to print them. But what right do I have to risk the lives of my staff to make a point? Because this isn't a mere debate about principles. As today showed, this is about lives. These people are butchers. 
No, Charlie Hebdo didn't provoke anyone. It published cartoons. 
Get real, folks. A Jewish newspaper like mine that published such cartoons would be at the front of the queue for Islamists to murder. None of my points mean we shouldn't or wouldn't publish. I'm simply explaining it's a dilemma and not a simple issue of principle. 
Thing is, every argument people are making to me about why we must print cartoons is not just valid but vital. But so are those not to print.
Timothy Garton-Ash's impassioned plea was made at a Guardian-sponsored event held the evening after the Paris massacre. The event's moderator, the Guardian's Giles Fraser, invited his editor, Alan Rusbridger to respond. Compare his reasoning with that of Pollard:
Well, we talked about this a lot this morning because there was a kind of twitter feeding-frenzy last night I think to provoke people to print more and more offensive material. We did print 4 or 5 of the images from Charlie Hebdo, last night and this morning and that wasn't enough for some people. Some people were tweeting me saying, "Yes, but you haven't chosen the really offensive one" and then they wanted to choose a still more offensive one. And there are some very offensive ones that the Guardian would never in the normal run of events publish. 
It was a replaying of the debate over the Danish cartoons. I didn't want to republish some of the Danish cartoons because the Guardian is the Guardian and the Danish newspaper [Jyllands Posten] is the Danish newspaper and Charlie Hebdo is [Charlie Hebdo]. We completely defend Charlie Hebdo's ethos and values and the right to offend in the way that they did. But it felt to me as though there was a sort of tokenism in demanding that the Guardian should change, and I take [panelist] Sunny [Hundal]'s point here, and I think the thing that is important is that we don't change as a result. 
If they want us to change, and they want us to be more inflammatory, and to contribute to the hardening of attitudes in society, then I think one of the things the Guardian could do is not change, and that it should continue to apply its normal editorial values about what it should publish. And that we will carry on publishing [panelists and Guardian cartoonists] Steve [Bell] and Martin [Rowson]. And that was the decision we reached collectively as a paper this morning.
The aphorism often misattributed to Voltaire holds that "I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it." Usually these noble words are employed in defence of free speech. But in the wake of the Paris atrocities, they were most often heard falling from the lips of those who wished to put as much distance between themselves and Charlie Hebdo as possible, without forfeiting their right to be considered defenders of liberty.

What Rusbridger did not make clear was that the offensive images to which he referred were Charlie Hebdo's representations of Muhammad, and that it was a refusal to publish these pictures in particular that Rusbridger and his staff felt constituted a defence of their paper's values. He went on to point out that re-publication was by no means the only way of expressing solidarity, and that the Guardian Media Group had contributed £100,000 to Charlie Hebdo to help ensure that it was able to continue publication.

Alan Rusbridger
This was undeniably an act of meaningful and generous solidarity and one which would have a practical bearing on the magazine's ability to survive. It is also a change of subject. The images of Muhammad were not incidental to the deaths of nine journalists but the explicit reason given for their execution. The right to draw and print such pictures in a free society is precisely what is - or what ought to be - at issue.

It is clear now that all those - myself included - demanding the widespread re-publication of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were making a tactical error. It was too prescriptive a demand and it allowed the discussion to get diverted away from the central issue of the taboo which Charlie Hebdo had repeatedly violated and into a separate - and frankly irrelevant - debate about whether the manner in which the taboo had been violated was something others ought to endorse.

If Charlie Hebdo's representations of Muhammad were not to Rusbridger's taste, but he nevertheless felt that the right to depict him was one worth defending, he could have simply commissioned his own. But Rusbridger gives every impression of agreeing with the assassins that satire of Islam's most revered figure is something we would all be better off without. He is consequently far more preoccupied by the need to resist those who would pressure him into re-publishing such images than he is by the threat to free expression posed by masked fascists.

Alan Rusbridger is not frightened. His reasoning doesn't put him in a position where he needs to be, which is probably why he wasted not one syllable on considerations of security or safety. But in 2012 his paper had illustrated an article about Andres Serrano's Piss Christ with a large and prominent photograph of the blasphemous exhibit. This artwork is far more objectionable than anything Charlie Hebdo ever produced, and yet it was - rightly - reproduced with nary a thought for the religious sensitivities of devout Christians. So, contrary to Rusbridger's protestations, the Guardian has already changed - it has made an exception for Islam, and it is an exception Rusbridger is determined to protect even as people are dying for disagreeing.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the vast majority of the opinion and commentary that has appeared in the Guardian's pages since 9/11. In the debates around terrorism and multiculturalism, the paper has been a consistently wretched defender of universalism and secularism, and a reliable platform for Islamists and their miserable apologists to advance a narrative of Muslim victimhood that excoriates Israel and insists on the total culpability of the West. 

Two days later, true to its editor's promise that it would not compromise on this line, the Swiss Ikwanist Tariq Ramadan appeared in the Guardian to lecture us as follows:
To have a sense of humour is fine, but to target an already stigmatised people in France is not really showing much courage . . . media organisations [are] intent on publishing the most offensive Charlie Hebdo cartoons, claiming that it would strike a blow for free speech. I support free speech, but I would urge them to desist, for what they plan to do is not courageous and will do nothing to afford people dignity. It will be another example of targeting all Muslims.
In the fraught quarrel over re-publication, any distinction that has put Stephen Pollard on the same side of the argument as Tariq Ramadan has been false. It is for precisely this reason that those who want to publish pictures of Muhammad but are afraid to do so must speak up, so that the proper distinctions may be made with greater clarity. Pollard understands the value of what Charlie Hebdo have been doing. Alan Rusbridger, hostage to a neurotic tolerance of even the most reactionary Islamic beliefs, does not.

Pollard may be afraid, but his reasoning is not the enemy of press freedom. The termites which have hollowed out the Guardian and Will Self's cranium have not yet been allowed to inflict anything like the same damage on the Jewish Chronicle.

PART THREE: THE UNREASONABLE MAN

Caroline Fourest is a feminist, writer, and journalist, and co-founder of the French anti-racist, anti-fundamentalist, and secularist magazine ProChoix. Unlike Will Self, she does not cringe with embarrassment before the imperfections of liberal democracy. And unlike Alan Rusbridger, she can find no reason to indulge Islamists like Tariq Ramadan in the name of open-minded toleration. In 2004 she published a book entitled Frère Tariq, in which she painstakingly analysed Ramadan's 15 books and his countless essays and speeches and concluded that, in their desperation for an eloquent spokesperson for a modern and moderate Islam, liberals were being hoodwinked by a duplicitous reactionary.

Two years later, when Jyllands Posten published its cartoons of Muhammad, she was working as a contributor at Charlie Hebdo. As Danish embassies burned, and Will Self was busy with his eccentric observations about what does and does not constitute legitimate satire, Fourest drafted a short manifesto.

