Charlie Hebdo and PEN

Russell Blackford examines the controversy generated by PEN America's decision to give Charlie Hebdo its free expression award.


There has been much public controversy over the decision by PEN America to give its freedom of expression award to Charlie Hebdo. I was scathing about some of the critics of Charlie Hebdo in the immediate wake of the January massacre of its staff (I discussed the responses in an article in Free Inquiry - it's behind a pay wall for subscribers, however), so you might expect me to be equally scathing of the high-profile authors, such as Peter Carey, who are currently protesting PEN America's decision.

Actually, no - I have a slightly more nuanced view this time. Part of what I was criticising in the Free Inquiry article was the sanctimonious attacks on Charlie Hebdo when the corpses of its murdered staff were scarcely cooled. Obviously, time has passed... and it is now a more reasonable moment for reflection on the magazine's content. The grant of an important award to it also makes this a time to reflect on the content of the magazine and for any fair criticisms to be expressed.

As I said in Free Inquiry, if Charlie Hebdo were a clearly racist and vicious publication we would condemn the murders but not stand in solidarity with the magazine, for example by using the hashtag #JeSuiCharlie. Certainly we'd not, after all this time for consideration, support prestigious awards for it. There's at least a genuine controversy about exactly how supportive we - and organisations such as PEN - ought to be.

Thus, I see this latest episode in a somewhat different light from the early smears against the magazine and the murder victims, some of which went close to saying that the victims had it coming (one or two authors didn't merely go close but pretty much said this straight out). We need to be able to make fair, reasonably nuanced distinctions ourselves if we're going to ask others to make them.

None of the above should be taken as meaning that I support the authors who are protesting or that I am against PEN America's decision. It should only be taken as meaning that it's important to make distinctions that matter.

By and large, what the protesting authors are now saying is more considered (and again, more timely) than the journalistic attacks that we saw back in January shortly after the Charlie Hebdo murders. But it remains the case, as I said back then, that much of the criticism has been (continues to be) opportunistic and decontextualized from French politics and culture. Some of it has been highly distasteful and intellectually dishonest, discouraging rather than assisting any fair search for what Charlie Hebdo's satire actually conveys to its sophisticated French audience. Even now, the opposition from Carey and the others seems to be based, at least in part, on a decontextualized understanding and an unfortunate degree of groupthink and tribalism.

If we've now reached a point where serious critical discussion of Charlie Hebdo is fitting - and again, perhaps we have - we still need to make sure that, as I put it in the Free Inquiry article, "we ... strive to match the complexities of the cartoonists' wit with a complexity and generosity of response." I'm unconvinced that the current wave of high-profile critics are yet managing to do that.

More generally, I remain concerned about the relentless scouring of novels, movies, comedy routines, cartoons, video games, and other cultural products for some kind of racist intent or implication that was probably neither intended as a take-home message nor communicated (intentionally or otherwise) to the original audience. There is also, in much literary and cultural criticism, a vulgar, philistine dismissal of complexity - as I put it (again) in Free Inquiry, "of nuance, irony, social and artistic context, and any complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning." This is not the way to treat art or its creators. It produces a pressure for safe, simplistic, fearful, conforming art. It's a Stalinist approach to culture.

By all means, let's subject cultural products to intelligent, well-informed critique, which can involve multiple perspectives and sources of insight. But in doing so, please let's not lapse into being vulgar and predictable, or into the mere political tribalism that has become such an intrusive feature of current cultural debates.

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Russell Blackford is Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle