Garry Trudeau, free speech and Charlie Hebdo: An Asian perspective

Garry Trudeau, free speech and Charlie Hebdo: An Asian perspective

April 15, 2015 11:01 AM (UTC+8)

 

Earlier this week, the Atlantic published the contents of a speech by noted American cartoonist Garry Trudeau (creator of the iconic Doonesbury) wherein he made some controversial points about Charlie Hebdo and its unfolding tragedy. The key point made by Trudeau is reproduced below (emphasis mine):

Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila – the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.

This is then meant to explain the other comment

Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

Responding to this article, David Frum writes in the Atlantic again:

As with Godkin’s Southern whites, it’s hard to ignore that many whom Trudeau regards as European victims are simultaneously engaged in large-scale violence against people they regard as their enemies. As Jeffrey Goldberg reported in a disturbing cover story for last month’s Atlantic, Europe is witnessing a surge of violent anti-Semitism. About 40 percent of all hate crimes recorded in France in 2013 were committed against Jews, and 95 percent of those crimes were committed by people of Middle Eastern or North African origin. Hate crimes against European Muslims, thankfully, appear to be comparatively rare … In response to this violence at the hands of their Muslim neighbors, Jews are again emigrating from Europe.

And, closer to home:

Had the gunmen been “privileged,” then presumably the cartoons would have been commendable satire. The cartoonists would then have been martyrs to free speech. But since the gunmen were “non-privileged,” the responsibility for their actions shifts to the people they targeted, robbing them of agency. It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better. On first reading, then, Trudeau is presenting us with a clear and executable moral theory:

  1. Identify the bearer of privilege.
  2. Hold the privilege-bearer responsible.

This puts to rest the core point about the “targets” of the cartoons being somewhat “under-privileged” but it still leaves open a wider point about the role of censorship and government controls using “hate speech” and “social disturbance” laws to restrict a free media. Trudeau recommends self-censorship when a cartoonist or writer crosses a “red line” however ill defined that may be by his own admission. Presumably, that’s the first step towards accepting censorship by others on what one may or may not write or draw.

I have oodles of respect for Trudeau but the points espoused by him in the speech extol a stream of thinking goes perniciously close to the Asian governance model that calls for citizens to observe generally patriarchal rules of society, built around the Confucian system where “Daddy knows best.”

Following the death of Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, a number of people wrote in about the “tough love” that he had bestowed upon the city-state and how that helped to turn a little tropical port to one of the world’s great cities and financial centres. This notion of a benign dictator such as Lee being just what the Doctor ordered has gained a lot of credibility since the mid-nineties.

Look closer though and it becomes self evident that Lee was the exception that proved a broader rule namely never to trust any dictator. Just examine the evidence around Lee’s own backyard – Indonesia under Suharto, Burma under its military and indeed, even the Philippines under Marcos. The unraveling of dictatorships in Indonesia and the Philippines have not been pretty, and indeed with leaders like Joseph Estrada the case could be made that democracies always dive to the bottom with the lowest common denominator; but this has not happened. Successive iterations of leaders in Indonesia and the Philippines have shown the merits of democracy and more importantly, the power of a free media to uncover scandals and corruption.

In this milieu, the dangers for Asia adopting greater controls on the media seem to outweigh the risks of a free media going a little crazy now and again; producing images and articles that are deemed “hurtful.” In both the major Asian countries – China and India – there is a plethora of laws that control such “hate speech” and “irresponsible acts”; designed as they are for avoiding poisonous reactions to freewheeling articles.

Look again though because you will find most of these laws have been misused to protect the elite in these countries. Until President Xi Jinping unleashed anti-corruption drives, it was verboten for most media to report on scandals with reports on official bribery being proscribed in particular. In the case of India, laws meant to protect religious and cultural minorities from attacks have been primarily employed by politicians and businessmen to silence their critics in the media.

Hong Kong’s freewheeling media from before 1997 has now morphed into a pale shadow of its former self, as many newspapers owned by major conglomerates have gone quiet about criticism of the high and mighty; this hasn’t served the city well as the events of last year with the ‘Occupy’ movement clearly highlighted. The lack of truly free media helped to blind the authorities to tensions that were building in society right under their noses; and helped to make things far worse for the city in the end.

The denial of tensions and opinions is thus hardly conducive to effective dialogue and discussions; especially for governments that are still getting used to managing a rapidly transitioning and modernizing population (as China and India are doing now).

In that context, removing impediments to free speech is likely to do more good than harm. Allowing people to blow off steam through speeches, articles and cartoons probably counts like little brush fires that help to prevent a wider conflagration later. For Asia at least, Trudeau’s prescription does not work – we need more Charlie Hebdo in this region, not less.

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