Monthly Archives: January 2015


Don’t be seduced by Will Self

I watched this interview yesterday, featuring Will Self and Martin Rowson, and was shocked by the degree of incoherence, the misplaced antipathy and (somewhat ironically, given the subject matter) sweeping generalisations that — dare I say it — border on racist. It’s being shared all over social media, so I felt duty-bound to respond.

Let me start by saying that, since Wednesday’s attacks, I’ve learnt that some people have rather strange ideas about what “Je suis Charlie” is supposed to signify. For example, some people, I’ve found, think that it means “I aspire to be Charlie Hebdo because I totally agree with everything the magazine has ever expressed and it is the embodiment of freedom.” Self’s answer to the interviewer’s question, “Vous êtes Charlie?” (Are you Charlie?) suggest that he hasn’t really thought about what the statement means, either.

It was Christopher Hitchens, back in 2005, who first said that the killing of cartoonists because of their cartoons should be met with such a statement, “on the model of Spartacus”. Though it’s not clear whether or not Joachim Roncin, originator of the phrase “Je suis Charlie”, was referring explicitly to Spartacus or not, it seems clear to me that its message is equivalent.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in the free-speech/offensive cartoons debate should watch the video below, featuring Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie. He makes reference to Spartacus at 9.20 ish (though you should watch it from the beginning to the end – so worthwhile).

One more thing before I begin in earnest: the entire channel 4 discussion can I think be identified as a conflation of the question “should inflammatory cartoons be published in the first place?” with “what should we do once violence has occurred?”. This conflation is explored by Salman Rushdie at 25.07. I really can’t recommend highly enough that you have a listen.


First, notice, and keep in mind, that Self’s opening gambit is:

“My value is free speech. Unquestionably.” Remember this as he proceeds to completely contradict himself.

“But I think we need to be aware of the fact that free speech comes with responsibilities”, he continues.

I have to disagree. It’s not that “free speech”, in and of itself, “comes with” responsibility, as if the former actually necessitates the latter – it’s “being a decent and/or functioning human being” that necessitates taking on responsibilities. Actually, free speech per se is, and has to be, perfectly compatible with irresponsibility. Free speech allows us — has to allow us — by law, to be indecent and dysfunctional because people have different ideas about what is indecent and what is dysfunctional. Placing bans and legal sanctions on “being mean”, for instance, thus opens up an immense and dangerous can of worms, which I don’t think I need to illustrate here.

Freedom of expression can surely only mean one thing: the right to express yourself as you please, so long as what you’re expressing doesn’t prevent others from expressing themselves as they please.

The possible consequences of being mean for no reason, and the fact that human beings tend (all things being equal) to need some kind of motivation (however misguided that motivation may be) to be mean, act as pretty good natural checks against unprovoked, wanton meanness, in most cases. Despite freedom of expression, people in free countries tend to be able to walk down the street without having insults hurled at them. Of course, there are exceptions, and dealing with them is part of normal, messy social life.

In other words, Self has it backwards. Life comes with responsibilities, and those responsibilities are in fact what make free speech possible, and necessary.

“Rights [like free speech] can only be constituted within a defined area where they can be enforced”, he continues.

What does this even mean? Seriously, read it a few times and tell me it doesn’t sound like the words of a confused person. Free speech isn’t something we “enforce”, it’s something we allow. Anyway, I assume he means something like “free speech has to have defined limits in order to be a good thing for society.”

He goes on: “The whole problem with our modern world is that’s no longer the case.”

So, to clarify, his argument is that free speech is “no longer” delineated properly in our society, such that it is no longer doing us any good. We’ve pushed the boundaries out so far that freedom of speech is now…“unconstitutable”. This seems like a very weird and foggy idea, but no matter.

It’s just not true that we “no longer” cordon off free speech so that it exists within a “defined area”.

