#JeSuisCharlie (And Some Tangents About Language, The Nature of Offense and the Unintended Consequences of Trigger Warnings)

He Drew First - David Pope

Trigger Warning: This essay contains ideas you might not agree with.

You’ve probably heard about the terrorist criminal attack today in Paris that targeted journalists and cartoonists with a satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo.

Instead of trying to write an essay to capture my thoughts (since The Onion did a pretty good job on that front already), I’ll do one of my patented rambling, disjointed, slightly incoherent “random thoughts” posts.  (Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

  • My first thoughts are about religious extremism.  In my gentler moments, I’ve opined that people who are religious aren’t stupid idiots like many atheists contend; the religious simply allow themselves to have a *very* big blind spot about the evidence that god doesn’t exist and/or the real reasons religion appeals to them. I even gave a name to my theory – “The 5 C’s of Religious Belief: Conformity, Comfort, Community, Convenience, and Comprehension“.
  • Most of the time I try to think of people who are religious as simply those who choose to have a different hobby than I do – no different than being a gamer or collecting stamps or whatever.  You put a lot of thought and time into it, there are guidebooks, local clubs you can join, you can spend too much money on it, you can travel for it, you think it’s the greatest thing ever and try to convert your friends to your hobby, etc.  (Mostly) harmless.  But most extremists start out as moderates.  And when religion crosses over into pre-meditated murder like it does today, all bets are off.  Religious people will say “Well, that’s not the religion I believe in” but the thing is – you can’t pick and choose and today was very clearly about religion.
  • (I’m re-thinking that last comment – if something I strongly believed in with almost religious fervour – eg. the Calgary Flames – got corrupted, say, by doing a trade with the Edmonton Oilers for Taylor Hall – would I say “That’s not the Calgary Flames I believe in?” or would I hate being associated with that trade just because I’m one of millions of Flames fans around the world?  Yeah, probably.  Okay, point withdrawn!) 😉
  • This whole thing arose because there are interpretations of Islam that the Prophet (Profit?) Mohammed can’t be depicted in any [edit: visual] form.  Over the years, various writers, artists and satirists – from Salman Rushdie (the most aptly named writer of all time “Rush Die”) to the staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine – have pushed back with words and images, usually from a point of view of freedom of expression trumping all other beliefs/rights.
  • Here’s Salman Rushdie on today’s events:

    Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’. Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”

