I Am Not Charlie: Further Thoughts

Simpsons-Hebdo-I-Am-Joe-Camel_v24b_525x379Weighing in on Maggie Simpson’s flag-waving for Charlie Hebdo. Do Maggs and Charlie really go together like vanilla ice cream & apple pie? Can Richard Engel, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Hanna-Barbera offer any insights?

This post was originally titled “Using Children To Market Toxic Products Is Wrong,” which seemed to confuse people. I was making the rhetorical point that Charlie Hebdo (the magazine) can be rather carcinogenic.

I sometimes feel like I lose people in a long post which ties together many themes. Understanding a thing by means of another thing is what thinking people do, but it does take time. To encourage readers to take that time, let me provide a brief map of where we’re headed:

  • Populism has its limitations; the majority is often wrong.
  • Combining the Maggie Simpson and I Am Charlie icons is something we should examine for signs of propaganda.
  • Juxtaposing Maggie Simpson with an actual Charlie Hebdo cover may reveal a mismatch.
  • To build a more civil society, we need to respect each other’s sensitivities and not intentionally desecrate each other’s images.
  • We can enjoy robust freedom of speech without giving license to hate speech.
  • Richard Engel made a useful comment about how the I Am Charlie phenom was perceived in the Middle East.
  • I portray Charlie Brown & Snoopy as serene I-Am-Charlie refuseniks who’ve put together the “puzzle pieces” and arrived at religious tolerance.
  • The Charlie Hebdo controversy occurs against the backdrop of a French law banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves (hijab) in some places.
  • The French are trying to create social cohesion by suppressing religion and imposing drab, secular sameness. I tie this in with The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.
  • Religious freedom means the freedom to live life integrally, with all its colours and complexities on display. Suppression can lead to an anti-assimilation backlash.
  • France is still wavering between a number of polar opposites such as colonialism vs. multiculturalism.
  • What would it look like if Maggie Simpson waved a flag demanding the right to wear hijab?
  • French policemen wear uniforms, and so do Catholic nuns like Thérèse of Lisieux.
  • True égalité means not discriminating against a component of the uniform as a proxy for discriminating against the faith.
  • Joe Camel and the Flintstones are cartoon characters previously used to market toxic products (cigarettes).

So after the map comes the languid prose version…

I feel bad when I can’t side with the majority on an issue. Then I hearken back to my college days and a professor who used to “prove” that the majority is always wrong. He would pose a difficult question in music theory, then offer up some multiple choice answers we could vote on. Sure enough, the majority usually voted for an answer that was tempting but wrong!

I feel worse when I notice that being wrong often carries with it a certain smug satisfaction. Some people pride themselves on having the right clothes, the right attitudes, being in the right profession, etc. This can lead to arrogance, hubris, and loss of independent thinking — the latter sometimes exacerbated by social networking sites where people can crowdsource their opinions. No soul-searching required or points deducted for being wrong.

Media consolidation has a similar effect, with everyone running minor variations on the same story, same gloss. Isn’t Maggie Simpson cute? Isn’t it heart-warming and cool that she’s for Charlie Hebdo? Well, maybe…

In writing about the persecution of Socrates and related topics, I’ve tried to point out that excessive populism does have its pitfalls: Popular opinions are often arrived at without scrupulosity; they’re easily bought, sold, and otherwise manipulated.

What should we make of the use of Maggie Simpson to market a magazine that can be crude, tasteless, and vulgar? In case you missed it, on January 11 The Simpsons concluded with baby Maggie holding up a flag sporting the now iconic “Je Suis Charlie” slogan. Okay, to be fair, maybe this wasn’t intended to market the magazine, just express support for the cartoonists who were killed in a brutal terrorist attack, or for free speech generally.

Still, words have meanings. As I discussed in “I Am Not Charlie,” there’s been a countermovement of people who felt horrible about the attack, but also felt like total identification with Charlie Hebdo was too simplistic a response, given that the magazine has cut its eye teeth on religious and ethnic vilification.

Maggie Simpson is an icon and so is Charlie Hebdo. When icons are combined, the result can be either thought-provoking or propagandistic. Since the mainstream media have mostly made purring noises reflecting deep somnolence, I presume the result here is propagandistic. No one’s questioning it, but do Maggs and Charlie really go together like vanilla ice cream & apple pie? Does the combined concoction pass the “Halal test,” or is it far from kosher?

My way of exploring the contradictions was to take the unaltered Simpsons graphic and juxtapose it with the unaltered Charlie Hebdo cover from Dec-31-2013. (I apologize to anyone who may find that cover offensive.)

