About a year ago, in the midst of “Pantigate”, I managed to a little more by arguing that Rory O'Neill was wrong to automatically ascribe the motive of homophobia to those whose voices were loudest in the Irish media in their opposition to marriage equality. I am glad he did, however, for the debate he initiated in Ireland was a welcome one, and his now infamous TV appearance precipitated both his beautifully candid RTÉ Radio One interview with Miriam O'Callaghan, and the globally-viral YouTube video.
While I still stand behind my original column, Rory's subsequent interventions were the cause of some welcome introspection and the source of learning about myself and how oppression manifests itself. Although the connection is not immediately obvious, Panti Bliss's “Rousing Call” has weighed heavily on my mind this week, as I, like many people across Europe and the world, reflected on the horrific events that took place in Paris almost two weeks ago and the meaning of “free speech”.
Like many who respect and treasure the liberal principles that underpin our European democracy, my reflexive response was to expect, even to hope, that the Irish media would not by cowed by Islamist extremism, and would reprint some of the cartoons that had been the purported cause of the terrorists' blood-thirsty desire for “vengeance”. Who gave me pause for thought, however, were the satirists of Les Guignols de l'Info(a French version of Spitting Image of yore) who broadcast a mocked up Charlie Hebdo front cover the day after the massacre baldly stating in white text on a black page: “Urgent: Six Cartoonists Needed.” It was a clever, close-to-the-bone, and darkly funny commentary on a barely imaginable horror. It was, to my mind, the perfect riposte.
But of course, the humourists of Les Guignolswere not the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.In the words of a French acquaintance who tried to explain to me the space that the magazine occupied in the French media, Charlie's “point was to bring rudeness, provocation and insolence to their utmost degree to see who and what could stand it.” Such a simple front page as that thought up by Les Guignolswould not have been in line with the magazine's tradition of being provocateurs, and in many respects the surviving staff had little option but to run with a cover repeating the action that ultimately cost 12 of the magazine's staff their lives: a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed.
Although the cover was devoid of anger, and expressed sentiments of forgiveness and compassion, it also willingly profaned what Muslims hold sacred. By doing so, the avowedly secularist magazine unwittingly helped tear at the edges of the impressive three-million-strong rally for “republican unity” that took to the streets of Paris on Sunday last. While staying bravely true to the magazine's tradition, the staff of Charlie Hebdo, intentionally, gave the middle finger not just to Islamic fundamentalist extremists, but also to all Muslims everywhere, including the community of five million French Muslims from amongst whom the murderers of their colleagues sprang. The decision was, of course, their right and a manifestation of the principle of free speech that the Enlightenment tradition bequeathed us and to which we, as a society, hold dear.
What surprised me, however, were the calls, demands even, that I read and listened to from friends, acquaintances and in the media in Ireland, the UK and in the US, that the mainstream press and television had not just the right but the duty to reprint or broadcast the Charlie Hebdofront cover. Others rushed out to buy the new edition of Charlie, apparently having taken the “je suis Charlie” meme literally: we must all go out of our way to offend a minority in our society, in the name of “free speech”. Some seem to believe that it is important to stick it in the eye to “Muslims” by profaning what they hold sacred, since it was “Muslims” who had brought terror to the streets of Europe and attempted to cow fearless, if crude, champions of free speech. The cartoonists died for “poking a bit of fun” at Islam; we, as secular Europeans, the logic goes, need to teach Muslims how to take a joke and not to go out killing people as a result.
Which brings us in a very roundabout fashion back to Panti, and her “Rousing Call”. It is an elegant, heart-felt and powerful exposition of what it feels like to feel oppressed: the casual comment overheard; the self-conscious checking of your dress and behavior; the outright hostility directed at you; the cumulative toll of walking, talking, and living in an environment in which you are made to feel, intentionally or not, unwelcome or an outsider. And most powerfully of all, Rory O'Neill eviscerated those in the majority (in that case heterosexuals) who felt they had the power to dictate to the minority what does and does not feel oppressive.
The line - “It was just a bit of fun” has been heard by all those who have at some point been the victims of bullying, or who have been singled out and subjected to ridicule, because of who they are, what they do, or what they believe. Of course, in a free country (though perhaps not Ireland – see s.36 of the Defamation Act 2009) you do not have the right not to get offended – such is the nature of free speech. But we must ask ourselves what sort of environment is created by intentionally profaning what others hold sacred?
Have the French media, who almost all reproduced this week's Charlie Hebdo front page, furthered the cause of “republican unity”, or have they fostered the feeling of oppression among France's Muslims? Would Air France, really, have distributed a front page showing Jesus sodomizing God, while in turn having the Holy Spirit hanging out of his behind (as a Charlie Hebdo front cover once did)? Did Air France buttress France's national values by handing out 20,000 copies of Charlie Hebdo onboard, or did it abrogate to itself the authority to tell its Muslim customers what they should or should not find offensive?
Is it consistent to be a supporter of gay rights, a cheerleader for Panti Bliss's campaign against anti-gay bigotry, and to have the Charlie Hebdo front cover as your Facebook photo? You might think that getting upset over a cartoon is silly, but it is neither your place nor mine to tell Muslims what they should or should not believe. Those who support gay rights but believe that Muslims are “fair game” because they disagree with Muslim beliefs (including on homosexuality) are being hypocritical. In a free society we can challenge those beliefs, but simply going out of our way to offend is going to cause them to become more entrenched; F U is not a compelling argument.
Satire is a powerful tool, and it can be a great force for change when brandished against the powerful and mighty, such as the Roman Catholic Church.
It is easy to stand up for the free speech of those we agree with; the real test comes when we don't. Of course Charlie had the right to publish the cover it did, but we are not all Charlie, nor should we aspire to be.