March 10, 2015

Letter: Freedom of speech should have been met with accountability at Charlie Hebdo event

Freedom of speech and our attitudes toward Islam as a religion, though intersecting issues in the Charlie Hebdo case, should not be equated or discussed as though they are interchangeable.

I refer to the French Club’s letter “Freedom of speech does not mean safety from debate” (03/06/2015) regarding the discussion on Who is Charlie? featuring Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb El Rhazoui. Two major issues came to the forefront during El Rhazoui’s discussion: freedom of speech, and our attitudes toward Islam as a religion. Granted, they are intersecting issues in the Charlie Hebdo case. They should not, however, be equated or discussed as though they are interchangeable.

Xin Tian Yong’s original article “Actions speak louder than words,” 03/03/2015) specifically sought to critique the latter issue, and not the former. However, the response letter by the French Club addressed only the former issue and not the latter. Because the French Club responded to Yong’s article using a different premise, its letter failed to address the very real problems highlighted by the way the University community enthusiastically received El Rhazoui’s unfavorable attitude toward Islam. This reaction was puzzling and frankly disappointing, especially in light of how the University community has previously treated different incidents pertaining to discriminatory statements made against minority groups.

In her exchange with Aseal Tineh, El Rhazoui made several unjustified comments about Islam as a religion. Tineh’s original question to El Rhazoui, which begins at about 1:23:15 on the YouTube recording of the event, was, “Why can’t I say—which I have been asked many times, do I condemn, yes, I condemn the acts of terror—but why can’t I also say that I am not Charlie Hebdo?”

Tineh’s question had absolutely nothing to do with freedom of speech. Tineh expressly admitted that she did not believe that Charlie Hebdo deserved to be censored in such a terrorizing manner. Rather, Tineh questioned the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons by contending that the cartoons exploit those who are already disempowered by the social structure. For example, Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Muslims target a religious minority whose beliefs are often misunderstood by the greater public. In other words, Tineh’s question was, why can’t I support the freedom of speech that Charlie Hebdo stands for, but deplore the discriminatory attitude exhibited in Charlie Hebdo’s work toward underrepresented groups?

In response, El Rhazoui attempted to establish that Charlie Hebdo is not discriminatory. She first pointed out that Charlie Hebdo does support minority interests—an argument that is unconvincing at best. At 1:28:37, she said, “Charb [the editor of Charlie Hebdo] was in the media, he was the most pro-Palestinian voice in the media, and he was a guy who traveled many times to occupied territories and was friends with a lot of Palestinian people and organizations.” El Rhazoui essentially made the flimsy argument that Charb could not have been racist because he had friends from other races. Moreover, El Rhazoui erroneously conflated championing the rights of one minority with championing the rights of all minorities. But this does not follow, because different social groups have different interests. Hence, Charb having been pro-Palestinian does not exempt him from having held views that oppress groups whose interests do not coincide with those at stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict. By extension, Charlie Hebdo might support some, but not all, minority interests.

At about 1:30:00, El Rhazoui goes so far as to assert, “I think the problem is that this religion [Islam], today, must ask itself why it produces criminals, why it produces terrorists, OK and not only in France, but also in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, in Iran, in Syria.” El Rhazoui’s statement is, horrifically, equivalent to saying that black people should ask themselves why they have produced so many criminals in America. El Rhazoui’s statement should consequently have invited incredible outrage: The collective members of a community should not be asked to account for the actions of select individuals, and indeed should not be held responsible for the behavior of these select individuals, because the causes driving individual behavior cannot be so simply determined. But the outrage I expected never came.

Disappointingly, the discussion stopped here, and El Rhazoui was still greeted with a standing ovation. This outcome is completely incongruous with the values UChicago has historically championed. In the past, I have seen UChicago students forcefully protest racial and gendered inequalities on this campus. For example, last year, the confidentiality clause surrounding Dan Savage’s IOP event was disregarded, because students wanted to debate the offensiveness of the language he used during an event ostensibly about addressing issues affecting the queer community. Strangely, El Rhazoui’s equally troubling statement was applauded because it was hidden within her broader and more agreeable campaign for the necessity of free speech. This suggests that distressing situations are only called out when they happen within the context of discussions that were explicitly about the issue that was being called out. I find this to be a double standard.

