This speech was held by Mr. Gérard Biard, editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, at "Øverland-foredraget" 21 January 2023. Arranged by Human-Etisk Forbund (The Norwegian Humanist Association)
- See "Øverland-foredraget 2023" in its entirety, including Gérard Biards lecture (starts at 07:30)
- Read more about the "Øverland-foredrag" here.
It is common knowledge that the French are hopeless chauvinists. So you won’t be surprised if I begin this speech with something typically French. So typical that there is no equivalent English word, nor a Norwegian one, I guess. Therefore, allow me to use the French word: laïcité. It’s generally translated by « secularism », which is a mistake. Secularism is about how religion deals with societies. Laïcité is about how societies, and states, deal with religion. As you see, words are important. That’s the reason why I’d like to clear up some points, in order to be sure that we are all talking about the same thing. We have to agree about the meaning of three words: faith, worship and religion. Faith is strictly intimate. That’s what each believer has in his own heart and that doesn’t concern the state or other citizens. Worship is the way believers express their faith. When this expression is made in a public space, it concerns the state. Religion is the political and social organisation of faith and worship. It always concerns the state, because it’s all about politics.
Now let’s talk about democracy. Democracy is definitely not the most perfect political system ever, but it has a precious advantage over the other ones: it knows that it can be improved. And, generally, it works to improve itself. Democracy starts on the basis that any law can be submitted to debate, modification, opposition and even revocation. Because democracy knows that every society must evolve in order to progress. Divine laws, on the contrary, proclaim themselves immutable, engraved forever in stone. No criticism, no questioning allowed. God exists and He has spoken. Period.
For the divine laws, society is static. Three and a half centuries passed between Galileo's trial and his rehabilitation by the Catholic Church. It took three and a half centuries for the Vatican to admit that the Earth is not flat and does revolve around the Sun... Religious dogmas are therefore incompatible with democracy. It’s obvious if we look at what’s happening each day in many countries whose laws are based on divine dogmas. No state basing its authority on religious dogmas escapes the totalitarian temptation. If anyone claims to submit society to laws and rules that draw their legitimacy from a "supreme being", any hope of democracy and equality is illusory. And every form of terror and oppression is possible. Religion has always been the best alibi for purging a state of its "impures", which is the ecumenical name for opponents.
God cannot be allowed to enter the political arena, for he is an unstoppable tyrant. A dictator eventually dies, a junta can be deposed. It is very complicated to depose God; those who believe in him will continue to believe, no matter what. It is therefore indispensable that he remains confined to the intimate conviction of believers. It is unacceptable that he crosses the outer doors of churches, mosques, synagogues, ashrams, pagodas and other temples.
This is precisely what laïcité protects against. And it also protects believers of all kinds, who are always in danger when a religion holds the reins of political power or seeks to seize them.
Laïcité is not, as many people think, a tool for inter-religious dialogue. It’s just a way to define what kind of society we want to live in. It is a political principle which, in France, is inscribed in the first article of our Constitution, and which is governed by a law voted in 1905. Article two of this law states the essential in one short, clear sentence: "The State does not recognize, salute or subsidize any religious sect". The State does not recognize any religion. Religious neutrality in France is not a "benevolent" neutrality which, like the Anglo-Saxon concept of the separation of religion and state, recognizes all religions. It is a neutrality that can almost be described as "atheistic", which recognizes none. The Republic does not believe in God. It considers he’s just an idea among others.
Laïcité is not about freedom of religion, it’s about freedom of conscience, which is the right to believe or not believe. Of course it includes freedom of religion, but this freedom is submitted to the acceptance of other opinions, faith-based ones just as faithless ones. Because freedom of conscience implies that faith is just one opinion among others.
Moreover, the law of 1905 is a law of public order. It protects faith which, like atheism, is part of the freedom of conscience, and it guarantees the free exercise of worship as long as it is done in respect of public order and general interest. As for other religious expressions, whether they are societal, economic or political, it frames them, regulates them, even prohibits them, through the provisions of chapter V entitled "Police of Worship". In France, the minister in charge of religions is the Minister of the Interior, and it’s not by chance. I must remind you that this law was voted after a long and violent struggle between two political powers, the civil political power and the religious political power. This law has its roots in the Enlightenment of 1789, and was voted to contain a religious power that wanted to be hegemonic. It was the state that was defending itself against religion, not the other way around.