  • If you engage in an invasion of someone’s personal space to say what you want to say, actively pestering them (by following them, emailing them non-stop, phoning them non-stop, etc), ie. if you harass them;
  • If you make threats like “I’m going to kill you”, or “if you don’t do X then I will hurt you”, or broadcast commands for others to kill so-and-so or such-and-such a group of people, ie, if you threaten them;
  • And if you print outright lies about someone, ie. if what you express is libellous,

Then you can be prosecuted (ie. you have stepped beyond the “defined area” of free speech), because in doing these things, you have prevented others from being free to express themselves as human beings, because instead they are having to divert their attention and efforts to running away from you, or hiding so as to avoid being murdered by the people you’ve incited, or working to clear their name of crimes they didn’t commit (and perhaps fleeing those who seek misdirected vengeance for those crimes). Moreover, your freedom of speech in other people’s property, or on other people’s blogs, is limited. If you annoy someone in a domain that they own, then they are within their rights to tell you to leave, or block you.

Actually, freedom to express oneself without harming others is a pretty internally consistent value. Like any value, it falls short of being “absolute”, but actually, fuzzy boundaries are a property of all categories – this is the rule rather than the exception. And it’s why we allow amendments, by-laws and sub-clauses to be added to our social contracts.

Now Martin Rowson gets the floor.

Note that he starts by saying that he agrees with what Self has just said, but then really doesn’t say anything to corroborate this alleged agreement.

“I don’t like my colleagues being murdered because of what they do, and I spend most of my time pushing the envelope as far as I can. But within the bounds – I self-censor a lot”

What bounds?

Those of the newspapers, he explains. He bears in mind “what newspapers would tolerate”. And when asked to confirm, therefore, that he wouldn’t depict Muhammad, he responds, with a curious mixture of loftiness and nervousness, that he did so in the past.

So the interviewer says, slightly baffled, “so… you haven’t self-censored…?”

To which Rowson responds (and this did make me chuckle), “well, no I haven’t, because I got away with it.”


In other words, his “bounds” are defined by terrorist threats. Not elevated human sensitivity as to where the limits of what one is happy to come out and say ought to lie, as a decent human being. The only reason he would think twice now is because “people wouldn’t publish it”. So, all he adds to the discussion thus far is a re-stating of the very basis for the “Je suis Charlie” adage.

Back to Self. After the interviewer asks whether this doesn’t just mean that the extremists are winning, he responds:

“Well no they’re not [Sanctimonious guffaw]. The whole problem with this dynamic is that with each of these terrorist attacks, and don’t get me wrong, [generic condemnation of murder and arguably unsophisticated use of the word “evil” to describe people who have been systematically brainwashed by scripture], I think the point about this is that the whole notion seems to be that freedom of speech is some kind of absolute right, and that’s exactly the same as a religious point of view, interestingly.”

As I already pointed out, freedom of expression is limited. There are various cases in which the right to express one’s self is overridden by other rights protected by law. His claim that freedom of speech is perceived as an absolute right is baseless. He’s plucked it out of the ether. I don’t know anyone who would argue that free speech is “absolute”. This is just slippery rhetoric – applied as a brain lubricant to facilitate easy passage for the egregious false equivocation he follows it up with.

Belief in free speech, however unrefined, couldn’t be any further from “a religious point of view”.

This statement is incorrect on so many levels that an essay could be written on it, and in fact many have been — it’s pretty much just a rehashing of the facile, endlessly recycled claim that atheism has “become a religion” — but let me type the first couple of things that come to mind (leaving aside the fact that the non-absoluteness of free speech has been written in to the law, as per my earlier paragraph).

Even if freedom of speech were an absolutist “point of view”, absolutism about non-absolutness would still contrast enormously with absolutism regarding rules that actively and gratuitously restrict self-expression – ie, rules that claim that you must believe in a specific, pre-defined supernatural being – and which are enforced via surveillance not just of the streets you walk down (a pet hate of Self’s) but of your every thought.

“Absolutism” about free speech (which I hold doesn’t exist anyway) shares with scriptural dogma only the most singular and irrelevant, content-free property. Let me explain what I mean.

If religions were “absolutist” about harmless and inconsequential things like the idea that rabbits are green (YES, ALL OF THEM, EVERY SINGLE ONE), then 1) they wouldn’t catch on in the first place, and 2) if they somehow did, people could simply observe the mismatch with reality and cease to believe, suffering no repercussions. What makes “religions” bad (leaving aside the vast differences between, say, Islam and Jainism – both being “religions”) is their intrusion on people’s personal lives, their nullification of people’s freedom to explore, and their demands that people submit to their rules on pain of eternal torment (oh and sometimes mortal torment on Planet Earth too…mentioning no names and quoting no quotes…).

Self’s focus on “absolutism” as a property that can make religion “exactly the same” as other things is astoundingly dense. I hope it was just a bad day.

He continues: “It [absolutism] places human ethics outside of human society. It makes them something that inhere in the cosmos in some way. And that’s not the case. All rights have to be countered with responsibilities”.

I don’t really need to rebut this because, as I’ve already argued, the premise was wrong. But I can’t help but protest nonetheless that I fail to see how this even follows from his false premise. Even if we were to take an absolutist view of free expression, it wouldn’t mean we needed to invoke the cosmos.

The interviewer then challenges him: “Except, aren’t you allowing the Islamic belief in not depicting the prophet Muhammad to trump other people’s beliefs?”

Good question. Unfortunately, Self interjects without seeming to have listened – he never answers it.

Instead, he says: “You always have to ask, with something that purports to be satire…who’s it attacking? Are they people who are in a position of power, and if it’s attacking people who are in a position of power, is it giving comfort to people who are powerless, and who are assaulted in some sense, by those powerful people?”

So, to clarify…if the people who are being attacked by media that purports to be satirical are “in a position of power”, then, he maintains, it’s only really satire if it comforts people who are being overpowered. (Presumably Self takes it as a given that satirising someone who isn’t in a position of power isn’t satire, ever.)

Again, I must protest:

  • Satire is about pointing out flaws in ideas. Yes, it’s usually directed at powerful figures, but if you look up the word in the dictionary, you’ll see that this isn’t a necessary component. “Satire” also refers to the mocking of conventions, or “anything its author thinks ridiculous”.
  • Some people who are not really in a position of power nonetheless consider themselves to be, and they are ripe for satire, particularly since people who consider themselves powerful are usually more inclined to endeavour to make themselves powerful.
  • Satire doesn’t have to be comforting.
  • How does Will Self know who is comforted by what?

He continues “This is not the dynamic with Islamist terrorists. They are not in power in our society. [Notice how he switches from the argument that would follow from “if they are in power” to the one that he just logically implied follows when those being satirised are not in power? Are you getting the impression that he thinks that Islamic terrorists are both in power and not in power? I am.] And it is not comforting the people who look at these cartoons, whether they’re in Charlie Hebdo, or in newspapers here – they don’t feel better about themselves or about life to see Islamist terrorists mocked, or the beliefs of Muslims in general mocked. Why does it make anybody feel better?”

  • Being “in a position of power” is different from “being in power in our society”. Islamist terrorists aren’t officially the latter, but they most certainly are the former, as evidenced by (for example) Martin Rowson’s expression of fear a couple of minutes ago, or the response of the press to the original Danish cartoons – terrorists are powerful enough to scare powerful people and organisations into betraying their own values. Hitchens discusses this in the video above from about 14.00 (though the entire video deals with it, really).
  • Notice the sweeping generalisation of a gargantuan, diverse swathe of people from across the globe. I can think of a large number of people who feel assaulted by Islam, and who might feel empowered by seeing it treated with irreverence. Again, I don’t think I need to illustrate this any further.
  • Satire doesn’t have to be comforting.

No, satire really does not have to be comforting. In fact, satire is always going to divide – that’s the whole point of it. Satire is supposed to make you think. Satire, in fact, is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. It is most effective when it is being directed towards people or conventions that are followed unquestioningly. If you follow a set of conventions, or a tradition, then don’t go and buy a satirical magazine, unless you have a good sense of humour. Nobody is forcing you.

The interviewer then asks: “Is that the point about Charlie Hebdo? That it’s not satire, it’s bullying?”

Now Rowson chimes in again: “The thing about Charlie Hebdo – I mean, Will disagrees with me about this but I see Charlie Hebdo in a particular tradition of souixante-huitard, you know, old-trot situationists, who provoke things just to see what happens, and we have seen what happens as a result of this. And it’s interesting that the French tradition of cartoonists is completely different from the tradition over here. We draw in a different way – the way we draw is different. And also, they are sort of very salacious and sexual and provocative and rude but they don’t do rude cartoons about their politicians in the same way we do.” [Emphasis perceived in Rowson’s own words.]

Self interrupts : “That’s what they should be doing cartoons about.”

Take note of Rowson’s statement that Self disagrees with him re. his run-down of Charlie Hebdo’s “tradition” (this becomes relevant later). Also, go and look up “soixante-huitard”. I admit I don’t know what “old trot” is. And then go and look at Charlie Hebdo cartoons on Google Images. See if you agree with his quirky characterization. In particular,


And see whether you agree that Charlie Hebdo don’t have a tradition of satirizing politicians, instead just publishing images “to see what happens”, rather than making actual, meaningful statements about politics, power dynamics, and society.

Self continues: “Because with every single terrorist attack, what we see is further curtailments of the rights we actually hold dear in our democracies. Habeas corpus, due process of law, fair and equal trial by your peers, absence of surveillance, the use of torture by our government, since 9/11. You know, if I were a cartoonist, the people I would be attacking are the security state and I think its hugely significant that the French state is now funding a million print run of Charlie Hebdo so if they’re kinda situationist radicles then what are they doing in bed with the French government?”

Has this terrorist attack really brought with it “further curtailment” of those things on Self’s list? Is he criticising the terrorists or the Western world here? If terrorist attacks causes a curtailment of our supposed right to absence of surveillance, then…shouldn’t he be satirising terrorists too? I’m extremely confused by this statement, and you should be too. Go on, read it again and see if it makes any sense. It doesn’t.

No matter, we’ll move on to the second thing he just said. (Incidentally, CCTV makes me feel safer, but maybe I’m insane.)

The whole point of free speech, Will, is that if you want to be a cartoonist, and satirise the security state, you are welcome to do so. But other people find other things more interesting to pick apart. The surveillance of people’s private thoughts by a vengeful, bigoted god, for instance. Your right to the opinion that CCTV is worse and more worthy of satire than religious dogma is enshrined by law. By holding up a sign that says “Je suis Charlie”, we are standing up for that right of yours.

Why is it “hugely significant” that the French state is now funding a million print run of Charlie Hebdo and that Charlie Hebdo is accepting it? Irrespective of their political stance (which, actually, probably can’t be captured with one stroke of a brush – this is an organization run by a number of people, who, believe it or not, probably all have different political views), government money comes from taxpayers. Should “situationist radicals” also not accept, say, government grants towards their children’s education? Or free healthcare? Would that put them “in bed with the French government”?

And besides, as I mentioned earlier, according to Rowson, Will Self disagrees with this description of Charlie Hebdo anyway. Or… does he only disagree with it when it doesn’t suit his purpose? Furthermore, even if he doesn’t disagree…

This is still just a label that Rowson thought up. I doubt very much whether Charlie Hebdo would be like “hey, we’re a radical situationist newspaper”. I’d like to ask them.

Self’s final contribution to the discussion: “The problem with the French…

Yes, he really says that.

…is that they have a conception of themselves as being in some way the repository of human rights, freedom, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and they think that they’re kind of enlightened in that way. In fact they’re a state like any other, and they’ve been responsible for some incredibly barbaric and uncivilized things, so this rhetoric that we hear in the wake of incidents like this, pitting civilization against barbarism, is frankly nonsense. It’s simply not true.”

“The problem with the French”. Do you think it’s possible to follow up such an utterance with anything salient, given that “the French” corresponds to an entire country’s-worth of people, with different ideas, cultures and affiliations?

“They have a conception of themselves”? “They think they’re enlightened”? Seriously? All French people have the same conception of themselves?

I’m not usually one for pointing out people’s casual bigotry – I tend leave that to people like Will Self. But in this case, I think it needs to be drawn attention to.

In any case, what has all this got to do with freedom of speech, and whether we should unite in support of Charlie Hebdo’s right to draw rude cartoons, without being massacred? Indeed, what, exactly, is Self’s point?

He has none. His views (which, despite the fact that I think they are noxious, he has every right to put forward) are a classic example of the tu quoque fallacy. Pointing out what you deem to be a hypocrisy, and then claiming you’ve won the argument, when you haven’t.