Simpsons-plus-Charlie-Hebdo-Cover_v1bIf Maggie Simpson represents innocence, trust, and naïveté, does she stand for millions of people who heard that “Je Suis Charlie” had gone viral, and couldn’t wait to jump on the bandwagon? I respect anyone who, after careful investigation, decided to throw their total support to Charlie Hebdo. It’s harder to respect people who couldn’t be bothered finding out exactly what they were supporting: a publication which is often toxic, going out of its way to inflame hatred.

Every time someone complains about ill-treatment of minorities justified under an umbrella claim of free speech, the old chestnut is dragged out that vulgarity and hatred are “the price we pay” for free speech. But as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there are numerous dissenters, including law professors, sociologists, and legislators who believe that a society can enjoy robust freedom of speech without giving license to hate speech.

Populism often means choosing between Answer A and Answer B when neither answer reflects the subtleties and complexities of the real world. I’m 100% against terrorism, but that doesn’t mean I have to be for Charlie Hebdo. I’m 100% for free speech, but that doesn’t mean I have to condone its excesses. In a holistic world view, free speech is not separate from the ways it’s used or abused.

There’s a difference between propaganda and analysis. In analysis, one searches honestly for causation. Analysing the attack on Charlie Hebdo, I would say it was unwarranted, unjustified, but not unprovoked. This is the same essential point Pope Francis was making: People shouldn’t respond to insults with violence, but unfortunately, it’s human nature to do so. Therefore, to build a more civil society, we need to respect each other’s sensitivities and not intentionally desecrate each other’s images.

Many human problems can be solved through insight. Already the “dreamers of peace” have had the insight that we are all brothers and sisters, all children of the same God. Each religion has something good to offer. But for this insight to spread throughout the world and create positive change takes time. In the interim, we need to keep from killing each other. Freedom of speech needs to be balanced with wisdom and compassion.

It helps to look at an issue through someone else’s eyes, or at least get the opinion of someone who has done so. Hardball with Chris Matthews for Jan-19-2015 included this comment from Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent:

ISIS has carried out many attacks, for example over the last year, and a lot of them have not been popular in the Islamic world. People thought that ISIS beheading journalists was disgusting, they thought it was vulgar and cruel. But when the militants attacked Charlie Hebdo, for many people in the region it seemed… legitimate would be an overstatement, but understandable would not be an overstatement.

And then, when millions of people around the world rallied and said “I am Charlie,” that was interpreted in the Muslim world to say “I am Charlie, I am with those who continue to insult and revel in the fact that they are insulting the Muslim prophet Muhammad.” And that set a lot of people off here. When they saw millions of people in Paris, and they saw millions of people around the world — including The Oscars — wearing these “I am Charlie” buttons and saying it at every opportunity they could, people here thought: “Well, you’re sticking up for a magazine that continues to insult Islam.”

And we’ve now seen, oh since Friday, anti-Charlie Hebdo protests and anti-those-who-supported Charlie Hebdo demonstrations in 10 countries in the Middle East.

— Richard Engel, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Jan-19-2015

One conclusion to be drawn is that the Islamic extremist message gains traction from the free speech extremist message, and vice versa. The reasonable middle becomes harder and harder to locate. In this polarized environment, “I Am Not Charlie” is as easily misunderstood as “I Am Charlie.” My own efforts at disambiguation included portraying Charlie Brown & Snoopy as serene I-Am-Charlie refuseniks:

The latest I Am Charlie refuseniks: Charlie Brown & Snoopy

The latest I Am Charlie refuseniks: Charlie Brown & Snoopy

They sleep well because they’ve put together the “puzzle pieces” and arrived at religious tolerance, where everyone’s included. Yet, the problems in France are complex, as Alexander Stille explains in this New Yorker article. The controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo does not occur in a vacuum, but rather against a backdrop which is partly formed by the French law banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in some places. See the article “Islamic headscarf debate rekindled in France” on BBC.com.

I am neither French, nor Muslim, nor female, but I know of no one who favours religious tolerance who thinks the French ban on headscarves is enlightened social policy. Rather, it reflects certain unfortunate trends in European thinking about religion. Many Europeans seem to think that all human problems will be solved through science and politics alone, and that religious faith is something shameful and archaic to be hidden away. It only divides people, and should be forcibly banished from the public sphere. Thus banished, it can have little influence, and that (according to ardent secularists) is how it should be.

If a Muslim woman wears a headscarf — which for her may be both a necessity and a joy — she’s being needlessly “in your face” about her religion. Merely seeing an article of clothing which denotes religious faith would be offensive to many people in the public sphere and breed divisiveness. So goes the argument, but as one Muslim woman interviewed by the French news agency AFP responded: “Why does [the headscarf] bother people? It’s neither a demand nor a provocation.”

