The PEN/Charlie Hebdo controversy

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

1. As many readers may have heard over the last week or so, the writers' organization PEN is giving an award to Charlie Hebdo, the target of a murderous attack by Islamic extremists who were offended by the magazine's depiction of Muhammad. Six writers who had earlier agreed to be "table hosts" at the gala have backed out; here is an excerpt of the letter signed by many of these (I quote from the post at the Intercept by Glenn Greenwald):

Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly were used to make that decision.

We do not believe in censoring expression. An expression of views, however disagreeable, is certainly not to be answered by violence or murder.

However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were characterized as satire and "equal opportunity offense," and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.

Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France's various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

2. As those who read my views on Garry Trudeau's similar criticism of the Charlie Hebdo editors might guess, I suggest that people look closely at one sentence from the PEN objectors' letter:

The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.

The subject fixed on paper is Muhammad, believed to be a prophet by over a billion people. Hundreds of millions of people seem to believe that apostasy from the religion founded by the subject should yield the death penalty. Many countries criminally punish alleged insults to the subject.

Which way does the inequity between the persons who once held the pen, before they were murdered, and the subject cut? Charlie Hebdo wasn't generally mocking French Muslims; it was mocking Muhammad, as well as those who would kill in his name. That "marginalized, embattled, and victimized" people—together with many marginalizing and victimizing people, whether they are jihadists, governments that punish blasphemers, or those who support the jihadists and the governments—"suffer[]" because they are offended by the cartoons does not make the cartoons unethical or otherwise improper.

3. Adam Gopnik (The New Yorker), Matt Welch (Reason), and Katha Pollitt (The Nation) have excellent columns on the subject.

4. I was pleased to see that the replacements for the six departed table hosts were not long in coming, and include writer Neil Gaiman and cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel (see this article from the AP (Hillel Italie)).

UPDATE: From Salman Rushdie, quoted in The Guardian (Alison Flood & Alan Yuhas):

This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence.