#CharlieHebdo: What Now for Writers?
Ever since the massacre at Charlie Hebdo I’ve been finding it harder to write. Instead of working on all the projects I’m supposed to be working on, I’ve scribbled page after page of notes trying to sort out what I’m feeling. It’s not an easy thing about which to write. I’m not even sure I should. But Paris is my home. And I can’t stop thinking about what happened here.
How do we write when you can be killed in the centre of Paris for drawing rude cartoons?
Usually, when some crazy, sad, lonely or sick person kills a bunch of people, whether they claim it is in the name of Islam or in the name of Mickey Mouse, I remind myself that any cause of death that is less likely than being hit by a bolt of lightning isn’t something you should worry about. It’s all about magnitude scaling[i], darling. You should be watching out for cars and ladders. Not to mention obesity. Just because scary things seem more probable does not mean they are more probable.
But effective terrorism isn’t about the deaths caused but about the fear caused by the deaths. And what a marvellously effective piece of terrorism the Kouachi brothers achieved.
Do we need to change how we write in the shadow of the massacre?
Once again, my inner legal scientist does his bit. Murdering artists is hardly a new phenomenon. Killing, torturing and locking people up because we don’t like what they say has a long history. It is the ultimate argument of the defeated intellect, of the exhausted dictator or the tyrannical parent. Even the revolution that installed the French principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood climaxed with the slaughter of the artists, writers and thinkers who had inspired it. Writing is a dangerous game.
I joined the gathering at Place de la Republique and chanted “Je suis Charlie” with the rest of them. The solidarity marches were truly impressive. But when we called for freedom of speech it seems we were not all calling for the same thing. Freedom of expression is not freedom to insult? Keep calm and vote Marine Le Pen? I saw a man being booed as he ripped pages from what I think was a copy of the Koran. I saw Jews carrying signs saying “Je suis Juif” and Arabs carrying signs saying “Je suis Musulman”, and I wished that they would swap slogans, although what right do I have to tell people how they should respond to a tragedy? I’ve never seen so many so close in their separation. There was an enormous feeling of togetherness; communities drawn together into one community; people who would normally never speak to one another[ii] embracing. This was all good and amazing stuff. But the perceived sources and the solutions to our problems remain distinct and divisive as they have always been. Do I only want freedom of speech for people who say things that I agree with?
On Sunday, I babysat the children of some friends so that they could join the main march. I watched over the internet as various world leaders showed up and talked about defending freedom of speech. Then David Cameron went home and declared his intention to eliminate “safe spaces” on the internet where people can communicate in private. The French police arrested more than 50 people for expressing support for the terrorist attacks. The audacity of leaders from nations who routinely lock up opposition journalists, amongst other things and worse, was hardly surprising. For some the take home message was that we needed to defend freedom of speech with greater restrictions on freedom of speech, ideally of people we didn’t like much in the first place. The Pope, who to these uneducated eyes seems like a decent bloke for a Pope, told a crowd via a metaphor about his mother that those who insult religion should expect to be punched. Yeah, sure, #charliehebdo was a tragedy, but what did they expect? Sticks and stones shall break the bones of those whose words have hurt me.
I’m not saying any of them are wrong. I wouldn’t dare. The dark spaces Cameron is talking about are a primary venue for child pornography as well as terrorism. Dieudonné is certainly pushing close to the line between free speech and incitement and may well have merited his arrest. We do should think hard about the extent to which religious beliefs need to be defended from hate speech. Also, I don’t want the Pope to punch me.
Restricting freedom of expression to protect the lives and liberties of others seems like a necessary balancing act. But doesn’t it seem odd that our leaders proclaim the importance of free speech then move to restrict it? One of our responses to the killing of cartoonists was arrest a comedian. Dieudonné may be a git and he may have broken the law, but let’s make no bones about it, we are restricting his freedom of speech. The default response of a powerful minority is to restrict the power of the majority in the name of controlling “renegade” individuals – people who don’t share their beliefs. When we Europeans start pointing and shrieking about terrible things going on in other countries we stink just as badly of hypocrisy as the rest.
