Friday, 16 January 2015

What happened to the list? And... Je ne suis pas Charlie/Ahmed/personne

Thanks to Facebook's automatic photo generator, I was slow to post the promised arbitrary list of good things last year brought in, aka "highlights". It felt a little cheesy...

And then when I did start to compile it, I realised that I've written about most of the stuff extensively... or had done the year before (FLUPP festival, Capturing Fire, filming Gay Poem, Royal Festival Organ Project, the Unwriteables) so perhaps it was not worth expending vast amounts of energy trying to summarise these major events in one bitesize piece.

Je suis pas Charlie... et je ne suis pas offensé: a week of changing opinion.

And then of course, halfway through my compiling activities on Wednesday, I heard about attacks in Paris (via Daily Politics). Immediately, people were calling for solidarity for those killed to take the form of printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. My immediate response was, firstly, shock and horror at the attacks (that should go without saying but, there, I've said it) and my second response was a sinking feeling in my stomach that this might create some sort of racist backlash. The images I searched for online that Charlie Hebdo had printed seemed to me, at first glance, wholly insensitive and, yes, racist. Hook-nosed Arab types, for the most part... And the image of the Boko Haram kidnapees - and yes, of the Prophet Muhammad. I was incensed that the only way some people could think of reacting to the shootings was by encouraging journalists across the world to offend whole sections of their own societies. Way to go!

Then, after 'Je suis Charlie', the 'Je suis Ahmed' meme arose and I was glad to see (some) people at least recognise that solidarity doesn't need to mean agreeing completely with everything someone stands for. We get into so much trouble if we try to be cut and dry about things. The simplified news tells us that some journalists sacrificed their lives for freedom of speech - which is threatened by Islamic fundamentalism - in a heroic act of defiance; that trope then allows a disparate bunch of leaders - many of them enemies of 'free speech' in so many different ways - to march in 'solidarity' with smug faces and an air of piety. It's not as simple as that.

At least, through 'Je suis Ahmed', another narrative sprung up: Muslims often bear the brunt of 'Islamist' terrorism, so it can't be seen as a them vs us situation. Reprinting images of the Prophet in order to piss off 'intolerant' Muslims (many, but not all) as if it were a 'V' salute is not helpful. This is not a simple case of fighting for freedom of speech in the West. This was never about freedom of speech!

But, of course, some things easily fit the narrative the powers that be want to deliver. I've struggled to find any extensive reporting of the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria. At least 150 (official figures) and as many as 2,000 people have been killed this month, and the suicide attack by a girl reported to be about 10 years old is terrifying. I haven't heard it on the news - but, then again, Nigeria doesn't seem to get into news broadcasts much, despite having a lot going on in the last year. There are terrifying things going on much further afield and they cannot all be explained simply.

Back to the weekly magazine in Paris and my A-level French served me very little in trying to understand some of the cartoons. Every online comment by French people that I read emphasised the point that a lot has been lost in translation; Charlie Hebdo isn't some right-wing outrage but often printed offensive things in the name of liberalism, equality, anti-racism... etc. If we rely on image alone, if we decontextualise it, we will get the wrong end of the stick.

I went to an exhibition at Camden Arts Centre last Saturday, after going to a talk. Two women were pacing around the room where flashing neon "bruise" and "blues" signs hung from the ceiling, just as I was leaving. They were a bit miffed by it, and vocally so; if they hadn't read the extensive explanation on the plaque outside, before entering the room, it would have made no sense to them at all. How could someone design a piece that would not stand up on its own without the explanation? The questions around police violence, around race, around the speaker's language (it comes from a man's account of trying to get hospital care while in police custody, and opening up a bruise) are all invisible in this hanging artwork. I ended up chatting with them for a couple of minutes and disagreeing. The whole point, I argued, was to put everything out of context, to focus on minute details (in another bit of the exhibition, a statement is repeated across a wall, mostly out of focus and illegible, thousands of times) and take away the sense of meaning, an absurdist response, if you will. 

Back to the magazine and, as I read more, I realise it is not my place to be offended on anyone's behalf. I'm not Muslim, I have no say on whether depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is entirely offensive or not; for many people - including friends of mine - it is hugely so, while for others, less. But the context is everything. This article was helpful about some of that. I now have more information about what was printed and why; that information makes me more certain than ever that simply reprinting something that makes sense in a French context is highly misguided.  There are things I find distasteful - and yes, racist - based on what I've seen… but I'm not invested enough in the workings of French media to say much further than that. The amount I am willing to comment must be proportional to the amount I am willing to learn about the situation. I am NOT Charlie Hebdo… but, as a fellow European citizen, I can express my sympathy and solidarity up to a point. I am NOT Ahmed, but I can show my solidarity by remembering to think before I open my mouth (unlike the historian David Starkey, a sorry excuse for a human being, who was rolled out to offer his two cents worth last night - at the expense of TV license payers). 

Likewise, the greater context of these attacks bears thinking about. This was never about freedom of speech, but it will be a convenient little number if politicians start talking about it in those terms. (If anyone truly thinks that this kind of terrorism will disappear the minute people stop printing cartoons, then they're mistaken… so calling this a battle of freedom of speech is ridiculous and cheap… The journalists were just an easy target in the minds of the people who did this). 

On that note, I need to head off to work. 

I'll be posting upcoming gigs in the next 24 hours. Some interesting events ahead!


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