While we are on the subject of religion and freedom of conscience, I invite you to ask yourselves: do we still have the right not to believe in God? Try a simple experiment. Affirm your faith in anything, say that you believe in the Immaculate Conception, in the predictions of Nostradamus, in the Klingons living on planet Vulcan, in the immortality of Elon Musk, whatever you want. You will be regarded with benevolence and interest. On the other hand, try to say that you do not believe in any divinity and that, according to you, God is only a postulate far from being verified, a phantasmatic construction intended, for some, to give meaning to their life and, for others, to exercise a very earthly and very exclusive power. You will be looked at as if you had just blown your nose in the cassock of a priest.
Religion has once again become an exact science. The term “religious fact” is now commonly used, as if the existence of God were a proven fact , end of discussion. Anyone who dares to contest this existence is seen as boorish and intolerant.
We have known since Darwin that Man was not shaped in clay by a god-like craftsman. We have known since Edwin Hubbles and the evidence of the Big Bang that the Universe was not created in seven days, but that it was formed over billions of years. We are advancing more and more in the knowledge of life; each day brings us additional proof that reason and scientific research are the surest answers to the unknown, but we act as if we were still cavemen trying to explain what we do not know or what frightens us by a superior and irrational force.
What a short memory we have. Religion, which let me remind you is nothing more than the organization of faith for the purpose of social and political control, has always been more of a problem than a solution. Every hour all over the planet men and women are butchered, tortured, terrorized, and imprisoned in the name of religions. If faith raises mountains, they are mountains of corpses.
Despite that, the usual rhetoric is that religions, all religions, without exception, are Love. For they embody the most beautiful and purest of human beings. Above all, they embody the genius of God, who created man to adore him and woman to serve meals and give birth to children – preferably boys. Christianity is goodness, Islam is peace, Judaism is wisdom, Buddhism is wholeness, and the few hundred deities who share Hinduism as roommates make the world go round. It is therefore inconceivable that any religion could be responsible, in any way, for any act of violence whatsoever. This explains why when someone kills, massacres, slits throats, hangs, rapes or tortures in His holy name, you will always find innumerable scholars to explain that the cause of so much evil is necessarily elsewhere.
In the case of Islam, a religion that produces its share of jihadists and other soldiers of God, where people risk death if they utter the name of Mohammed incorrectly, where zealous spreaders of the good word blow themselves up in the midst of civilian crowds, where all these mass murders are duly planned, orchestrated and claimed by movements that proclaim themselves "Islamists", the trend is even more pronounced. Yet as soon as an attack is committed, the ritual formula comes: "It has nothing to do with Islam".
Really, is that so? But it was an Islamic leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who in 1989 called on all Muslims worldwide to execute Salman Rushdie. The attack on Charlie Hebdo happened because we published cartoons mocking a supposed prophet, and thus violated a religious diktat. The November 13 attacks in Paris were claimed by the Islamic State, not the Atheistic State. The attacks in London, Madrid, Brussels, Tunis, New York, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Berlin, and the countless massacres in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria – the list is endless – were committed in the name of God.
Of course, Islam does not have a monopoly on fanaticism and violence. Catholicism held the pole position throughout history and some of its followers are still working hard to regain it. Hinduism, driven by nationalist politicians, is increasingly dreaming of Muslim pogroms. The so-called cool Buddhism loses its zenitude when it meets a Rohingya. But it turns out that today it is primarily Islam that is leading a political conquest, wherever it is in a position to do so. Islamism is today the most expansive totalitarian political doctrine. Not all the world's tyrants are Islamists, far from it, but Islamist tyranny is rampant in many countries, and enjoys a wide-open forum at the UN.
So we must imperatively recall that any religious political discourse, by the simple fact that it gives primacy to a divine law claimed as immutable and unquestionable, carries within it the seeds of fanaticism, violence and totalitarianism. Islam is no exception.
No religion is by definition "of peace" or "of war". A religion, when it is confined to the intimate, is an existential crutch, a means of simply answering complicated questions, a source of comfort, whatever; in this case it is only a matter of concern to those who believe in God. But when it extends to the collective, it becomes an instrument of social and political control. And as such it can subjugate, imprison, torture and kill, with the sole aim of exercising a 100% earthly power. Fundamentalism, obscurantism and fanaticism are not accidents. They are consubstantial to the "religious fact".