Don’t make me give you examples. I’m not brave enough. I have a family. Google is just over there.
I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. I’ve had brief glimpses in the corridors of power and came away with the impression that our glorious leaders are just as confused and confounded as the rest of us. But politicians are dangerous when they feel extraneous. They don’t like it when they aren’t important any more. And the internet is passing them by, bring with it wonderful and terrifying lessons about obsession and the consequences of scale.
There are a lot of people out there. There are people who dedicate their lives to getting upset over the canonicity of storylines in Doctor Who[iii]. Somebody somewhere will hate you for what you have to say. A distressing number of people seem to have taken to the idea that they have an entitlement not to be offended, and a right to have the source of the offence removed (just not reading it is not good enough). The information revolution has happened: we’ve moved on to the bit where we kill all the artists, and I’m not sure laws restricting speech are going to help us.
What am I talking about?
Anita Sarkeesian (www.feministfrequency.com) received death threats for suggesting that women were poorly represented in video games. Not one or two death threats: lots of them. Enough to drive her into hiding. Now I don’t think there are many things that a person can do that merit them receiving death threats, but, seriously, death threats for suggesting women are badly represented in computer games? Yeah, my nose is bleeding as well.
Ched Evans is a footballer who was convicted of rape for having intercourse with a woman in a hotel room when she was too drunk to consent. Clubs that have attempted to hire him after he completed his sentence have received death threats. The woman who was raped has received, you guessed it, death threats. The concepts of consent and agency are complex areas of the law, and there are good reasons to be critical about how rape laws treat both accused and victim. But no good reason to make death threats.
I have re-written these last two passages more than a dozen times, for fear that somebody in the comments is going to start shouting “rape is rape” or “she was asking for it” or, God forbid, “it’s about ethics in gaming journalism.” This is what I’m talking about. The internet has magnified the voice of the mob a thousand-fold. Everybody is talking at once and the people who shout loudest are the only ones being heard, because caring a lot about a thing doesn’t necessarily correlate with having the foggiest idea what you are talking about. Even if you’ve done your research, even if you’re considered and careful, hell, even if you’re an expert or you genuinely come out and say “I don’t know and I’d like you to help me to understand”[iv], you start to become scared to speak your mind.
And in amongst all those shouting people is the really scary bit.
You are easier to kill than you think. Lying to ourselves about our mortality is how we manage to strap ourselves into cars or climb up wobbly ladders. The glories of the internet mean that it isn’t all that difficult for someone to find out where you live; to watch you through your own webcam; to get your bank details and steal your identity. And it has never been that hard, if you get in the right frame of mind, to kill someone. That time you said that the next Doctor Who[v] should be a woman? That may be the comment that gets you killed. God forbid if you draw a cartoon of Mohammed.
It isn’t very likely to happen. It’s extremely unlikely to happen. But that promise of violence makes all the other threats that much worse. The knowledge that this one could be true. There are so many people in the world that a miniscule proportion of crazy is still enough to fill half the US Senate[vi]. How are you supposed to keep on writing in the shadow of all this violence?
Well, some people have suggested that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to insult. Write, by all means, just be careful not to insult people. That sounds fair enough. After all, if we don’t provoke people, then they won’t shoot us, right?
For reference, I’ve heard people battered by their partners use a similar sort of justification. I just need to stop provoking him, right?
I’ve redrafted and redrafted this article because I don’t want to offend anybody. You know what? It won’t work. Whatever you write, somebody will be offended. And, if you stop writing, if you shut the hell up and never say another word, well, somebody will still be offended. Ask the the families of the guys Amedy Coulibaly killed for shopping while Jewish. It isn’t because you provoke them that they hit you.