Originally entitled Together Against A New Totalitarianism (later translated and re-published as The Manifesto of the 12), it first appeared in Charlie Hebdo on 1 May 2006, co-signed by 11 secularists - one signatory for each of the 12 Jyllands Posten cartoons - some of whom were practising Muslims. It began:
Having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism. We - writers, journalists, intellectuals - call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.
Unencumbered by moral relativism, Fourest's lucid analysis derives from a straightforward belief that the ideas of the Enlightenment and the progressive politics they midwifed are worth defending. What was unfolding, her manifesto declared, was to be a bitter struggle for ideas and values in which the excuse-making of apologists would only aid fanaticism at the expense of universalism and liberty:
[N]othing, not even despair, justifies choosing obscurantism, totalitarianism and hatred. Islamism is a reactionary ideology that kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present. Its victory can only lead to a world of injustice and domination: men over women, fundamentalists over others . . . We defend the universality of the freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit can be exercised in every continent, with regard to each and every abuse and dogma. We appeal to democrats and independent spirits in every country that our century may be one of enlightenment and not obscurantism.
Having published Fourest's manifesto, Charlie Hebdo was virtually alone in re-publishing the Jyllands Posten cartoons. Death threats followed, and in November 2011, Charlie Hebdo's offices were completely destroyed by a petrol bomb. A year later its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, explained his refusal to compromise by remarking "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees". On 7 January 2015, along with eleven others, he did just that.

The Post-Massacre Issue
At this point, the surviving staff could surely have been forgiven for throwing in the towel. Instead they produced a new issue featuring a cover illustration that is striking in its simplicity and humbling in its courage, its humanity, and its generosity: a stricken Muhammad declaring his solidarity with the dead beneath the words "Tout Est Pardonné". All is forgiven.

Two days after the massacre, Will Self had informed readers of his Vice article that: "When the demonstrators stood in the Place de la Republique holding placards that read "JE SUIS CHARLIE", they might just as well have held ones reading: "NOUS SOMMES LES TERRORISTES" "

Charlie Hebdo's post-massacre cover decisively answered his bitterness. The magazine's response to the massacre of its staff and fellow citizens was as dignified as Will Self's was reprehensible and squalid. Writing in Tablet, Paul Berman described the illustration as "a masterpiece . . . inspiring, moving, slightly mysterious, and entirely beautiful."
It is inspiring because, in the face of the ultimate in terrorist pressure, the editors and cartoonists have chosen to go ahead and put the drawing on the cover. The cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo is the most defiant newspaper cover in the history of journalism—a bolder cover even than the cover of the 1898 Paris newspaper that presented Zola’s article, J’Accuse . . . Zola knew that, by publishing his accusation against the enemies of Capt. Dreyfus, he ran a danger of persecution, arrest, and imprisonment, but probably not murder. The editors, staff, cartoonists, printers, truck-drivers, and kiosk vendors of Charlie Hebdo are in danger of murder. And they are unfazed.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but its conquest. The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo had seen the power of the weak explode into their own offices and had decided that no, their raison d'être was not for negotiation. Richard Malka, the magazine's lawyer was blunt: "We will not give in, otherwise all this won't have meant anything."

In an interview with CNN, Fourest was similarly matter-of-fact. "After what happened - after this slaughter - it was really impossible for my colleagues and friends to not do a cover about what happened and it could only be a cover about, of course, Muhammad." Pressed by the (somewhat reluctant) anchor to accept responsibility for the subsequent violence that had erupted in Kurachi, where protestors burned French flags, and in Niger, where mobs burned churches and desecrated Bibles, Fourest was unequivocal: "But you understand that, when you put it that way, you are blaming, not the people who are killing because of the cartoons, but you are blaming the cartoonists. This is cowardice and it is exactly what the terrorists want."

When the French-Algerian academic and Guardian commentator Nabila Ramdani appeared on This Week to discuss the new cover, she likewise accused Charlie Hebdo of "inciting violence" and held the staff explicitly responsible for the violent protests that had erupted in the Pakistan and Africa. Michael Portillo responded by saying he was outraged. Were he to have then physically assaulted Ramdani in a fit of offended fury, I wonder if she would have been prepared to accept moral responsibility for her own injuries. If not, then she should be made to explain her apparent refusal to consider African and Pakistani Muslims as moral actors.

Ramdani had already written that the cover "symbolises egalitarian bigotry" (whatever that might be). Not to be outdone, her Guardian colleague Joseph Harker, the paper's assistant comment editor no less, had ruled in the same item that, by depicting Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo was "deliberately offending the vast majority of Muslims around the world . . . adding insult to injury . . . lashing out at potentially 1.6 billion people . . . [and most bizarrely of all] spreading guilt by association".

Nevertheless, even the Guardian finally relented and reproduced a two-inch high image of the cover on their website, albeit with a warning in bold type alerting readers to an appalling affront to decency that awaited them as they scrolled down. This placed them a rung or two above Murdoch's Sky News, which cut away from Caroline Fourest and apologised to its viewers, the moment Fourest attempted to display the magazine's new cover illustration.

Caroline Fourest
It is tempting to argue that Charlie Hebdo's courage and defiance puts an end to all excuse-making, at least from those like Stephen Pollard who need no persuading as to the merits of the re-publication arguments. Would that it were so. The dilemma with which sympathetic editors are faced remains unaltered. We do not yet know what price will be exacted by religious fanatics for Charlie Hebdo's insubordination. Days after the massacre in Paris, a German tabloid which had re-printed Charlie Hebdo's cartoons on its front page had already been firebombed. While it is important to emphasise that editors re-publishing cartoons of Muhammad - or, better still, commissioning originals - bear no moral responsibility whatever for any violence visited upon them as a result, that does not alter the fact that printing such images makes violent reprisal more likely.

Western democracies and those journalists who still understand the need to defend basic liberties are confronted with an impossible, disgraceful choice. Submission to Islamist demands will only inflame an appetite for further concessions. But to resist is to court lethal danger. The staff of Charlie Hebdo have gone back out on a limb. No-one asked them to - they did so on a point of principle they were determined to uphold, and they did so of their own volition. But they are out there on behalf of us all, exposed once more.
I cannot bring myself to describe the reluctance of those who have not followed Charlie Hebdo's example as prudent. To do so would be to reduce what the staff there have done to an act of foolishness. It is too noble for that. But nor is it fair to accuse someone like Pollard of cowardice; only Charlie Hebdo's own staff have earned the moral authority to do that. From anyone else, it is not an approach conducive to persuasion. Ordinary people are bound to be frightened and to feel a responsibility to the well-being of their colleagues. What Charlie Hebdo's staff have done marks them as extraordinary people. As Robert Shrimsley remarked in the Financial Times before Charlie Hebdo's new cover appeared:
Charlie Hebdo’s leaders were much, much braver than most of us; maddeningly, preposterously and — in the light of their barbarous end — recklessly brave. The kind of impossibly courageous people who actually change the world. As George Bernard Shaw noted, the “reasonable man adapts himself to the world while the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself”, and therefore “all progress depends upon the unreasonable man”. Charlie Hebdo was the unreasonable man. It joined the battle that has largely been left to the police and security services.
Nonetheless, it surely remains beyond dispute that the more brazen the defiance of fundamentalist demands, the more frequent, and the more widespread, the less risk there is for all involved. While it is relatively straightforward to pick off isolated publications who dare to defy them, terrorists cannot murder the entire Western press. The failure to stand alongside Jyllands Posten made it more not less likely that vengeance would be the reward for the few that did.