In their letter, the president and vice-president of the French Club justified the standing ovation that El Rhazoui received by pointing out that El Rhazoui’s life has been threatened: “To choose to travel to Chicago and speak publicly required a tremendous amount of courage on her part. It was this display of bravery that prompted a standing ovation at the conclusion of her talk, and it is this bravery that deserves applause, regardless of whether or not we agree with what El Rhazoui says.” I do not deny that El Rhazoui is a courageous individual who has made incredible sacrifices to continue championing the causes she believes in. Despite this, I still argue that El Rhazoui’s personal bravery is irrelevant to the issues at stake. The implication of the French Club’s argument is that people should be excused—even applauded—for disagreeable behavior so long as they have redeeming personal qualities. This simplifies the nuances comprising the individual, whereby possessing positive personal qualities and occasionally doing inappropriate things are not mutually exclusive events.

So, I would conversely ask: should we give a speaker a standing ovation because they stand for something we agree with, even when they have also said something offensive? Past precedent has shown that people often lose campus support when they make ignorant statements, even if they are not bad people in totality. Savage identifies himself as a gay activist, and yet students are now more greatly divided about his credibility thanks to the controversy surrounding the IOP event. To the best of my knowledge, Savage did not receive a standing ovation for his contentious way of arguing that the queer community should reclaim an offensive word, even though his use of that offensive word was technically allowed under the principles of free speech. Why, then, did El Rhazoui receive an uncontested standing ovation? Why should she be exempt from being held to the same standard? Or do discriminatory issues pertaining to religion simply matter less to the University community?

In their letter, the French Club asked, “What, then, constitutes a safe space? Putting aside the canine sweeps, UCPD officers, and bag prohibition that made this event the most secure any current student has probably ever attended on this campus, we ask: What more can event organizers do to ensure a “safe space” for productive conversation for all?” But safety should not be defined only through the physical and legal realms. On one hand, El Rhazoui’s life is currently endangered because of content produced using a pen. Similarly, Savage’s event was pronounced an unsafe space for members of the queer community because of the language he used. On the other hand, marginalized groups have historically suffered under the hands of a law created by those who actually hold power in society. As such, the statement made by the French Club does not account for the very real threats that neither physical nor legal measures can adequately protect people from.

Certainly, I am glad that the University remains committed to encouraging freedom of speech on campus, because I strongly believe that being able to discuss contentious issues freely and openly is crucial toward furthering our understanding of diverse perspectives. However, I am disheartened by the double standard the University community seems to be using in order to judge what viewpoints should be applauded, and what viewpoints should be objected to. That Xin Tian Yong’s critique of El Rhazoui’s discriminatory statements against Islam was misconstrued as an attack on free speech simply because El Rhazoui’s talk was ostensibly about defending free speech suggests that we are either unable to distinguish statements of religious discrimination when they are presented in contexts that do not explicitly deal with religion, or suggests (more disturbingly) that we do not care to address statements of religious discrimination when they are made in contexts we otherwise endorse.

Ultimately, I stand by Aseal Tineh’s assertion: I wholly support the freedom of expression Charlie Hebdo stands for, but I also wholly denounce the way Charlie Hebdo treats the marginalized and disempowered in the name of so-called humor. I do not deny Charlie Hebdo the right to publish what it wants. Nor do I deny the University community its right to thank El Rhazoui with a standing ovation. I nevertheless feel disappointed because I, quite frankly, expected the people associated with the University of Chicago to respond differently to statements of overt discrimination made against disempowered groups—even when those statements are made by the people we otherwise wish to support.

—Carol Ann Tan, class of 2015