In the meantime, the result of all that compromising you do trying not to offend is bad writing. Writing that loses its power. Writing that doesn’t say what it really means. And they’ve won. You aren’t writing what you want to write, and nobody will care about your writing because you don’t care about it either. The point of the attack was not just to stop the people they killed from writing: it was to stop the rest of us as well.
Authenticity and risk are central to good art. You have to drive it from something that is important to you, something that excites you or scares you or keeps you awake at night, then you have to challenge those feelings, take them to places that thrill or disturb or make you hurl the paper from you in disgust. There’s craft, and craft is important, but if the writer doesn’t genuinely care about what they are writing then the reader will be bored stiff by the end of the first page. It doesn’t have to be hate or anger or fear; it can be love or compassion or affection. Hopefully it will have something of all of these things, but whatever it is, you have to give a shit.
So does the drive to create good art give us the right to insult? It does more than that. It demands that we insult.
Michel Houellebecq has a new book called “Submission” which envisages a France in 2022 where a Muslim wins the presidential election in a run-off against Marine Le Pen (head of the French National Front). This book has been savaged as being Islamophobic. Now, as best as I can tell, Houellebecq has some weird ideas about Islam. He has some even weirder ideas about women. I think his grasp on political science is probably pretty ropey. But he openly admits the idea is farfetched – and since when did speculative fiction being farfetched become a problem?
What really interested me reading an interview[vii] with the author is he talks about the process by which he arrived at the story; his struggles with his own religious identity; the death of his father; his feelings that France has changed and wondering about his place within it. This is the stuff of good, powerful art. He’s taken those feelings and put them in an imaginary, challenging France. His grasp of political or cultural reality may be, erm, desperately wrong, but he’s not publishing an academic paper: he is writing fiction. The fact that the idea is farfetched is what gives it the space to explore its broader themes[viii]. Fiction’s duty is to inspire, to question; to take us to new places and open our minds. Not necessarily to be right.
That doesn’t mean you have to read it. It certainly doesn’t mean you have to like it. Hell, you probably get more from disagreeing violently with a book than you do from one that neatly conforms with your world views. The world is a complicated place and you only learn by exposing yourself to new ideas. In order to achieve this there are some crucial skills we need as human beings. The ability to tell fact from fiction; to appreciate satire, irony and sarcasm; to understand that a character is a different person from the actor that plays them or the author that writes them; to appreciate that we don’t have to agree and we don’t have to be right to be allowed to speak (and certainly don’t have to be right to put it in a piece of science fiction!).
Fiction that challenges us forces us to think. Talking with my wife about Houellebecq’s book got us round to talking about what we will do if Le Pen gets into the next presidential run off; at what point we would consider leaving the country; the place of Catholicism in secular France. There’s been research that shows that reading a book on the struggle to win the vote makes people more likely to vote. Reading the Kite Runner changed my view on the nature of the Taliban. Fiction helps us take a step away from reality so that we can question our reality, so that we can challenge what we think we know, whether to affirm or alter it.
I’ve learned many valuable personal lessons from studying advocacy. One of them is that the insults, the barbs and the jibes that hurt most are the ones that hit closest to home. When I start becoming frustrated in an argument, it is usually a sign of a weakness in my argument. If I’m confident I’m right, then I’m confident I can talk them around, or, if not, at least I’m confident that I will win. But if I have doubts, if I’m not sure, if I’m papering over the cracks in my ego with bravado, then somebody pointing it out will make me angry. I will feel like they are provoking me.
I had a long dark teatime of the soul[ix] on the day of the Charlie Hebdo killings. I wanted the killers killed. Specifically, I wanted the terrorists to be caught, questioned, and then executed. I’ve been against the death penalty my whole life, apart from those few hours, when I wouldn’t have minded pulling the trigger myself. A friend of mine, with some expertise in the area, tried to point this out to me – and I didn’t respond in a particularly gentlemanly fashion (sorry Mel). It wasn’t until the next morning, when Marine Le Pen starting tweeting about the need to “re-open the death penalty debate”, that I remembered why it was such a bad idea for the state to kill people it has already captured. My free speech. Mel’s free speech. Marine Le Pen’s free speech. We learn through dialogue with people we disagree with, no matter who is right and who is wrong. We learn empathy by living through times when the strength of our feeling leads us to make bad decisions or do the wrong thing. And if somebody disagreeing with you makes you angry, think carefully whether that anger is a sign of a weakness in your argument.