But to defend something, it is necessary to understand its value and to refuse to become discouraged by resistance. Having seen his pleas for solidarity roundly ignored, Timothy Garton-Ash conceded defeat. In an essay for the New York Review of Books he concluded that getting journalists to act in concert is as futile as herding cats and he made a confused recommendation (in which I don't think he really even believes) involving linking to controversial material hosted on an anonymous website in Iceland. Defeatism like this gets us nowhere.

It also misses some encouraging signs. It is easy to be cynical about the huge protests, the hashtag activism, the opportunistic gestures of solidarity by world leaders, and so on. But Jyllands Posten benefitted from none of these things. Meanwhile, the number of publications and networks prepared to re-print and broadcast drawings of Muhammad is slowly increasing, and the number of rioters attending furious demonstrations across the Muslim world is diminishing.

There is nothing to be done but to keep repeating that no compromise should be considered. The freedom to criticise ideas in open societies must be universal and indivisible. As the 'Jesus and Mo' controversy last year reminded us, it is not just the liberty of white Westerners that suffers from a craven observance of Islamist blasphemy codes. Liberal, secular, and reformist Muslims, not to mention those wishing to discard Islam altogether, are their first and worst victims. They deserve our solidarity as much as courageous free-thinkers like Stéphane Charbonnier, Caroline Fourest and all of those at Charlie Hebdo, whenever and wherever they choose to take a stand on the matter.

As Fourest observed during her CNN interview, "If we do not show the drawings that the fanatics do not want to see, we are killing ourselves. We are killing our rules of democracy if we cannot show a simple drawing due to fear . . . we cannot live under Pakistani law. We are in France. We are a satirical newspaper respecting French law, and French law is very clear: blasphemy is a right."

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Instrumentalising Suffering

On 'Rape Culture' & the Denigration of Progress

"Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes.
 - Amanda Marcotte, Feminist Blogger
Marcotte is one of a number of prominent feminists vehemently arguing that America - and the West in general - is presently in the grip of an epidemic of sexual violence, normalised and institutionalised by what they call 'rape culture'. Such arguments have gained considerable traction in progressive discussion, but they have not done so without meeting resistance from the libertarian Right, and from dissenting voices within feminist circles and the broader Left.

Disputes over whether use of such a sweeping term is justified by actual incidences of rape and sexual assault have focussed on fiercely-contested statistics derived from wildly divergent empirical studies (more of which in a moment), and the murky grey areas regarding what does or does not constitute meaningful consent.

But when Rolling Stone published contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely's essay "A Rape On Campus" in late November, it ground all debate to a halt. Front-and-centre of Erdely's sensational article was a story of male sexual sadism, institutional indifference, and innocence defiled, so stark in its moral simplicity, and so devastating in its implications, that it appeared to bulldoze all nuance in its path.

In the autumn of 2012, a beautiful and guileless young University of Virginia (UVA) freshman named 'Jackie' was invited to a party at an elite fraternity house by a 3rd year student with whom she worked as a lifeguard. Jackie, we were told, was a "chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town . . . initially intimidated by UVA's aura of preppy success". She had dressed herself in "a tasteful red dress with a high neckline" and "she wasn't a drinker":
"I remember looking at the mirror and putting on mascara and being like, 'I feel really pretty,' " Jackie recalls. "I didn't know it would be the last time I wouldn't see an empty shell of a person."
Upon arrival at the party, Jackie's naive faith in the goodwill of men allowed her to be lured by her date into a darkened room on the second floor of the fraternity house. Once inside, she was grabbed by unseen hands and thrown through a coffee table. Pinned down on the shards of broken glass and pacified with a blow to the face, she told Erdely that she was then raped by seven men and vaginally assaulted with a beer bottle as jeers and catcalls rang in her ears. Jackie claimed this horrifying ordeal lasted an agonising three hours.

But, nauseating though the specifics of Jackie's gang-rape were, it was from the implications of her subsequent treatment at the hands of callous friends and colleagues and an indifferent campus administration that the article drew its full impact. As the subheading forewarned, it was when Jackie tried to hold those responsible for her ordeal accountable that "a whole new kind of abuse began".

Abandoned by her tormentors, Jackie fled the fraternity house past partygoers - not one of whom expressed any concern for her well-being - and, stumbling into the street, she telephoned three friends, begging for help. But when they arrived they displayed a grotesque lack of concern for her distress, instead professing themselves preoccupied by how their involvement might affect their social standing at the college. The counselling and advice she subsequently received from university admin and support groups likewise proved grossly inadequate.

Erdely's article purported to expose, not just a singularly terrible crime, but also the rotten culture which allowed such acts of sadism to be committed with impunity by the privileged against the vulnerable. The curtain had been pulled back on the hidden squalor of American rape culture, and Erdely was inviting her audience to appraise a fraudulent civilisation unmasked, and daring them to turn away.

Knowing what we know now, it is hard to believe that this narrative - which owes more to the lurid exploitation films of the 1970s than to anything approaching the reality of contemporary American college life - was ever considered remotely credible. That it took nearly a fortnight for serious cracks to appear in Erdely's story, while uncritical outrage swept through social media like a forest fire, suggests that America is in the grip - not of a culture of rape glorification and apologetics - but, rather, a kind of moral panic.

But questions were inevitably raised - tentatively at first, and then with greater insistence - about the extraordinarily callous behaviour of the story's supporting cast. Was such behaviour possible? Well, theoretically, yes. Was it plausible? No, not really. Not unless one is prepared to accept, a priori, a view of humanity so jaundiced and unforgivingly misanthropic that it can only be described as nihilism. Erdely's feminist narrative, marbled with a crude anti-elitist populism, presupposed that the civilising influences of Enlightenment thought, progressive politics, and feminist activism had succeeded only in constructing a veneer of privilege-serving hypocrisy, beneath which lay a society as pitiless and cruel as that of the world's most backward theocracies and failed States.

What has been most disturbing and fascinating about the unravelling of Rolling Stone's story is the vehemence with which Jackie's ostensible defenders have clung to Erdely's apocalyptic version of reality and its politics of despair. As the evidence stacked up that Jackie had almost certainly not been subjected to a three-hour ordeal of torture, it became apparent that there were many who preferred and, indeed, desperately wanted to believe that she had. Without even realising what they were doing, those earnestly presuming to speak on Jackie's behalf were systematically depersonalising her and until her name was little more than an ideological cudgel.

