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Charlie Hebdo was brave because it knew fear

The massacre in Paris is consecrated every time good people use the word ‘but’ and refer to limits on the freedom of expression, writes Manu Joseph.

columns Updated: Jan 19, 2015 01:27 IST
Manu Joseph,charlie hebdo massacre,freedom of expression

We must talk about happy things. Thank you for not killing. The right of an artiste to offend naturally implies that there would be days when you might be offended. The question is, having taken offence what would you proceed to do? You might publicly abuse and defame a writer, say things about his family, conduct whisper campaigns to take away his credibility, nudge others to bring financial and professional ruin upon him, insert yourself in committees to deliver some sort of revenge, but you do not kill, which is indeed very noble of you. Do you get enough recognition for your decency, for your liberal restraint? Or, is it that you wish to kill but do not know how? Murder is messy, difficult perhaps, risky certainly.

Is physical violence the only crime that is committed against free speech? No, but that alone is regarded as out of proportion to the offence. An offending artiste may be insulted and isolated, sometimes by the very people who claim to adore free speech, but there is consensus among the sane that he does not deserve to be murdered.

It is time, though, to accept that the massacre in Paris early this month was a success. The crime is consecrated every time good people use the word ‘but’, and follow it with an argument. For example: ‘The murder of cartoonists is horrific, but there are limits to freedom of expression.’ This is in the same family of thought as, ‘What happened to Muslims in Gujarat is horrific, but how long must Hindus suffer silently’. And, ‘Rape is horrific, but girls should dress decently’. The word ‘but’ probably has an equivalent in every human language because it lends morality to an argument, and a smooth transition from nominal sympathy to accusation.

The Pope, who represents an organisation that has slaughtered more people in its history than any other religious outfit, said that the Paris murders were horrific, but, but, but, “If my good friend Dr Gasparri (who was standing near him on the papal aircraft) says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

If a mullah or Narendra Modi had said the same thing it might have been construed as a veiled physical threat, and it might have been too, but this Pope is deemed progressive, he even conceded Big Bang and evolution made sense.

There is an unspoken argument in his line of thought. On the platform that artistes occupy, from where they offend, they are very powerful. On that plane, the offended have no recourse to deliver an effective response. They cannot draw cartoons making fun of cartoonists — that would be lame, even endearing to the rogue cartoonists. Street protests holding candles, too, would not offend cartoonists. So the offended have to and will find other means. They will punch, the Pope says.

There is another argument, which is certainly not a papal line of thought but implied in a gracious point of view that even many atheists hold – that brutal ridicule of any religion is crass. Why is that so? Is it because they feel belief is a mental handicap, and making fun of the handicapped is crass? But then what is more offensive — respecting the believers as intelligent and making fun of their gods, or treating believers as mentally ill and not making fun of their delusions?

A man burns posters, featuring France's President Francois Hollande. (Reuters Photo)

Also, there is now substantial criticism of Charlie Hebdo for failing an apparent test for what constitutes high satire. Good satire, the argument goes, must take on the powerful, not regular people. This assumes that believers, who constitute most of humanity, are the weak. It is a daft assumption. Humanity has demonstrated many times that nothing on earth is more powerful and terrifying than the fellowship of believers. In fact, the powerful, including violent dictators, are merely effigies breathed into life by the collective imagination of the masses. A measure of a person’s power is how many people he derives it from. Manmohan Singh was weak because he derived his power from one person; Modi is strong because he derives his from millions.

Charlie Hebdo did ridicule the most powerful people of Europe and their private parts, too. It overreached when it attempted to take on something that was far deadlier than mere politicians. Charlie Hebdo has been attacked before, threatened often. Charlie Hebdo was brave because it knew fear.

You don’t have to watch people in a mall, but somehow that might help to realise that most people do not care about free speech because they don’t have the time to think about what it means. Most writers, cartoonists and other forms of artistes, too, do not care about it because they are gentle or good-natured or easily frightened. Only a small portion of their lot require this beautiful freedom. This month, a lot of writers, most of whom are incapable of humour (they may not know that though), have tried to analyse satire. They made it look as though everyone has the option of indulging in it and that most people choose decency over satire. That misses the fundamental nature of satire — it is a form of delinquency. And only the delinquents understand the inescapable, and at times fatal, pull of delinquency.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel

The Illicit Happiness of Other People

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 19, 2015 00:32 IST