When it descends into the political arena, the current state of religion is totalitarianism, and its tools are brutality and barbarism. Islam is no exception to the rule. To say that the atrocities committed by Daesh or that an Islamist attack has nothing to do with Islam is as silly and inaccurate as saying that the Inquisition or the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre had nothing to do with Catholicism.
The Qur'an is no different from any other book or writing proclaimed "holy", which claims to lay down rules of thought and social life from which it is forbidden to deviate on pain of eternal punishment. It produces a discourse; it is a rhetorical support. Those who refer to it do not read it as fantasy or fiction but as a political book, an instruction manual for ordering collective life. As such, like all political books, it must be open to criticism, discussion and dispute, not about its style, which we don't care about, but about its purpose and its implications. And this purpose and its implications must be confronted with the aspirations – and the scientific knowledge – of contemporary societies, which have the right to ignore it, to find it inane, out of date, aberrant, and even dangerous when such is the case. To deny readers this right is to deny the very principle of democracy.
I think it’s time to talk about blasphemy. I consider it indispensable to the exercise of freedom of speech. Including that of the believer. Moreover, faith in God does not go without blasphemy. If you think twice, only believers really blaspheme: to insult someone or something, or even to make fun of it, one must be convinced of its existence, of its reality. Atheists do not blaspheme. When they say "Jesus fucking Christ!" they mean nothing more than « whoops-a-daisy! ». And when they draw, paint or film divinities in shaming positions, they do nothing more than they would do with the image of a king, a president or a minister. For blasphemy is nothing more than the expression of a salutary contestation of power. God's power, in this case – which is recognized, let us not forget, only by believers.
This is why it is absurd to claim that blasphemy can be experienced as an offense against the whole of the faithful. We feel offended only when the insult or mockery touch what is personal or intimate. Yet blasphemy does not attack the intimate god of each believer, but the public figure of God, the incarnation of the dogma that is supposed to impose itself on the collective of the Lord's sheep – as well as on those who refuse to join the flock, at least for the most conquering religions.
We can easily understand why blasphemy enrages the religious authorities, and why they have even made it a crime punishable by death in some countries: it upsets a small part of the divine power of which they proclaim to be the eternal guardians and which they have decreed to be indisputable.
The crime of blasphemy reveals the indecisively totalitarian nature of religious power. North Korea has labor camps, religions have the crime of blasphemy. In both cases individuals are forced, under penalty of severe punishment, to identify themselves with the power and its representations, and to be offended when it is mocked or challenged.
In France, insulting God – whatever the name one gives him – his folklore and his representatives is an old and healthy habit. Our republic was founded, among other things, upon an act that is far from trivial: the king was beheaded. This act did not only have the effect of making Louis XVI pass from life to death, it also had a highly symbolic impact which continues to this day. Remember that the king reigned by divine right and was considered in some way as an earthly incarnation of God. By beheading the king, the French people beheaded God.
Today, many would like to reintroduce the crime of blasphemy, under the argument of "protecting" the "sensitivity" and "convictions" of believers. So, I ask: Should we stop teaching the theory of evolution because it offends the convictions of creationists? Should we stop telling students that the earth is round because some believe it is flat? Should we declare atheists and rationalists to be second-class citizens? Should we validate the strategy of the Islamic World Conference, the Vatican and all the religious fanatics of the world who want to submit civil laws to divine dogmas?
This brings us to the semantic swindle called "Islamophobia", which today is often considered synonymous with racism. According to that view, we should not criticize propagandist theologians and religious proselytism, because that is Islamophobia. We should not make any link between a totalitarian ideology and the effects it produces upon societies, because that is Islamophobia. We should not condemn the retrograde speeches of preachers and the sexist practices they advocate, because that is Islamophobia. We should not be concerned about the fate of millions of artists, writers, homosexuals, atheists, feminist activists or simple citizens victims of Islamism terror throughout the world, because that is Islamophobia.
So I ask: Who are the real racists? The universalists who say that Muslims – and all those improperly grouped under this term – must obey the same laws and enjoy the same rights as all other citizens? Or those who suggest that they are too primitive to accept democracy and its values, reducing them to their supposed beliefs and tying them forever to an obscurantist text written fourteen centuries ago?