When it transpired that Erdely had not approached the accused for comment, and was unwilling to confirm whether or not she even knew their identities, legitimate doubts about the prima facie plausibility of her narrative gave way to equally legitimate questions about the rigour of her reporting.

Rolling Stone published Erdely's story on November 19. It was not until December 1, with gaps in Erdely's story multiplying, that Robbie Soave at Reason found the courage to print the word "hoax" for the first time, albeit qualified with a question mark. At the New Republic, Judith Schulevitz cautiously echoed Soave's doubts and wondered whether Erdely and Rolling Stone had not fallen victim to confirmation bias. In the LA Times, Jonah Goldberg implied the same, pointedly remarking that Erdely had disapprovingly referred to UVA as a college lacking a "radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy".

In a sign that the disinterested search for truth was already in direct conflict with radical feminist dogma, opinions like these were met with a scornful backlash. In articles and blog posts which were long on invective but noticeably short on reasonable argument, Soave, Goldberg, and other understandably sceptical journalists found themselves accused of stupidity and bad faith, and of participation in a cynical campaign to smear the victims of rape. The feminist writer Jessica Valenti took to twitter to declare that Soave's article was "the last nail in [Reason magazine's] credibility coffin". This rather over-hasty judgement, offered without substantiation, was retweeted 73 times.

On December 5, the fraternity at the centre of Erdely's story released a statement refuting key elements of the story. Rolling Stone responded by hastily appending an unpardonably self-serving update to the top of their story, distancing themselves from their source. Erdely went to ground, refusing all further requests for interviews and has not been heard from since. At this point a number of journalists realised that the game was up and decided to cut their losses rather than run the risk of looking any more silly.

Others, however, doubled down, adopting a new line that rested on the following conflicting premises:
1. As a victim of a violent sexual assault, Jackie's testimony is to be uncritically accepted.  
2. As a victim of a violent sexual assault, Jackie's account will obviously contain 'discrepancies', all of which can be explained away with reference to post-traumatic stress affecting the clarity and reliability of memory.  
3. Erdely ought to have been more sceptical of Jackie's account.
4. Anyone now displaying precisely the kind of scepticism Erdely lacked, was almost certainly pursuing a suspect agenda. 
Reconciling these claims resulted in arguments as comical in their incoherence as they were defiant in their unapologetic contempt for objectivity.

In an article for Politico, Julia Horowitz, assistant managing editor at UVA’s student newspaper, fretted about the manifest shortcomings of Rolling Stone's reporting before deciding that "to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake." Was hypothesising that something might have happened really so different from asserting it had? she wondered.

In a thoroughly retrogressive OpEd piece for the Washington Post arguing that upholding the presumption of innocence in cases of rape and sexual assault was "in important ways...wrong", the feminist writer Zerlina Maxwell wrote: "'Rape culture,' as it is often called, is real. Because rape it is [sic] such a poisonous charge, we are so careful not to level it until we can really prove it." Maxwell was apparently unconcerned that the second sentence directly contradicted the first.

And in an unintelligible piece of rage-blogging on the Feministing website, self-declared (presumably in order of importance) "feminist and former fact-checker" Maya Dusenbery concluded:
[J]ournalism can lie, just as feminism can lie, because they are both created by the fallible humans who live in it. And journalism lies far more than feminism does about the nature of the truth. Journalism lies and acts as if it’s the only game in town — as if it is not just one of many ways of telling the truth.
Some writers and activists insisted openly, and without embarrassment, that the truth of what actually happened to Jackie was less important than the political value of her fabrications. Others sought to re-describe truth as lies so they could continue to pretend they were upholding the former, largely by assailing the corrective reporting of Washington Post and others as "irresponsible" and attempting to discredit the reporters in question with a battery of crass and childish ad hominems.

For those ideologically so-inclined, stratagems like these were feminism at its most fearless, radical, and uncompromising. For the rest of us, they were intellectual dishonesty at its most breathtaking.

By December 12, the three friends libelled in Erdely's story as heartless sociopaths had come forward with an alternative account of events, letting it be known that Erdely had never approached them for comment, either. Whatever remained of Jackie's credibility as a witness now lay buried beneath the rubble of Erdely's own reputation.

The same day, the New York Observer reported that Rolling Stone's deputy managing editor Sean Woods had offered his resignation to the magazine's founder and publisher Jann Wenner (who - for reasons best known to himself - declined to accept it). A post-mortem is now underway at Rolling Stone, which will in time doubtless produce a lengthy correction and apology, featuring all the usual contrition-speak about mistakes made, lessons learned, and changes moving forward.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely is surely finished, her sacking and disgrace now a mere formality. It is unclear at this point whether the single source on whom she so unwisely relied is a mendacious fraud or a damaged and disturbed fantasist. If it turns out to be the former, then 'Jackie' should be stripped of whatever remains of her victimhood mantle and made to answer for the defamatory falsehoods she has helped to circulate. But if it turns out to be the latter, then Erdely's responsibility for exposing a vulnerable and unstable young woman will stand as a further indictment of her unscrupulous and disgraceful abdication of journalistic ethics.

It is a rather satisfying irony, however, that, in seeking to expose America's culture of victimisation, Erdely has instead exposed a cult of victimhood run totally out of control, and the self-discrediting lengths to which its adherents will go to defend it.

There is, after all, a self-refuting paradox at the heart of Erdely's story. If her article had been published in a country in which, as Marcotte would have it, "rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes", then Jackie's ordeal would have had no purchase on precisely the kind of moral outrage it was designed to generate. Jackie's gang-rape was somehow at once a shocking indictment of American culture, and at the same time almost banal.

In an "I-Believe-Jackie" article for the Guardian, the feminist writer Jessica Valenti blithely remarked that "one in five women is sexually assaulted at American universities – so Jackie’s story wasn’t so uncommon." With predictable cynicism, Valenti presented this hair-raising statistic unburdened by either qualifying caveats or links, intentionally creating an impression that it is uncontested.

In fact, this figure has long been the subject of intense controversy, with critics arguing it is little more than alarmist agitprop, extrapolated from unrepresentative studies, themselves disfigured by low response rates and deeply problematic methodologies. On December 15, two of the researchers responsible for one such study were moved to detail their own caveats in an article for Time, echoing many of their critics' key concerns.

Meanwhile, on 11 December the Bureau of Justice Statistics (a sub-division of the US Department of Justice) published their latest findings which revealed, inter alia, that the rate of rape and sexual assault is 0.61% of female students aged 18-24, and 0.76% of female non-students. These findings have remained almost unchanged since publication of the previous BJS study in 2005, which found rates of 0.6% and 0.79%, respectively. But even if one is tempted to argue that the BJS studies are an over-correction, the 1 in 5 (or 20%) statistic remains an affront to common sense.

