Provocative Behaviour?

January 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

Some events are so immediate, shocking and barbaric that our only response to them is instinctive revulsion. Such were the events that begun just before noon the 7th January 2015 in Paris with the brutal, senseless slaughter of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s staff.

I caught the first reports as they trickled in on the radio as I was driving home and spent the rest of the day following the horror as it unfolded on the net and TV. I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before that afternoon but by the end of the day was convinced that the magazine and its staff were inalienable, almost sacred, elements defending civilisation. Tired and dispirited, before going to bed I did something that aging men of my generation do for reassurance. I checked the cricket scores. At least there was something right with the world, Australia were on top of India at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Over the next two days the terror continued and a shaken France, seemingly to the last citizen, and much of the rest of the world, declared defiantly “Je suis Charlie”. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had become martyrs to democracy and free speech. In solidarity many newspapers and news sites began to reprint the satirical cartoons that had apparently so offended the enemies of freedom. I’m always up for a bit of satire…what harm can it do? I have probably still got a couple of faded copies of Private Eye in a drawer somewhere and will sometimes nostalgically watch a clip from That was the week that was or The Norman Gunston Show on YouTube.

I started to read the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I have to say that the Gallic take on satirical cartoons seems somewhat different from the Anglo Saxon. Whatever the “Je suis Charlies” are saying at the moment I suspect Jonathon Swift is turning in his grave. As the old saying goes “I like a joke as much as the next man” but my reaction on reading the first cartoon was “Blimey, that’s a bit strong!” Undeterred I continued and ploughed my way, with growing disbelief, through all the cartoons that had been reprinted in tribute and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. My initial belief, based on the outpouring of support, that these cartoons were satiric leg-pulls, funny, clever, provocative yes, but not in the least bit hateful and Islamophobic, didn’t survive my reading of the second cartoon.

I’ve visited a few Islamic countries and even on occasion poked my head into a mosque or two (and I confess, for someone as cynical and as spiritually moribund as I am, I have found the mosques I have visited astonishingly serene), but I cannot say I have much understanding of or indeed truck with Islam, or any other religion for that matter. A lack of knowledge, or even sympathy, does not, however, excuse crass insensitivity. So if you visit a mosque, Sikh temple, or Catholic Church you check out the protocols, the same as when you live in a community with different cultures. In my own stumbling way, therefore, I’ve managed to pick up, for example, that it is grossly offensive naming or representing an image of a dead Australian Aborigine without their family’s consent (a taboo that is respected by most Australian newspapers and websites). Equally, I don’t need to be Marco Polo to know that it is deeply insulting to the vast majority of Muslims to represent The Prophet.

The last time I saw cartoons as foul, hateful and deceitfully incendiary as those printed in Charlie Hebdo were in a holocaust museum; the anti-Semitic hate propaganda vomited out by the likes of Julius Streicher in the 1930s and 1940s to incite hatred and justify the reprehensible. I prepared for bed that night pinioned between twin despairs: the barbarous murders of Parisians on the one hand, and on the other disbelief that these foul cartoons, little more than Islamophobic expressions of cultural contempt, had become iconic of free speech. I alleviated my despair by checking out the final day match report from the Sydney Cricket Ground.

As expected, the Australians had it nailed but it reminded me that I really should catch a match there one day. Even though my daughter lives within a Cooee of the SCG I’ve never watched a match there, my ground was always the Gabba in Brisbane. Of course the Gabba has changed more than just a little since I went there as a young bloke over thirty years ago. It’s now fully enclosed by stands whereas back then there was a gap on one side with big old Moreton Bay fig trees you could sit under and a gap on the other side was taken up with a grass mound known as The Hill. It wasn’t up there with SCG Hill but it wasn’t a bad little spot for the local larrikins to loll around and enjoy a tinnie or two.

One of the first matches I went to at the Gabba was to see the return of the traditional enemy, England. Things were a little tense, the scars from the schism of the Packer break away were still sore and, after all, it was the Poms. It was also Geoff Boycott’s return to Australia after his sullen refusal to play for England when he hadn’t been appointed captain. It wasn’t a bad day’s cricket and by mid afternoon the crowd on The Hill had settled into amiably sledging the opposition and all things pommy. It was at that stage that two young pallid Englishmen took it upon themselves to wander past the hill. This was in the days before the Barmy Army and the two union flags waved by the lads fluttered half-heartedly. A couple of empty tinnies flew, equally half-heartedly, over their heads as they passed The Hill. “Keep going” half the Gabba crowd whispered to themselves as the lads slowed and halted in front of The Hill.

“Englishmen never shall be slaves” and so on. The Englishmen started waving their flags with some enthusiasm and a slew of empty tinnies flew over their heads. Encouraged they discovered a low trailer, climbed onto it and began dancing. Empty tinnies became half empty tinnies. A significant warning sign, like seeing an African elephant tuck its trunk under its ears as it readies itself for the charge. But the lads were enjoying themselves; it was after all just a bit of fun. One of them took his T-shirt off and began waving it. Printed on it was the unlikely suggestion: “Boycott for King”. A dozen blokes descended on the young Englishmen and they disappeared under a flurry of punches and kicks as they were dragged from the trailer. A couple of minutes later a T-shirt was pulled from the ruck and ceremoniously set on fire. Another couple of minutes later four of Queensland’s finest, who had been watching the bashing from thirty metres away, wandered over, pulled the lads from under the mob and not so gently dragged them from the ground. Unmolested by the police or anyone else the mob on the hill went back to their amiable sledging.