Does enforced sameness always lead to beneficial forms of social cohesion? Ursula K. Le Guin tackled this question in her 1971 sci-fi novel The Lathe of Heaven. There, the main character George Orr has the power to change reality with his dreams. An ambitious psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, tries to harness and channel this ability by telling Orr to solve various world problems. When Haber directs Orr to end racism, to “dream me a world in which there is no colour problem,” the result is a dull, drab world where everyone’s skin is ashen grey. Haber approves of this solution, but the reader (or viewer of the PBS production) does not:

Like this, the French “solution” to the problem of religious conflict is to turn everything a dull, secular grey, throwing out the baby Jesus (and the baby Krishna) with the vichyssoise. According to Thomas S. Kidd, senior fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University:

When it comes to dealing with religious minorities, the revolutionary republic born out of a commitment to “liberty, equality, and fraternity” has dropped those values for one principle alone: rigid secularism. … French officials have moved well beyond maintaining state neutrality in religion to the outrageous stance that French public space itself must become utterly secular.

— Thomas S. Kidd, USA Today article

Kidd’s statement is particularly striking since one reason people create intentional spiritual communities is to open up a sacred space where spiritual experiences become possible (because there is support for them). As the public space becomes increasingly hostile (because it has been secularized to an unnatural degree), sacred spaces become rare and precious.

Yet, spirituality is a natural part of life. Although it’s often convenient and appropriate to distinguish between the secular sphere and the religious sphere, the boundaries between them should be fluid, like the shoreline and the sea. Religious freedom means the freedom to live life integrally and not be forced to doff one’s hijab, yarmulke, or sari for fear of being arrested, ticketed, or refused entrance to a public facility.

An enlightened view of religion is that whilst not everyone is religious or spiritual, those who are contribute much to the beauty, wisdom, and colour of the world we live in, and also have a role to play in finding solutions to society’s problems. If this view is foreign to you, it could be because you never had a course in comparative religion, or never read a good textbook on the subject. (I recommend the Living Religions series by Mary Pat Fisher.)

While I can’t claim to speak for everyone who favours religious tolerance, few such people believe that suppression of religion is the answer to conflict over religion. If, after a prior period of colonialism, you welcome Muslims into your nation or community, you should recognize that Muslim women often come equipped with colourful headscarves. If you try and take away their headscarves, they’ll be understandably upset and offended. They’ll feel like they’re being shamed or subjected to forced assimilation into secular beliefs. This will produce a strong anti-assimilation backlash, as is indeed the case in France.

As I see it, France is still wavering between a number of polar opposites: between colonialism and multiculturalism; between liberty as a first principle and conformism as a first principle; between respect for individual human rights, and the creation of a state in which industrial, economic, political, and scientific interests swallow or dominate the rights of the individual to freely choose a religion and to live peaceably by its dictates.

I hope that France chooses the path of multiculturalism, liberty, and respect for individual human rights, including the right to religious choice, religious expression, religious identity, and religious garb.


Maggie Simpson says “I Want My Hijab!” (Photoshopped)

As a footnote I would observe that French policemen wear uniforms which are part of their identity, their choice to be policemen:

French security forces protect the Republic from pint-sized scooter rider

Protecting the Republic from a pint-sized scooter rider

To some people, military uniforms might signify authoritarianism, but everything is in the mind of the beholder. Social control professions typically come with uniforms, and so does the decision to become a Catholic nun:

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

True égalité means not discriminating against a component of the uniform as a proxy for discriminating against the faith. (Literalists take note: This comparison is meant to be thought-provoking. I do not claim exact equivalence between French policemen, Catholic nuns, and Muslim women.)

As for my notion that children and toxic products like hate speech don’t make a good mix, I rely in part on the history of cartoon characters used to market cigarettes to young smokers. This was once accepted practice in America, but was later banned — though Joe Camel (a.k.a. “Pusher Joe”) hung around until 1997 courtesy the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company:

Joe Camel

Joe Camel a.k.a. “Pusher Joe”

There was likewise a period when the Flintstones cartoon characters were cigarette pushers. For a brief retrospective on the Flintstones and marketing, see “Yabba Dabba Cough!” in Advertising Age.

Measuring the toxicity of a publication like Charlie Hebdo is a subjective matter, but I for one think Maggie Simpson should be more careful who she endorses.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

See also: “In solidarity with the French people and all people”

4 comments on “I Am Not Charlie: Further Thoughts

  1. Pingback: Maggie Simpson Says “I Want My Hijab!” | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 4 | Ethics and Spirituality

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  4. Pingback: Manchester Concert Explosion – Live Coverage on Sky News | Ethics and Spirituality

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