In a brilliant and detailed essay critically analysing claims of a rape epidemic on American campuses, the Slate columnist Emily Yoffe noted that this figure - if accurate - "would mean that young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war." The implications of this comparison make it clear just how absurd the casual fetishisation of victimhood in radical feminist discourse has become. For if young women in America are no better off than those forced to survive the Congo's war zones, then it follows that women in the Congo are no worse off than those studying on American college campuses. To say this diminishes the suffering of Congolese women is an understatement.

It is doubtful that such a comparison will give the prophets of Western rape culture and their credulous disciples much cause for reflection, still less embarrassment. An unthinking denigration of the West and its achievements is, after all, a characteristic hallmark of self-regarding radicalism in First World Left-wing politics. But it is unsurprising that a Somali-born dissident like Ayaan Hirsi Ali subjects this kind of thoughtless cultural equivalence to withering scorn. Having crossed the yawning chasm that divides the patriarchal societies of the East from the egalitarian societies of the West, she understands the incalculable value of progress far more clearly than those fortunate enough to have known nothing else. 

It is long past time that the falsehoods and distortions undergirding the rape culture myth are subjected to the scrutiny, derision, and scorn they so urgently merit. Not simply because they are reactionary and false, but because the irresponsible fear-mongering they encourage has the power to inflict enormous damage on men and women alike.
  • At the moment, widespread belief in a pandemic of campus sexual violence is somehow managing to co-exist with a 4:3 ratio of women to men enrolled in American universities. But should America's rape panic gain further traction, it could start to affect the willingness of young women to enter university at all. 
  • As Emily Yoffe's Slate essay documents, a mass media hungry for click-bait sensationalism, combined with an opportunistic and intellectually lazy political class, has already produced deeply illiberal legislation which is feeding a feverish assault on egalitarianism, due process, and civil liberties.
  • A prevailing climate of paranoia and fear is being allowed to foster an unnecessary but deeply corrosive suspicion and mistrust between the sexes. Young women are being instructed that the campuses on which they live and study are in fact threatening arenas of predatory male hostility and violence, and young men are being told that it their own base sexuality necessitates the introduction of draconian new legislation which will ensure they experience "a cold spike of fear" before they even contemplate sex with a partner.
In the quote with which I opened this essay, the American feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte revealed perhaps more than she intended when she explained:
"Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes.
Notice that Marcotte does not defend the term on the basis of its accuracy, but on the basis of its utility. She concedes, in other words, that 'rape culture' is less a matter of objective fact than an instrument of ideology. And, as the Rolling Stone affair has so clearly demonstrated, so are its purported victims.

Herein lies the value of 'Jackie' as a pawn of gender warfare, and the reason why Marcotte, Valenti, and like-minded allies steeped in their reactionary cynicism were not prepared to give her up without a fight, no matter how ridiculous it made them look in the short-term. Contrary to their own pious and self-serving claims, the interest of these activists lies not in alleviating the suffering of women, but in manufacturing and instrumentalising it.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Stigmatise, Shame, and Silence

Progressive Authoritarianism & the Death of Debate


"It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry." 
                                                                   - Thomas Paine

Before I get into describing the abysmal state of disrepair in which progressive thought currently languishes, I should start by pointing out that there never was a time when Leftist politics existed in a state of harmonious consensus. From the birth of the concept of left-right politics, when internecine quarrels amongst French republicans were settled beneath the blade of the guillotine, through to the bitter intra-socialist sectarianism of the Cold War, the Left have been a disputatious bunch, bickering over the narcissism of their various small differences.

The progressive movements of the early New Left were no different, encompassing a broad plurality of views, often at odds over ends and means. But there was, nevertheless, general agreement that the principal basis for civil rights activism and struggle lay in liberal, egalitarian, and universalist values. Relativist and separatist arguments were advanced by some, of course, but, until relatively recently, they lacked any meaningful currency. What galvanised activists were internalised Enlightenment-derived ideas of liberty, equality, and solidarity. For if people are fundamentally the same, irrespective of skin colour, gender, or sexuality, then on what basis can rights and protections be afforded to some groups or individuals and denied to others?

With the clarity of arguments like these, progressive politics in the West achieved much. Activism, and the emergence of a vibrant and aggressively liberal counter-culture, precipitated a change in societal and political attitudes, which in turn led to the passing of transformative legislation: voting and labour rights were won; segregation was abolished; reproductive rights were enshrined and expanded; discrimination in all sorts of areas was outlawed; hiring and employment practices were reformed; attitudes to everything from racism to domestic abuse evolved (and continue to do so), while sexual and creative permissiveness flourished. As taboos collapsed with stunning rapidity, conservatism and traditional social values were forced into retreat.

But then something interesting began to happen. Having fought for and (mostly) won parity under the law, progressive activism found itself faced with an existential dilemma. What was it now for? It was, after all, not simply a vehicle for social change; it was also a productive receptacle for anti-authoritarianism and a valuable crucible of radical thought. Where was all this energy to be directed next?

In response to this challenge, progressivism took a dismaying and thoroughly retrogressive turn. Since inequity in society indubitably persisted, often disproportionately affecting minorities and women, it became increasingly fashionable to question whether universalist struggles had actually achieved anything of consequence at all.

Having built progressive movements on the basis of liberal values, it became an imperative to kick those values apart with the same enthusiasm, just as a child might destroy a sand-castle which hadn't turned out quite as well as expected. The spread of French critical theory, multiculturalism, and post-colonialism in radical circles midwifed a thoughtless denigration of the West, scorn for the perceived complacencies of "the Enlightenment project", and the dismissal of the 'Dead White Males' whose ideas and writings had done so much to unshackle Europe from feudalism and superstition.

The arrogance of Western cultural supremacism, it was argued, was the status quo now in need of vigorous radical assault. A commitment to universalism was replaced by the fetishisation of difference and specificity; a belief in egalitarianism gave way to demands for exceptionalism and double-standards (only this time favouring the 'oppressed'); and the language of emancipation and liberty was replaced by a cult of victimhood, self-pity, and a brooding, masochistic solipsism. "We have nothing to lose but our chains" was drowned out by the resentful injunction "Listen to my suffering".

In academia, the humanities began a process of decline as the demands of rigorous and fair-minded scholarship gave way to the requirements of a stultifying and increasingly censorious political correctness. The pursuit of objective truth and knowledge fell before endlessly competing claims from subjective 'lived experiences' and 'narratives', and international solidarity fell before a grotesque cultural relativism, itself informed by a neurotic culture of self-lacerating guilt. The lexicon of political activism - originally developed to identify irrational judgements made about people based on their  unalterable characteristics - assumed a metaphysical dimension. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia were no longer alterable matters of law, belief, and practice - they became immovable structural toxins, against which not even the most broad-minded liberal could be reliably immunised, and to which well-intentioned people were often subject without their knowledge.