Since the killings I have felt morally compromised. I think of words I’ve cut or stories I’ve not written because they were extreme, or because I was worried that I didn’t understand it well enough to talk about it, or because someone will get angry with me on the internet. I feel like a coward, whose principles disappear at the first sign of violence.
This article has been hard to write. It has taken me two weeks to finish it. It’s compromised, because I’m confused, because I don’t really know what to say, and because I’m scared. So far, terrorism seems to be an excellent means for restricting freedom of expression.
Ordinary service will soon return on this site; the second part of the article about points of view is almost finished, and I have some writing on the sequential art project to post. But I can’t help but feel, since the deaths at Charlie Hebdo, that normal is not enough.
Don’t be afraid. Ok, be afraid, but use it. Talk louder. Say what you feel, even if, especially if you aren’t sure. Be angry and put it into your words. Charb said that he would prefer to die on his feet than live on his knees, and by God he proved it. Someday, somebody or something is going to kill you; terrorism or obesity; a car crash or a fall from a ladder; just plain old fashioned old age. It won’t be for a good reason. There are no good reasons. It will be because the world is a crazy, random, and often pathetic place. If that doesn’t piss you off, if that makes you swallow your words instead of spitting them, if that stops you from being a writer, then take a deep breath, look around you, and find something that you care about so much that you can’t stop yourself. Get off your knees. Write harder.
[i] Seriously, what’s the point of having a PhD if you can’t show of your education? What, you mean it was supposed to be for something more than showing off? Damn. Ok, in the case I’m referring sideways to the way that we don’t measure the size of things in a linear fashion: you have to increase the intensity of a light by approximately four times for it to appear to have doubled in brightness. This [via a whole bunch of steps] has serious ramifications for how we understand size, and, subsequently, probability. Things that are really, really bad (or good) seem more likely. Now, don’t you wish you hadn’t come to read the end notes? Don’t worry. Most of the rest of them are about Doctor Who.
[ii] Paris, like a lot of capitals, is a bit like that. Don’t talk to strangers, they’ll only ask you for money/rip you off/distract you while somebody picks your pocket.
[iii] Not me, obviously. Although Death Comes to Time should clearly be canon. Because awesomeness. The Doctor builds an android companion because he wants a friend who won’t die before him (and then his friend dies anyway)! Ace becomes a Time Lord by experiencing failure and powerlessness! Why being a God is a bad thing! Yeah, so clearly should be canon.
[iv] I often feel like attaching “I don’t really know and I’d like you to help me understand” to everything I write. The written word lends us an unhelpful degree of authority. An article should be the starting point, not the end.
[v] Or you called the Doctor “Doctor Who.” Yeah, that one bugs me, but if it’s good enough for Peter Capaldi I think I need to get over myself. This blog generally makes much more sense if you watch a lot of Doctor Who.
[vi] “The Senate then defeated an amendment by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, that expressed the sense of Congress that “climate change is real” and “human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” The amendment had a 60-vote threshold for passage; the final vote was 50-49.” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2015/01/21/senate-climate-change-votes/22120041/, accessed 21 Jan 2015
[viii] I pass no comment on whether Submission succeeds or not – I haven’t read it yet. But the only way it can possibly succeed is if he embraces risk. Taking a risk may or may not lead to success, but failure to take risks in creative writing inevitably leads to failure.
[ix] This is a Douglas Adams reference. If you can’t reference Douglas Adams when talking about the absurdities of humanity, then you should learn to reference Douglas Adams when talking about the absurdities of humanity.