For the record, one of the first to win the "Islamophobia" label was Salman Rushdie. Then Taslima Nasreen, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Kamel Daoud followed... Islamophobia has been conceptualized on the basis of a deliberately flawed premise: to criticize Islam is to insult all Muslims. Therefore, it is racist. To accept this is to accept the idea that all Muslims are inherently Islamist. It is to agree with Trump, Salvini, Orban, Le Pen, who say nothing else.
The real racists are those who insist on a so-called “Muslim identity”.For example, eminent scholars who suggest that those whom they authoritatively group under the reductive and essentialist term of "Muslims" are disconnected from the world and its changes. That "their" society is at least a century behind ours. That those among them, however numerous, who reject religious totalitarianism and its social diktats, who affirm their secular convictions – and, for some, who claim their atheism – are traitors to their "culture", pawns in the hands of the imperialist West. That the Iranian mollahs, the Afghan talibans, the mass murderers from Isis who stone women, kill feminist activists, whip bloggers, behead apostates, that these represent the real faith of the entire Muslim world. So much the worse for the millions of secular Muslims who think that democracy, which derives from human laws, even if it must be constantly monitored, is more tolerable.
I don't know what is happening in Norway, but this is precisely what is happening to the Muslims of France. A large part of the left and the extreme left has deliberately allowed an "apartheid" to take place, which has turned an entire part of the French population into a category of citizens set apart because they are defined primarily by their religion.
More than four and a half million people living on French soil, many born in France and are therefore French citizens, have been assigned to their presumed faith without even considering whether or not they go to the mosque. It would be more reasonable to tell them that the Republic recognized them not by their citizenship or by their wish to acquire it, but by the belief that they are supposed to embody.
Racism, political and social discrimination, economic fractures, are realities that must be denounced and fought. But they will not be fought by religion, which has never given more rights to women and men, but has on the contrary always wanted to take them away.
A religious right is based on submission, while a social right aims at emancipation.
Much more than an "islamophobia" whose semantic ambiguity should be denounced, the misnamed "Muslims of France" are first of all victims of essentialist and communitarian discourses that have reduced them to being the passive representatives of a political-religious dogma. This is the first of all inequalities that affect them: the one that keeps them in the township of faith.
There is a difference between attacking someone for what he thinks and attacking someone for what he is, which is racism. A religious belief is not different from all other beliefs: it is an idea. We are not born believers, but we eventually become ones. By conviction, by tradition or by force. Anti-religious racism does not exist. On the other hand, anti-religious hatred does. We can observe its full expression in theocratic dictatorships.
I would like to make now an important digression about the Islamic veil. Ever since it became a subject of debate, the veil has been defined exclusively as a "religious" and "cultural" sign. It is, but in an incidental way. It is foremost a social sign, a mark of infamy that places the woman who wears it outside the public sphere, in "her" place, sometimes totally erased when wearing a burqa or niqab. The Islamic veil says that women are "naturally impure", that they can’t be equal to the man, that they cannot have the same rights and that they must abide by his doings.
Need we remind ourselves that in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Koweit, etc, the veil is imposed not only on Muslim women but on all women, including foreigners. Its main function is not to indicate that they believe in God, but to designate them as societally inferior beings who can be submitted to all whims, abuses, discriminations, violence. As we can see in Iran, the veil has even become the symbol of the power of the state. Before being a religious sign, the veil is a banner and a political symbol. And not the most progressive, far from it. Radical Islamists have succeeded in making the veil the ultimate symbol of Islam, while even among theologians its mention in the Koran is a matter of debate.
In our Western democracies, the women who wear it submit, whether we like it or not, to this puritanical, obscurantist and highly political version of Islam. They submit by conviction, undoubtedly, but also by social pressure, to keep the peace in their neighbourhood. Or sometimes by militancy. In this case they militate less for the right to wear the veil – which goes with the right not to wear it – than for the obligation to wear it.
To associate the veil with freedom, as a scandalous poster campaign financed by the European Union and the Council of Europe did recently, is to insult all Muslim women throughout the world who refuse to wear it. Is to despise Iranian women who die because they do not want to wear it anymore. I’m sure that there are more women worldide who wear the veil to avoid being put in jail or lynched, than women who wear it on their own will with the purpose of expressing a religious conviction.