As the Left's progressive movements splintered into a kaleidoscope of bitter, competing interests, sectarianism was transformed from a by-product of radical squabbles into an ideological imperative, and a divisive grievance hierarchy was constructed, based upon the intersection of privileged characteristics. The jargon of -phobias and -isms proliferated as every group sought to weaponise language to its own advantage, and arguments from remote etymology were deployed to police the expression of views and ideas. Over time, invective replaced argument and persuasion, and those committed to identity politics lost their ability to engage in constructive debate, to disagree, and - most damaging of all - to think critically about their own ideas and suppositions. Why bother when it is less effort to simply accuse your opponent of bigotry of one stripe or another, or of ignorance and bad faith?

We are now reaping the harvest of liberalism's agonising slow death on the Left. Consider the following recent examples:
  1. According to a report in The Guardian, the political director of Huffington Post UK, Mehdi Hasan, has just publicly recommended the introduction of what amounts to a de facto blasphemy law in order to combat what he calls 'Islamophobia'. The press, he announced, has been “singularly unable or unwilling to change the discourse, the tone or the approach” of its coverage. Casually eliding matters of race, ethnicity, and belief, he continued: “We’re not going to get change unless there is some sanction, there is some penalty. This is not just about Muslims; it is about all minorities.” Similarly, on an American talkshow, a visibly distressed Ben Affleck responded to Sam Harris's criticisms of Islam by denouncing them as "gross and racist".
     
  2. Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the scientists responsible for the awe-inspiring Rosetta satellite mission, found himself vilified by incandescent feminists when he appeared on television wearing a bowling shirt adorned with images of scantily-clad young women. It later transpired that the shirt had been hand-made for him as a birthday gift by a female friend and, as a rather touching token of appreciation, he had worn it on his big day. But an article for Verge decided that it was a symptom of the misogyny allegedly endemic within the scientific community, and reported Dr. Taylor's televised appearance beneath the headline "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing".

    The most risible offering in this embarrassing row came from (supposedly) sex-positive feminist Greta Christina, who spent the first paragraph of her post on the subject itemising her own involvement in the production of pornography. This, she appeared to think, placed her in the unique position of being able to explain that "freedom for me does not mean freedom for thee" as she policed the clothing of another adult: "[D]oing an interview about your team’s big science achievement while wearing a shirt with scantily-clad pinup girls does not say, “Sex is awesome!” It says, “Women are for sex.”

    Christina seemed oblivious to those who would seize on this argument to call for the suppression of her own work, as well as all other kinds of pornography and erotica she defends in her writing. Nor was she moved by arguments that men, like women, should be judged on what they say and do, not on how they choose to dress themselves. Nonetheless, clearly shaken by the uproar, Dr. Taylor ended up offering a tearful and humiliating public apology to his critics. It will be an individual of uncommonly thick skin who dares to transgress in this way in the future.
     
  3. Last Wednesday, the Independent ran an article by an Oxford University student named Niamh McIntyre, in which she crowed defiantly about the success of her campaign to cancel a debate between two male speakers, organised by a pro-life group to debate abortion. She explained herself thus: "The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups".

    Doubling down on her behalf, Tim Squirrell - the President of the Cambridge Union, no less! - took to twitter to declare that "shouting 'free speech' doesn't help anyone without a more nuanced conception of its impacts + aspects". He went on: "People have the right to feel...[s]afe from the expression of ideas which have historically been used to oppress them in very real ways."
     
  4. Late last year, in response to long-disputed and empirically dubious claims of an omnipresent culture of rape besieging women on university campuses, activists campaigned to have Robin Thicke's song Blurred Lines banned from their Student Unions. When UCL joined upwards of 20 other Unions in banning the song from its premises, its Women's Officer Beth Sutton said: "UCLU have just passed motion to not play Blurred Lines in union spaces & events. Solidarity with all survivors!"

    [The same panic over 'rape culture' and anger over low prosecution rates for sex crimes has also led to unapologetic attacks from the Left, similarly advanced in the name of "solidarity with survivors", on the presumption of innocence, the rule of law, and due process. An analysis of this disturbing facet of the effort to delegitimise liberalism lies beyond the scope of this post.]
     
  5. A few months ago, the New Statesman columnist Sarah Ditum wrote a rather good article protesting the illiberal use of 'no-platforming' to silence unpopular views held by those "deemed disagreeable". However, her arguments were offered mainly in support of Julie Bindel, a radical feminist labelled 'transphobic' and 'whorephobic' for her views on trans rights and sex work. Ditum is, from what I can tell, largely sympathetic to Bindel's positions on these issues, which made her defence of Bindel's right to speak a relatively straightforward affair, causing her no significant ideological discomfort.

    But when it came to the no-platforming of a repellent male chauvinist and self-styled pick-up guru named Julien Blanc, Ditum's principled defence of free expression evaporated, and she wrote a new blog post explaining that this was a very different matter. "There is no free speech defence for Julian Blanc" she concluded. (In response to the outcry, Blanc has since been denied a visa to enter the UK.)
     
  6. This is not to mention the recent fracas over the Exhibit B installation, deemed unacceptable by anti-racist campaigners (which I covered in an essay here), or the hounding of feminist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for her opposition to the veil and the demonisation of 'white feminists' (which I covered in an essay here). The latter post, incidentally, led The Feminist Wire to describe what I wrote as "racist and anti-Black specifically", and an attempt "to maintain white supremacy".
This handful of examples barely scratches the surface of the problem. Not one of the writers or campaigners above was detained by the need to establish a causal link between the expression of ideas they dislike and consequent harm. Censors never are, despite the fact that, in an open society, the burden of proof ought to rest with those who would restrict individual freedom. Instead, those inclined to defend free expression were variously tarred with the brush of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, or rape apologism (depending on what was at issue).

When taken together, these individual cases - niggling and petty in and of themselves - speak to the flowering of a deeply sinister and censorious tendency amongst self-identifying progressives, invariably justified in the name of protecting the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. In their righteous zeal to place certain people, views, and ideas beyond the pale, and secure in the complacent belief that their own opinions are beyond reproach, not one of these well-meaning men and women appears to have considered that their own liberty will, in the end, fall victim to the very same arguments they advance to silence others.

It should hardly be a surprise that in the midst of this reckless and dangerous onslaught against liberal values and the belief in the axiomatic nobility of the oppressed, there should be no room for sympathy with the Middle East's only functioning liberal democracy. A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] campaign, ostensibly mounted in support of Palestinian nationalism, but actually aimed at the disestablishment of the only Jewish State, has been slowly gathering mainstream support and legitimacy in the West.

Reprehensibly, the BDS movement seeks not simply the boycott of Israeli goods (which would be bad enough); it also explicitly attacks academic freedom. In the foreword to a recently released collection of essays entitled The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, the American political theorist Paul Berman argues that BDS activists are only able to make such arguments because they have convinced themselves of a misperception: they see what they are doing as "modern and progressive" when in fact it is "retrograde and disgraceful".

