<Dr. Malcolm Langford, Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsens Institute, and Centre for Human Rights at UiO>
“Words can explode like bombs”. So said Kathrine Aspass, a journalist for Norway’s Aftenposten in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The reaction was fast and furious. The comic strip Sharp Edges was quick to caricature such statements as a slap in the face for the victims. The comic characters muse that their families would be ‘so’ comforted by these platitudes and their repetition by their political supporters, amongst others the Norwegian opposition leader Gahr Støre.
Do words explode like bombs? Can the pen actually strike like a sword? Is this the voice of reason that seeks to both attack the shootings and express disagreement with potentially Islamophoic cartoons? Is it a way to straddle the binary Twitter world of #jesuischarlie and #jenesuispascharlie? Or is yet another simple example of tolerance and multiculturalism gone awry?
The notion of words as bombs is both very wrong and very right. It is partly because simple slogans, like most hashtags, have a tendency to overly mix morality responsibility with empirical causality. It’s also because the debate has been too focused on the virtues and limits of freedom of expression rather than the causes and consequences of violence.
The notion that words can explode like a bomb is clearly wrong in moral terms. The danger lurking in this metaphor is that it equates the most grotesque form of physical violence, murder, with acts of speech. It is a form of moral equivalence that is unjustifiable and unsustainable.
We need to properly pause to condemn violence before rushing to find explanations. To do so, however, is not to embrace a mindlessly conservative political agenda of law and order. Campaigns for taking physical violence seriously has been central to progressive causes. Whether it is women’s movements on sexual violence; civil rights movements on the death penalty; or criminal law reformers on the continued use of police resources on moral crimes.
However, such condemnation must be consistent. It must apply equally to the two brothers storming Charlie Hebdo in the name of Islam or Behring Breivik in the name of Christian civilisation. If we sign on as #Iamcharlie we must be ready to sign on as #Iamthelabourparty, the target of Breivik’s attacks, and vice versa.
At another level, words do function like bombs. Indeed, Aspass’ statement was taken from a cartoonist for the tabloid VG who stated “I cannot go around exploding bombs all the time”. But the metaphor is not quite right. Words lack the same power. They might be better described as the fuselage or gunpowder. This is because research on the causes of violence reveals the importance of words and images.
Of course, one school of thought asserts that that the causes of violence are material – a conflict over the distribution of resources. Yet others claim violence is more intrinsic, finding its origins in psychology and social relations. Violence is a product of othering as we build our identity on the basis of difference. It is a product of scapegoating as we seek to find others to carry the blame. It is the product of social learning, particularly if peers or hate entrepreneurs build spiraling narratives of hate. It is the product of our neurons and the structure of our brains: Not only we differently wired as to our general propensity for violence but we also vary in our biological capacity to tolerate and accept difference. While each of these non-material accounts also vie for explanatory ascendancy, words and images are essential to all of them.
Now, a single cartoon does not a massacre make. But a series of cartoons combined with overarching narratives may contribute to the escalating tensions between the so-called Islamic and Western civilizations. Words and images form part of the casual apparatus that both boosts and reduces violence. If the Islamaphobes want to argue that religious texts cause violence, they also need to consider their own textual contribution.
This brings us back to freedom of expression. Is there a right to draw Mohammed? Is there a right to draw many pictures? Is there a right to denigrate the prophet? The reaction around the world to the Charlie Hebdo attacks seems to suggest that there is significant support for both a legal and moral answer of yes.
The more difficult question is how we should morally exercise that right. Indeed, while half the world tweeted Voltaire’s famous statement on the right to speech, few tweeted his consistently anti-Semitic writings.
On this question, we need a reflexive and empirical approach. Here we should find a space between the fundamentalisms of romantic militant secularism and shrill religious zealotry, which feed incessantly off each other.
In my view, a useful place to stand is captured by critical modernity. This view neither embraces all the liberating claims of modernity nor the full relativism of post-modernity. It accepts the existence of multiple modernities and identities without sacrificing reason and rationality. It is highly suspicious of any elite: authoritarian, religious and Western. It thus asks whether secular fundamentalists are really doing battle with powerful global Islamic forces or just marginalizing their fellow Muslim citizens? It questions Western politicians who rushed to Paris to declare their support for the freedom of speech and returned home (including in Norway) to their ongoing projects to limit it domestically. Critical modernity is also restless, experimental and demands evidence. Which side has right strategy in its quest for happier, healthier and enlightened societies?
In condemning violence, we need to separate morality from the empirics. Yet, in preventing violence and finding a way between the fundamentalisms on freedom of speech, we cannot separate the two.