The support that has emerged across the globe isn’t from people “pitting civilisation against barbarism”. It’s from people standing up for the rights of a free country’s citizens to act in accordance with the laws written into that country’s constitution. France’s government (which changes periodically, remember) doesn’t need to have a squeaky clean record in order for France’s people to stand up for constitutional rights.

And while we’re on civilisation vs. barbarism, at least in a democratic state like France, the stains on its record can be pointed out by people like Will Self and criticised with reference to the ideals officially protected by its constitution. At least France has ideals of freedom and equality. If it’s not living up to those ideals, people can come out and say so, and governments can be held accountable and voted out.

Furthermore, and the importance of this cannot be understated, the constitution itself is subject to change. I’m not saying that changing laws is a simple matter, but at least France’s constitution wasn’t dreamed up by an Ancient warlord and claimed as the infallible, unalterable word of the divine.

Sentencing people to death for disagreeing with the Muhammad’s “revelations” is not just barbaric – it’s constitutionally barbaric, according to Islamic scripture. And if you don’t believe me, then read the book.

It’s easy for people living in free societies, broadcasting from the comfort of their cosy living rooms or smart channel 4 studios, to paint a country like France, where you can believe in green rabbits rather than the word of Muhammad without being stoned to death, to paint unconstitutional Western barbarism with the same brush as constitutional (scripturally sound) theocratic barbarism.

Another thing I’m not normally one for suggesting people do is to “check their privilege”. But once you see this for what it is – a person who has lived such a privileged life that their luck is no longer visible to them – you see that dogmatic brainwashing, like radioactive waste, exerts its effects far beyond the spillage site, rearing its ugly head in the most distant and unusual of places. As the Hitch would have put it, “How far the termites have spread. And haven’t they feasted well.”

I wish I had a good conclusion, but conclusions are limited by the material you are making conclusions about. Self doesn’t have a point. All he actually says, if you distill it, is that he doesn’t like the cartoons, and thinks that there are better things to be satirical about. But that’s the whole point of free speech. You get to draw cartoons that other people don’t like. His charge that satire has to be “comforting” to people who aren’t in power is just…incorrect, as well as being built on the baseless assumption that no disempowered person ever felt good seeing Islam disrobed.

A good conclusion might be to point out what he doesn’t say. Where is his critique of Charlie Hebdo’s extremely rude cartoons featuring the pope, or Jews? As Self says himself, free speech has to be clearly defined. If we are cool with cartoons depicting the son shagging the father up the arse with the holy spirit wedged in his anus, but we’re not cool with a naked Muhammad sprawled on his front being videotaped, then we’ve lost that clear definition and we’ve entered the realm of inconsistency. That’s a recipe for disaster, and now it’s being cooked up not just by Islamic Islam exeptionists, but by non-religious ones too.

Yes, we can express social (but not legal) disapproval at others’ decisions about what to publish and what not to publish (thanks to freedom of expression). But the single most inappropriate and transparently duplicitous moment at which to do this is just after people have been massacred because of those decisions.

Post scriptum:

  • If you’re one of those people with a tendency to blame the West, or if you think Charlie Hebdo picks on Muslims disproportionately, or is a “right-wing” publication, then I urge you to read this.
  • You know what irks me? It’s not that freedom of expression isn’t being limited enough – quite the opposite. It bothers me that our government still hasn’t lifted some of the limitations upon freedom of expression that we’ve inherited from history, making it unnecessarily inconsistent in practice, even though in theory it shouldn’t have to be. I live in England. If I walk down the road with my boobs out, I’m not curtailing the rights of my compatriots to express themselves freely. But still, the nipple police will come for me. Likewise, If I take LSD at a park with my friends, I’m not curtailing anybody’s ability to express themselves. Yet if I am too obvious — too expressive — about my LSD-taking, then I am at risk of being searched, and, if I have any in my pocket, prosecuted. The government gives the nod to horrendously harmful cigarette-smoking, and binge-drinking, but outlaws numerous other, much, much less dangerous types of drug-taking, supporting the violence associated with black markets in so doing. Yuck! Fortunately, as a member of a democratic society that has freedom of expression built into its legal system, I am permitted to take part in demonstrations and rallies, write blog posts, and generally make a big fuss, about these kinds of hypocrisy.