The same must be said of the examples itemised above. Even as they thoughtlessly stigmatise those who defend free expression as "right wing", these activists, writers, and campaigners have succumbed to the right's most regressive autocratic tendencies. Dogmatic and unbending in their misanthropic view of human sexuality and race relations; unapologetic in their advocacy of an infantilising, separatist agenda of 'safe spaces'; ferocious in their intolerance of views they deem unacceptable.

Gazing with mounting dismay at the escalating authoritarianism on the left of the political spectrum where my own political sympathies lie, I have been repeatedly reminded of a post published by the late Marxist theorist Norman Geras five months before his death. With a minimum of preamble, Geras quoted Chris Brown, Professor of International Relations at the LSE, as follows:
I think the biggest shift that has taken place in my thinking over the past 30 years is that I'm a lot less tolerant of relativist ideas, and multiculturalist ideas than I used to be. And that's something that when you say it, it induces shock and horror sometimes. 25 years ago, I was writing material that, if it wasn't poststructuralist, was at least 'fellow traveling' with the poststructuralists, arguing essentially anti-foundationalist ideas, arguing that the Western liberal tradition was just one tradition among other traditions, and so on. In a way, I think I was in bad faith over a lot of that. I believed that liberalism would always be there, and so one can afford to attack it. The events of the last 20 years have shown that that's really not the case, that a lot of the traditional liberal values of freedom and tolerance are seriously under attack and need to be defended. So I've become a defender of the Enlightenment project in a way that I wasn't maybe 30 years ago - that's a big shift.
Unfortunately, there appears to be scant appetite for Professor Brown's critical self-examination on the postmodern Left. Instead it clings to its metaphysical conspiracism, and disdains empiricism and a meritocracy of ideas derived from free and open debate in favour of the imposition of speech codes designed to stigmatise, shame, and silence.

In the name of a righteously-espoused 'inclusivity', such people have submitted to the worst kind of authoritarian elitism, and forgotten an elementary truism of Enlightenment thought. As the revolutionary 18th century pamphleteer and Dead White Male Thomas Paine observed in the short dedication with which he opened The Age of Reason:
You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Siding with the Philistines

Exhibit B and Index on Censorship's Julia Farrington

A promotional still for Brett Bailey's installation, Exhibit B.
On the 24 September, the UK saw the closure of yet another controversial artwork in response to the mobilisation of protests. The installation Exhibit B, conceived and directed by the South African artist and provocateur Brett Bailey, takes as its starting point the 19th century phenomenon of 'human zoos', and is described by Bailey as follows:
What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them. But what we are doing here is nothing like these shows, where black people were brought from all over Africa and displayed in villages. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies.
Since 2012, Exhibit B has played in some 19 cities before arriving in London and received considerable acclaim. Lynn Gardner in the Guardian called it "both unbearable and essential", Allan Radcliffe in the Times called it "remarkable . . . powerful and upsetting", and Neil Cooper, reviewing the installation for the Edinburgh Festival (and perhaps putting his finger on the masochistic pleasure in which Bailey invites his Western audiences to marinate), revealed that "the guilt [Exhibit B] provokes is devastating".

Others, like Laura Barnett at the Telegraph were less sure. Acknowledging its merits, she nevertheless found Exhibit B to be "a highly problematic" and possibly exploitative piece of work. She did not, however, call for its closure. Nor, to my knowledge, did any other serious-minded writer, whatever their view of its worth. And, whether it succeeded or not, Bailey's work was generally agreed to have been at least intended as an indictment of Western colonialism.

But self-styled anti-racist activists were in no mood to be so tolerant or broad-minded, and they did not hesitate to accuse both artist and production of outright racism. In Berlin, Bailey's work was greeted with furious protests and, upon learning that Exhibit B would be performed at The Barbican in London, a Birmingham activist named Sara Myers started an online petition, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Bailey's "racist" work. "If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery" Myers instructed, "this is not the way to do it." This sentiment was rewarded with nearly 23,000 signatures.

Protests outside the venue followed, blockading the road, and on 24 September, the Barbican announced, with regret, that it was cancelling all shows:
Due to the extreme nature of the protest outside the Vaults, regrettably we have cancelled this evening's performance of Exhibit B as we could not guarantee the safety of performers, audiences and staff. We respect people's right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners.
For those committed to the defence of free inquiry and artistic expression, this is not a complicated matter. And it would be only slightly more complicated if the work in question were indisputably racist. The right of artists to express themselves as they see fit must be inviolate, as must the right of audiences to make up their own minds about the merits of what they produce. It bears repeating that an axiom of free speech advocacy is the willingness to defend the expression of opinions with which one vehemently disagrees.

But in a dismal op-ed for the anti-censorship advocacy organisation Index on Censorship, its associate arts producer, Julia Farrington, found herself unable to do any such thing. Her article, it should be noted, appeared on the Index website on 22 September - that is, after the petition and protests had been launched but before Exhibit B's cancellation. By 25 September, Index had found it necessary to issue an unsigned clarification of their official position, stating:
Those who read [Julia Farrington's] article following the cancellation and our short comment on it have interpreted our stance as one that in some way excuses or condones the protesters and the cancellation of the piece. This was certainly not our intention . . . People have every right to object to art they find objectionable but no right whatsoever to have that work censored. Free expression, including work that others may find shocking or offensive, is a right that must be defended vigorously.
This must be news to Farrington, whose defence of Bailey's right to conceive and present his work is tepid in the extreme. Instead, her article takes the side - with minimal equivocation - of those noisily declaring themselves offended by it.

Although Sara Myers's petition explicitly demands the Barbican cancel its performances of Bailey's work - and although Farrington does mention this fact - she persistently misdescribes Myers's transparently censorious campaign against venue and artist as "a boycott". And it is the protestors to whom she awards credit, without irony, for "ensuring dialogue is happening".

Like them, she had not seen the work for herself at the time of writing. Nevertheless, "what interests me here," she explains, "is the mindset of the institution presenting this piece of work and whether it considered, if at all, the possibility of a hostile response." Contrary to appearances, it is the Barbican which is unmasked as the real villain. They did, she concedes, commission a public debate on the matter, but their hand was forced by the protests which, she argues, were themselves a product of the venue's insensitivity and incompetence. Farrington justifies this conclusion by declaring her belief that:
The role of the arts institution . . . is to manage the space between the artist and the audience.
And with that she burdens the venue with responsibility for the row. Actually, the role of an arts institution - be it a cinema, theatre, or gallery - is neutral: to provide space for the exhibition of work and to promote said work as it sees fit. Those who elect to exhibit challenging material should be supported in their efforts, not presented with further obstacles.

To insist that venues and institutions "manage the space between the artist and the audience" as a precondition to exhibiting potentially controversial content will only help further deter the emergence of provocative art. ("We are thinking of exhibiting Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò at your local. Please read the attached synopsis and let us know your thoughts.")

