The phenomenon of the grotesque

Spearhead Analysis – 16.01.2015

By Enum Naseer
Senior Research Analyst,
Spearhead Research

Charlie Manif

It is saddening to acknowledge the possibility that the evolution of free speech in the contemporary world might now be divided into pre and post Charlie Hebdo periods. Even more dangerous is the fact that what is seen as an irreducible value in today’s modern world might is being symbolized by a small satirical publication’s tasteless attempt to take a jab at an already marginalized diaspora. If one is to go by current trends, Charlie Hebdo’s reckless apathy towards the sensibilities of 10% of France’s population and misplaced sense of bravado will in the future be passed off as a realization of France’s most deeply held values—the right to blaspheme supersedes the sanctity of a religious dogma.

There is a lot of uproar in the world today surrounding the publication of the offensive caricatures that dissolve the individual identities of Muslims into a larger or ‘collective’ whole to reinforce a paranoid opinion about the entire community in a post-9/11 world. Yet, it is equally pertinent to point out that much of the violence and chaos today ostensibly owes itself to the propagation of a venomous interpretation of a paradigm that reduces the ideology of Islam to a monstrous caricature. Simplistic analyses and crude stereotyping might offend the sensibilities of nearly 2 billion of the world’s population but are somewhat inevitable in wake of the current wave of extremism. This is not to legitimize the callous branding of a people with fairly diverse demographic and psychographic markers—an action which does little besides emboldening the pervasive, toxic narrative used by militant outfits vying to rise to global prominence and find a place in the power structure. The negativity, the resentment, the sense of being ‘othered’ and wronged as a people whether knowingly or unknowingly reinforced, feeds on itself and provides the perfect ecological environment for a violent, misled minority within the Muslim world to expand its clout.

In a democratic dispensation, it makes sense for freedom of speech to be strongly supported as a fundamental right that protects those with dissenting views from suppression by the majority. Freedom of speech is central to individual liberation but it is desirable that civility and human decency should serve as beacons of light when guiding one’s conduct in a social setting. Rather than pressing for censor, the need to cultivate compassion should be emphasized upon. Individual liberties allowed under the right to free speech must in realistic terms be taken with a pinch of salt. In the words of James Madison: “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press. It … is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits”.

Whether what Charlie Hebdo publishes even qualifies as real satire or not is being heavily debated even in the liberal, progressive west. The ‘equal-opportunity offender’ does not add anything of substance to the dialogue on the social challenges of the current times nor does it educate the electorate on the ills of intolerance—in fact, in a world where publishing such content actually leads to increased polarization, such thoughtlessness makes it more difficult for both sides to overcome a burgeoning trust deficit. Perhaps, there is a need to understand the difference between satire that actually seeks to engage the public for social and political betterment and pseudo-satire that lacks a meaningful purpose but might hold appeal for some segments of society.

Nothing legitimizes the barbarous act of terrorism which resulted in the loss of human lives: it is most regrettable and should be condemned. The Pope has gone far enough to say that it is “an absurdity to kill in the name of God” adding that freedom of speech is both a duty and a right that should be exercised responsibly by not attacking anyone’s belief system. Yet, it goes without saying that in order for the people of the world today to empathize with the victims of the attack, they need not jump on the #JeSuisCharlie bandwagon.  Ideally, the publication should have been ignored: a magazine which under normal circumstances had a circulation of 60,000 copies printed about 1 million copies on Thursday! It is possible that many people are confusing the right to free speech with the justness of the magazine’s work; the very proponents of free speech now seem bent on forcing the world to put Charlie Hebdo on a high pedestal—a growing number even want the Muslim community as a whole to shoulder the burden of undeserved guilt on part of those subscribing to the same faith but very different from them. Not only is this expectation absurd, it is damaging to the very idea of free speech and thought—it makes a mockery of the very values that the West is taking a stand for today. In this seemingly unending and unfortunate confrontation between Islam and the West, both sides are becoming grotesque parodies of themselves.