Since last September, the streets of Iran are on fire. Men and women are arrested, put in jail, sometimes killed in cold blood by the authorities of the Islamic republic. As you know, it all began with the death of a young girl, Mahsa Amini, killed by policemen who claimed that she was not wearing his veil properly. Since then, to tear off their own veil has become for many Iranian women the most appropriate way to claim that they cannot tolerate Islamic law anymore. They tear off their own veil because it is the symbol of state power. And they do so at their own risk. They can be killed for it. And some of them are killed. Because for the ayatollahs, to take off the veil is the ultimate blasphemy.
I don’t know about Norway, but in France we waited, in vain, for the reactions of militants, scholars, politicians and association leaders usually prompt to react each time the Islamic veil is subject of debate – generally to denounce “islamophobia”. We waited for their support of these women fighting against a murderous state and for equality. But there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Who still dare to claim that this masquerade is only about defending the right of women to dress as they wish, to exercise the free use of their body and to manifest their own will? When in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, everywhere where political Islam imposes its religious laws, women risk prison, beatings, whipping, even death to exercise their right to dress as they wish. Yet these so-called human rights defenders don't give a damn. When it comes to fighting for the life and physical integrity of women who wish to walk bareheaded and free-spirited, it is not their problem. They don't think it's worth wasting time and energy on such a bourgeois and neo-colonialist cause.
Let these so-called defenders of individual liberties at least have the honesty to admit that they are in fact supporting a totalitarian ideology of which the veil is the flag, and which keeps millions of women and men throughout the world in submission. That they are not fighting for human rights but for a politico-religious diktat. I think it’s time to affirm that women's rights deserve more than identitarianism and cultural relativism. And I’m sure that Iranian, Afghan and Saudian women would agree.
Among the many accusations we have had to face since we published the Mohammed cartoons in 2006, one is recurrent: these blasphemous drawings hurt nearly two billion Muslims. Nothing less. First of all, this is to ignore the countless "Muslims" who are atheists, secularists, or simply indifferent. Second, it’s an outrageous exaggeration of the distribution of Charlie Hebdo. Last time I checked, it was still not available in Turkish, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Afghan newsstands. And I’m not sure that I’ll find it in the Duty Free of Riyadh airport... As for the believers who have actually seen these ungodly images, they actually see them just because politicians and religious gurus have stuck them under their noses. They are the ones who deliberately want to "offend" believers, because it’s the best way to manipulate them and distract them from the real issues they have to deal with in their own countries.
In September 2020, at the opening of the trial of the January 2015 attacks, Charlie Hebdo republished the Mohammed cartoons. Not to provoke anyone, but just because these cartoons were the main evidence in that trial. As expected we saw many violent protests in front of French embassies all around the Muslim world. People burned French flags and cursed Macron because he didn’t put us in jail for blasphemy. In the meantime, the Chinese government continued to have fun, as it has done for several years now, with the Uyghurs. Who are, let's not forget, Muslims. We are not talking here about cartoons, but about forced re-education, labor camps, deportations, tortures, executions. Some even use the word genocide. Has anyone even seen an angry mob of Islamists in front of the Chinese embassy in Islamabad or Ankara? No. Because there were no protests, there are still no protests, and there never will be any protests.
The red rag of caricatures is waved to continue advancing ideological pawns. There will always be scholars who will go along with that, who will legitimize terrorism and claim that the victims had it coming, with their vulgar drawings, their racism and their neo-colonial wars. But they don’t care about reality. The reality is that the majority of Islamist attacks take place in Muslim countries – and sometimes target mosques.
These postures are not without consequences. For eight years the staff of Charlie Hebdo has been working in a bunker, and some of us are under police protection. Is it normal that in a democracy, in times of peace, a satirical newspaper, a newspaper of opinion, any newspaper, is forced to live under protection? Is it normal for a staff of journalists to be forced to meet behind armored doors? Can we, under these conditions, still speak of full and complete freedom of the press?
Every day, democratic principles give way to totalitarian dictates. In a democracy, the greatest enemy of freedom of expression is not censorship, but self-censorship.
We all have heard this argument: with Internet, Facebook, Tweeter and the globalization of information, what we say in Oslo can be heard in Kabul and be interpreted as a personal attack by anyone. So we must be careful. We must measure our words and our writings, always keeping in mind that they could shock someone, somewhere, here or there, far away, elsewhere, maybe on planet Mars, who knows now that Elon Musk wants to colonise it. We must show "respect". We must, at all times, keep in mind the "feelings" of those who could, accidentally, read us, see us, listen to us.