Not only would such a process be time-consuming, cumbersome, and - I would imagine - expensive, but it would also present a number of practical problems. Who, for instance, decides what level of potential offence and provocation demands prior consultation with outraged community activists? And who decides which of the activists' subsequent demands are reasonable? And, most importantly, what exactly does this alleged obligation to "manage the space between the artist and the audience" actually require of the venue? 

To Farrington, I imagine the phrase seems collaborative and cuddly. But in this context "manage the space between the artist and audience" sounds a lot to me like a euphemism for "listen to community concerns and make the requested changes accordingly."

It is instructive to listen to Sara Myers debating one of the actresses in the work on Newsnight. Amid Myers's various complaints about offence and bad taste, and her demands for an apology and "holistic reparations", she averred that she would "not necessarily" seek to interfere with an artist's vision. All she wanted, she announced, was to be consulted. 

But then would she feel satisfied if, once her views had been heard and taken into account, the work in question remained unchanged? Interestingly, by way of an answer to this yes/no question from presenter Kirsty Wark, Myers turned her attention to the moral deficiencies she perceived in the production:
There's no whiteness in that exhibition. All there is is black people standing in various cages with chains...
A reductive piece of critical analysis, to be sure. To Wark's hypothetical that scenes involving the degradation of blacks required a "white representation," she nodded: "Yes, it needed to be balanced." I don't know what I dislike more; the presumption of the words in that sentence or the pedagogical tone in which they were uttered.

Myers never did get around to giving Wark a straightforward answer, but it was evident to me that she was not about to be appeased by any amount of consultation so long as the show went ahead unaltered. Had it done so, I imagine she would have denounced the consultation efforts as a cosmetic sham designed to shut her up and pressed for further direct action.

But Farrington was not satisfied that the protestors' concerns had been adequately dealt with either. She described the two hours alotted to the public debate commissioned by the Barbican as "woefully inadequate", and welcomed the activists' call for further "engagement and dialogue":
As anticipated the debate changed nothing in the short term, the work will open this evening as planned, but there was an urgent call for a longer, fuller discussion which hopefully Barbican will respond to as a matter of urgency.
Myers's petition is unambiguous in its demand for the censorship of Exhibit B. And the jubilation with which she and her supporters welcomed the news of the performance's closure, two days after Farrington's article appeared, speaks to their true motivations. These are not people interested in opening dialogue but in policing it and closing it down. 

How on earth did a free speech advocate find herself so far on the wrong side of an elementary free speech debate? The nature of the performance, its subject matter, and perhaps most importantly, the skin colour of the protesters, appear to have presented Farrington with a conflict. She is a free speech advocate. But she is also clearly sympathetic to the view that structural racism and institutionalised white privilege are the 'root cause' of everything. Certainly, as far as UK arts and culture goes, she accepts its alleged 'institutionalised racism', a priori. As she puts it:
Surely it cannot be possible for the Barbican to stand by a work that purports to confront “colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today” and not see that it is holding up a mirror to itself.
Index on Censorship does not speak for the victims of 'structural racism'. There are other organisations which devote their time and resources to that. In her capacity as a writer for Index, Farrington ought to have shelved her reservations about such matters, and concentrated on the most immediate threat to free speech: the intimidation of artists and venue by a censorious campaign.

But she prefers to resolve her ideological dilemma with a rhetorical sleight of hand. She concludes her article:
I defend Brett Bailey’s right to present these horrendous atrocities from the past – anything else is censorship . . . But the more potent issue here, is the perpetuation of institutionalised mono-cultural bias preventing the Barbican, and the vast majority of British arts institutions, from fostering and delivering a truly relevant cultural programme. This untenable form of censorship must be addressed and continue to be addressed long after Exhibit B has been and gone.
So it turns out that Farrington has been anti-censorship all along. Not the common-or-garden type right in front of her eyes, of course, but something more profound and subtle; the censorship of minority voices by stealth. 

In support of her accusation, Farrington relies on two rather dubious expert witnesses. She quotes Mark Sealy, artistic director at Autograph Black Photographers, who demands that public funding be withdrawn from those who don't fall into line by employing the right people or producing the right kind of content. The basis for this draconian recommendation is a highly implausible (and unsubstantiated) claim that "since 1980s it is progress zero". Part of what is needed, we may infer, is the involvement of more people like Sara Myers who will arbitrate on what kind of material is and is not acceptable to their respective communities.

Then we meet Jenny Williams, described as an "independent arts consultant". Williams appears to think what's needed is a thoroughgoing policy of Multiculturalism in the arts and a stricter balkanisation of funding allocated to minority communities:
The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.
The outrage of this apparently monstrous pie-dividing injustice, by the way, appears to rest on an assumption that black and minority ethnic audiences won't look at or listen to anything not made by their own ethnic or racial group. But by enlightened roads such as these will we journey to a land where all art and culture is politically acceptable and socially responsible. 

As Farrington must surely be aware, the fanatical pursuit of this conformist dystopia is not restricted to the arts. A recent article in Spiked by Frank Furedi entitled "Academic Freedom Is a Big Deal" looks at troubling examples of this kind of doctrinaire thinking on campus:
Intolerance towards the academic freedom of other colleagues is invariably represented as not what it really is – the silencing of unconventional or objectionable views – but rather as an enlightened defence of those who would be offended by unconventional or objectionable views. From this perspective, the advocacy of a genuinely open intellectual culture, where scholars are encouraged to take risks and question everything, is an abomination.
Academic freedom and artistic freedom - both of which, in different ways, are dedicated to the pursuit of truth - are extraordinarily precious components of open societies. And both are in danger of being compromised, not just by moral puritans of the right, but also by moral puritans of the left - those for whom the enforcement of their own idea of 'social justice' and the immediate redress of grievance trump all scholarly and aesthetic concerns.

It is fantastically unwise for an organisation like Index on Censorship to indulge such people. Anti-censorship advocates, whatever their views about related issues, owe it to themselves to defend art and scholarship from the manoeuvres of activists like Sara Myers, and to do so without equivocation. Farrington's article subordinates that responsibility to ideological views concerning the nature of racism, social justice activism, and identity politics, which are wildly beyond her brief. In a confused attempt to position herself as the friend of the weak, Julia Farrington has misidentified both villain and victim and sided with censorious philistinism. The people power embodied by Myers and her fellow malcontents, of which Farrington writes with such admiration, was a sinister and coercive force from the start.

I take no pleasure in criticising Index on Censorship. They do valuable work and are, by some accounts, a rather embattled organisation at present. But in their handling of this controversy, they abdicated their responsibility to defend those in whose interests they speak. When their associate arts producer marvelled at the 22,500 signatures the petition to close Bailey's work had by then accrued, she should have stopped to consider this: it is precisely at times like these that artists and performers engaged in challenging work most need the support of people like her.