There were probably thirty thousand spectators at the Gabba that afternoon, many of whom watched the English lads get a bashing. I’m not sure that anyone in the crowd thought that, even though they were Englishmen, they deserved it. No, there was more a sense that “Strewth, the silly bastards, they should have seen that coming.” There was also a sense that the lads had been poking a stick at a snake lounging in the sun and had provoked the attack. The law saw things pretty much along those lines. The next morning “The Courier Mail” reported that the Stipendiary Magistrate had fined two young Englishmen $150 each for unruly and drunken behaviour at Woolloongabba Cricket ground. No action was taken against anyone else on The Hill.

I’ve never really bought into the idea that victims can be culpable in their own abuse. A woman being told that the length of her skirt, or her sexual history was a contributory factor in her rape seems to me an abomination. Equally the child who is made to believe that there was something about their trusting need to be loved that led them to be abused and it was therefore their fault. Victims too often bear not just the scars of their abuse but also the guilt and the burden of believing that it must have been their fault. Even today I read of a court case in England where a teacher was given a remarkably light suspended sentence because the judge concluded that the schoolgirl victim of his sexual abuse had somehow “groomed” the forty year old teacher. Astonishing. And so I do not believe that victims deserve their abuse. Equally, I do not believe that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo deserved to be brutally murdered. And yet…

Sadly the world is littered with examples, from the Venlo incident, through to the Gulf of Tonkin right up to the Iraq war where provocation has been cynically manipulated for greater purpose. I may believe that under any circumstance a woman deserves to be safe and never “deserves” to be raped and yet if a woman walks naked into a bar full of drunken seamen just back from six months at sea, and demands to know if anyone is man enough, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that she should have anticipated the consequences. The lads at the Gabba all those years ago were innocents. They had probably never been to a match there before and experienced the undercurrents of a seemingly amiable mob. Did they start out to be provocative? Probably not. After the first tinnies began flying did they get drawn into being provocative? Almost certainly. Should they have anticipated the consequences of their provocation? Yes. Did they deserve their bashing? No.

Having read their profiles and seen their work it is impossible to believe that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are innocents. They were sophisticated, educated middle-aged and elderly white men who had been plying their trade in the firestorm of French politics for decades. They had been firebombed, they were under armed police protection. They knew the possible consequences of their actions, yet, like the lads on the Gabba trailer, they escalated their provocation. Were they bravely standing up to intimidation, defending the freedom of speech and the values of the Republic? Were they heroes? I would love to believe so. But when I look at their foul, incendiary and divisive cartoons I cannot believe that. Instead the sheer obscenity of the cartoons makes it hard not to believe that the cartoonists didn’t wilfully and knowingly escalate their provocation with the intention of eliciting a response that would vindicate their own hatred of Islam and promote fear of Muslims amongst others. There are between two and four million hard working, decent, generous and law abiding French Muslims(it is illegal for the government to count ethnic minorities in France, as you can only be French). Surely the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were sophisticated enough to recognise that if you start waving around pornographic cartoons depicting the Prophet and show overriding contempt for Islamic culture, that out of that mass of a few million decent, thoughtful Muslims a few maniacs are going to crawl out of the woodwork and use your contempt for their culture to justify the madness of their actions.

So there are twenty people dead on the streets of Paris, the irrational fear of Islam grows like a cancer across Europe and the European political axis shifts to the right. Looking at your cartoons, Charlie Hebdo, who would have thought it? But I hear a muted voice (my own) ask: “Where does this leave freedom of speech?” I guess where it has always been, that is to say, it depends on who is doing the speaking.

Most government representatives who lined up and marched with Hollande in support of the freedom of speech have within their own countries laws that would criminalise the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as inciting racial hatred. In Germany it is illegal to display the swastika. The United Kingdom has locked up more than a few young Muslim lads for having said the wrong thing on their Facebook page and Australia has some of the strongest racial hatred legislation in the world. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is yet again on a racial hatred charge for a rant that was mild compared with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And ironically in France the notorious comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (not the most defensible character and the term comedian is stretched to the limit) has just been arrested for an insipid inference on his Facebook page. So strange, just about every government who expressed their outrage at the terrible murders in Paris enforces legislation to inhibit behaviour that is timid compared with the incendiary provocation of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Bizarrely about the only world leader (apart, that is, from Muslim leaders and clerics…but then who’s going to listen to that fanatical bunch!) who has spoken out against the nature of the cartoons has been Pope Francis. I had to put my scepticism about any religion on hold for a moment when I heard him quoted as saying he would punch someone for such a gross insult. Now there’s a bloke who, for all the failings of the Catholic church, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see thirty odd years ago heading towards the Gabba Hill with some tinnies tucked under his arm.

I have no doubts that freedom of expression is a powerful force in pushing civilisation forward. However. It is hard not to conclude that the vile rancorous Charlie Ebdo cartoons have contributed to making the world less safe and less civilised. Governments of all stripes will become more oppressive. Muslims will become more marginalised, more reviled and more resentful. And all those who fear difference will fuel their hate on the embers so effectively fanned by Charlie Ebdo. So, well done Charlie Ebdo, whatever the merits of your humour, you sure knew how to deliver a punch-line.

And as for me, what can I say except: Je suis triste… and incredibly hacked off at the hypocrisy and double standards of the past week.

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