At that point, it becomes very difficult to practice journalism. Beware writing that the death penalty is a barbaric act unworthy of a democracy, because that offends the convictions of millions of Americans, Japanese and Indians who are in favor of maintaining capital punishment in their countries. Beware writing that multinational companies suck the blood of poor countries, because that could offend their executive and senior employees. Beware writing that Putin is a cold-blooded serial killer, because that makes his mother cry. If we journalists had to wonder about the sensitivities of everyone on the planet before picking up our pen or pencil, apart from weather forecasts and advertisements, there wouldn’t be much left in our newspapers.
We have the right to be afraid. Fear is the favorite weapon of totalitarianism in the exercise of its power. But if we are to be courageous for just one thing, it is to recognize that we are afraid. And especially, to stop hiding behind so-called "respect". Because if we respect someone, we bet on his intelligence, not on his stupidity.
To respect Muslims, to really respect them, is to stop considering them as a tribe of backward people incapable of understanding a satirical drawing, incapable of reading a column, incapable of admitting an opinion different from their own, disconnected from the world in which they live and devoid of free will. Of course, there are fools among them. But I dare you to name a single social group that does not have its share of idiots. If we have to stop publishing just because some assholes — excuse my French — might read us, we might as well close our doors.
Now, I would like to tell you about a famous newspaper. No, not Charlie Hebdo, but an even more notorious one. The New York Times. Did you know that in July 2019 the prestigious American newspaper decided to permanently remove political cartoons from its international edition? And that political cartoons had already been excised from the national edition a few months earlier? That’s what they call “all the news that’s fit to print.”
To justify this radical decision, the editorial board gave the following reason, let’s say pretext: a controversy triggered by the publication of a cartoon about Trump and Netanyahu, signed by the Portuguese cartoonist Antonio Moreira Antunes, a cartoon which was considered anti-Semitic. Pretext, because with this decision, the management of The New York Times has made it clear that the problem was not anti-Semitism, but press cartoons. The New York Times doesn't want any more trouble. And press cartoons, caricatures, satire – because they rarely make the political leaders and public figures they attack laugh, because they increasingly trigger eruptive reactions within groups that proclaim themselves the exclusive defenders of a cause or an entire community – these things are trouble.
I can’t say it was a huge surprise. In 2006, The New York Times had refused already to publish – like the majority of newspapers– the Jylland Posten Mohammed cartoons. In January 2015, same thing with the front page of Charlie Hebdo post-attack issue, titled "All is forgiven" and portraying, once again, the prophet Mahommed, The New York Times did it in the name of decent journalism, concerned with not offending anyone. Once upon a time the pride of the press was to unleash passions. Now, its greatest ambition is to avoid stirring up trouble.
Of course, no one will pronounce the dirty word of censorship. If the management of the New York Times took this decision, it’s just because they didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially those of the oppressed. Of course. There is always a good reason. Censorship means no harm. It doesn’t wish to prohibit, but to protect. To protect morality, fatherland, sacred values, decency, good taste, institutions, youth, minorities, victims, delicate eyes, fragile ears, shady characters, suffering identities... The extent of its protective mantle is infinite. Censorship protects anything and protects us from everything. Starting with ourselves.
We were shocked and outraged when the Afghan Taliban demolished the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. We were even more shocked and outraged when, in 2016, Daesh destroyed the remains of Palmyra. We did not hesitate to call them obscurantist barbarians. Bloodshed aside, we are talking about the same impulse: the desire to erase any embarrassing representation. Either because it is considered heresy, or because it is judged offensive, or because it is a source of trouble and we don’t want to mess with this or that powerful person, this or that lobby. Press cartoon is unlucky, it can be everything at once: heretical, offensive, a huge source of trouble.
I’m afraid that the managers of The New York Times have forgotten the role of satire and caricature. The first function of satire is to desacralize: to desacralize a leader, belief or idea; to desacralize a myth, idol. By definition, it’s not intended for being lovable, or to make friends with those who are the object of it. It can, it must be disturbing. Laughter, even the silliest, always disturbs something or someone. Satire and caricature are disruptors. They force us to focus on an event, a personality, and to wonder about what their backgrounds are.
Satire and caricature are unwelcome in the world of absolute "Good" that religious fanatics and political puritans both left- and right-wing fantasize about. In this world of Absolute Good, citizens are not considered as responsible adults able to accept criticism, mockery, contradiction, who can laugh of themselves and others, but as bubble children who must be protected from all germs. Children who, of course, do not draw or write or argue.