  • No surprise which side of this argument I’m on – 100% with the free speech folks here and always.
  • I also believe that no one and nothing should be a special snowflake, exempt from even the possibility of being offended.  Either you offend no one or you offend everyone equally.  Since the first is impossible, the second is the only other option.  (I don’t mean you set out to offend everyone but that nothing should be off-limits for speech/jokes/satire/observations/debate/criticism – even if it means whatever is being spoken about/joked/satirized/observed/debated/criticized might get offended.)
  • As I read somewhere, if your idea can’t stand up to criticism and ridicule, it’s not a very good idea to begin with.
  • Let’s not even get into the arguments about how so many supposedly religious people (including the attackers) believe their god is the one true god and all-powerful yet feel the need to take “justice” into their own hands.
  • Even if you believe in free speech above all other values, it’s good to see lots of leftie/free speech/librarian types saying variations of “Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should – especially if you know it will offend someone.”  (Calgary Freedom to Read Week co-founder and poet, Bob Stallworthy, often said exactly that.)
  • I agree with that to a point but my big issue is that this gives people an easy out – “Well, I’m offended!” automatically becomes a trump card that shuts down any sort of discussion, civil, heated or otherwise.   If you’re religious and I’m not, how is that fair if you get to be “offended” by every point I make?  And who gets to decide what’s offensive in the first place?  It also starts a slippery slope of making judgments about what is offensive and what is not.
  • This strange (to me) view that you should never offend anyone was one of my (minor) pet peeves when I was involved in the Ryan Meili campaign.  I remember one time when a team member used the term “BananaCrazyPants” in one of our private forums to describe the big number of members we’d signed up in the previous month.  I thought that was a cute phrase and immediately re-used it in a tweet on the same subject.  That led to me being contacted by another team member worried that using the word “crazy” could be considered offensive to people dealing with mental health issues – even though my use of the word in no way had any relation to human beings other than the fact that our team had signed up a shit ton of them (er, a phrase which I’m sure is offensive to people with assholes.)  I even went so far as to contact one person I knew who was fairly public about some of her struggles with mental health issues and got a reply: “Nah, I wasn’t offended.  I knew what you meant.”
  • People who try to banish words from language completely or even tell others how they can and can’t use language are one of my big pet peeves.
  • People who get offended on behalf of other people is another of my pet peeves.
  • People who are for free speech but only to a point are one of my pet peeves.  (How many media outlets will run a blurred image of a Charlie Hebdo cartoon tomorrow out of “sensitivity” to Muslims?  Fuck that if that’s your interpretation of “free speech”.     (PS – they’re not being “sensitive” to Muslims when they do this – they’re scared shitless they’ll be the next place targeted.)
  • As with #bananacrazypants, something similar happened with my “Cash Cow: User Fees in Alberta Public Libraries” essay.  My original title was (purposely) provocative: “Like Tits on a Bull: User Fees in Alberta Public Libraries”.  Even though my use of the word “tits” had nothing to do with human female anatomy and instead, was part of a well-known colloquial expression, a number of which formed a recurring motif in the paper’s sub-heads. But again, although I’m not a huge fan of purposely offending people either for the most part, I’m also very opposed to people who are so sensitive that a single word – no matter the context – is banished.
  • I could play this game all day – many blog posts/articles/books/college syllabi now have “trigger warnings”.  My understanding is that this started to assist people who had been victims of sexual violence but has spread to all sorts of other “triggers” for pretty much anything you can think of that may disturb someone – from racism to foul language to war to suicide to discussions of people’s weight. To me, there are a number of problems with trigger warnings – someone has to pick and choose what may or may not offend another person, it sends a message that certain things are more troubling than others or that there’s a hierarchy of trauma, it undermines scholarly study and research, and contradictory to their intended goal, trigger warnings can actually reinforce a notion of “otherness” in those who the trigger warnings are meant to protect as well as insinuating that certain people are inherently fragile and in need of protection.
  • A lot of the pushback against Charlie Hebdo evokes victim-blaming (“This wouldn’t have happened if they’d only published better/nicer/cleverer cartoons”) and I find it an interesting dichotomy that many of the posts I’ve seen from what I’m thinking of as the “be nice/be kind” side of this debate come from people who strongly oppose victim blaming in other areas of our day-to-day lives (although I’m probably getting that wrong too!) 😉
  • Some feel Charlie Hebdo satire wasn’t “good” or was “racist/bad/evil/too provocative” (as if that somehow disqualifies their free speech rights) but others capture exactly why the magazine is so important.
  • Getting back to the topic at hand, the old line about never picking fights with people who buy their ink by the gallon seems in full force.  Media outlets around the world and especially cartoonists have already responded in ways that negate any effect of the attacks and will actually strengthen people’s commitment to democracy and free speech.  Most people are saying the goal of this attack was to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment in the west to strengthen extremism in the Middle East based on how the west responds.  But I highly doubt this will end up in some WWIII Biblical apocalypse like the terrorists (and yes, some extremists on our side of the globe) want.
  • As always, MetaFilter has a good thread with lots of interesting comments and insights around today’s events.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 2

  1. From Head Tale - Some Resonant, Relevant Quotes on Free Speech and the Charlie Hebdo Massacre From The #MetaFilter Thread on 11 Jan 2015 at 10:30 pm

    […] I wrote about the Charlie Hebdo massacre in a rather rambling manner the other […]

  2. From Head Tale - Scenes From A Censorship Culture on 11 Sep 2016 at 9:45 am

    […] there’s no guarantee of this.  I’ve already related on this blog the story of how I used the word “bananapantscrazy” to describe our membership sales during the second Ryan Meili SK NDP Leadership campaign.  I had […]

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