The situation is quite paradoxical. In Western Europe, freedom of expression and freedom of the press have never been so protected by law and courts. Despite that, they are threatened by individuals or groups of individuals, in the name of often noble struggles, such as anti-racism, feminism, LGBT rights, protection of minorities, etc. They are mostly activists, very well organized, who lobby on social networks, inside universities, in the media. They produce a puritanical reflection – absolute Good versus absolute Evil – which is not necessarily dominant, but which is considered as such by many editorial boards. And they prefer to comply with it rather than facing troll attacks, calls for boycotts or even a simple controversy. This self-censorship does not take its roots in the respect of the law, but in the fear of being confronted with public opprobrium.
In liberal democracies, censorship is no longer a prerogative of the State. It strikes mainly in private structures. It serves multinationals such as Facebook or Google, which do not want to upset their precious users, who are nothing more than monied data. It becomes a weapon used by associations militating for the defense of strictly sectorial interests, or by groups of purity fanatics on the lookout for the slightest deviance, or even by simple individuals who believe that their emotions or their choices take precedence over any other societal or political consideration.
If the weight of the religious power is present more than ever, it’s no longer a matter of “decency” or "good morality". Today the key words are "identity", "culture", "feelings", "respect"... How can we disagree, since it is not in the name of morality that they want to silence us, but supposedly in the fight against ideas or practices which, like racism or homophobia, are already punishable by law?
This is precisely where we get to the heart of this issue. For the main characteristic of these self-proclaimed censors is that they do not claim any law. Because law, in democracy, generates debate. And these new censors reject debate. They prefer arbitrariness and intimidation to the legitimacy of the courts. They demand cancellation, withdrawal, resignation, erasure, silence, conformism, rewriting, self-denial. And, above all, repentance: a good self-spanking.
To confront this very pernicious form of censorship is to confront a sort of self-proclaimed popular jury, which pronounces sentences without prior trial, and which can just as easily be embodied in a multitude of groups with sometimes contradictory motivations, as in isolated individuals with unfathomable impulses. In other words, the "fault" can jump out at any time and in any way, in a perfectly arbitrary manner.This type of mechanism designed to generate fear of expressing oneself freely usually takes place in totalitarian regimes...
In democracy, citizens must be considered as adults and responsible, not as children to be re-educated and punished.
I would like to give you an example of this twisted way to promote the defense of human rights. The story took place about a year ago in Toronto and involved a teacher named Nadine Couvreux. She had her French students study a poem by Prévert, titled "Pour toi mon amour". For you my love. A short and beautiful poem: "I went to the bird market/And I bought birds/For you my love/I went to the flower market/And I bought flowers/For you my love/I went to the scrap metal market/And I bought chains/Heavy chains/For you my love/And then I went to the slave market/And I searched for you/But I didn't find you my love.”
So far so good. Well, the same evening, the teacher was informed that a young girl among her students declared herself "shocked" at having been forced to study a poem "racist" and "glorifying slavery". So she filed a complaint with the schoolboard... Anyone who went to elementary school for a few years will understand that this poem is about the submission that a man demands from his lover. It is not about the slave trade. So we can assume that neither Nadine Couvreux's superiors nor the Toronto District Schoolboard members had been to elementary school. The teacher was suspended and then sanctioned by a disciplinary council. And it was decided that, from now on, this poem would no longer be studied in any school in the Toronto District. And maybe, in the future, Jacques Prévert’s name will be cancelled from all Canadian schoolbooks…
We should be pleased with the debates and the outspokenness that the #metoo movement has generated. We should fight without any weakness, by lawful means, against racism, machismo, hatred and violence of all kinds. But we can't do it as if with punished children. It is only with adult and responsible citizens that we will advance rights and equality. Keeping in mind that no rights, even those that appear to us as the most obvious, are ever definitively acquired. Obscurantism and totalitarianism are stubborn, and they are always lurking. Progress, whether social, societal, scientific or intellectual, is never irreversible; it requires vigilance and sometimes combat.
As for democracy, it is more than any other a fragile and complicated idea, which requires effort, a lot of energy and determination. Not just to make it evolve, but also to keep it from regressing or disappearing. Because retrogrades never give up. And sometimes they work undercover.
Gérard Biard, Oslo, 21 January 2023