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Why do cartoons offend us more than mass assaults against women?

by Harsh Kapoor, 3 September 2017

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[written on 28 January 2016]

Our progressives (and I share their opposition to class inequality and injustice) apparently have no sense of humour when it comes to visceral satire or derision. Their revolution is dead serious, it isn’t funny. Some of our radical left media - pamphlets, posters etc have no problem reproducing horrific photos of dead bodies, body parts or of the wounds of victims of riots or repression. This is meant as evidence and is often intended also to shock. Is it politically vital to do that? May we say that this is an insensitive practice, intended to cultivate a clichéd culture of martyrdom? May we also say that such images create a certain representation of the broken lives of poor people writhing in pain and with a definitive look of despair and deprivation?

Many of us don’t seem to have a problem with this. Criticisms of such practices have been repulsed with remarks about the middle-class ethical sensibilities of those who are offended. Here there seems to be no problem with how victims and the underdog are represented. Yet they find it necessary to scold others for mocking the plight of the poor and oppressed.

These are major taboos in the lexicon of political rectitude. The victims, the ‘masses’ are good and un-adulterated, they can’t go wrong. You may only lionize and venerate the oppressed. (Fortunately the great Chinese writer Lu Xun did not adhere to this principle, or else world literature would have been deprived of his biting satire The True Story of Ah Q – one of the sharpest attacks on class society ever written). No wonder there are so few ‘progressive’ magazines, songs, slogans and plays that are funny or mocking in style. It is all civil, puritanical and deadpan. We hope we may deliver the revolution some day without hurting sentiments of the masses. And we will definitely not be seen laughing.

Many of these circles have launched a tirade against the French journal Charlie Hebdo ever since the brutal killings of its cartoonists and editors in January 2015. There has been barely veiled commentary saying they had it coming, they mocked the minorities and poor, and that they were ‘anti-Muslim.’ Nothing is sacred for them.

We need to say this now - yes, unlike us they come from a tradition not surrendering to accusations of blasphemy. Yes they poke fun at all that is sacred and do what is unthinkable, even what would be illegal in south Asia. In the past year ever since the Je suis Charlie mobilisation in France, leftists have decided to play I am not Charlie politics.

Since September 2015 Europe has faced its largest migrant crisis since World War Two, and this is fuelling a wave of ultra-right political mobilisation in Europe. Against this scenario, some leftist leaders have been playing to the gallery of the I am not Charlie camp as if to signal their target audiences. Instead of directing their ire against assassination of twelve cartoonists in their office, they have focused on the Charlie Hebdo’s choice of cartoons.

Yes, the work of certain cartoonists is in the tradition of bitterly ironical and sardonic imagery, reusing images or words concerning certain social events by détournement [1] or hyper-inflating their meaning. This may not seem humorous for many of us – but often it is not intended to make you laugh but to mock and shock. A few months ago a literary figure wrote about her distaste for Charlie’s cartoon on Aylan. Of late there have been further denunciations of a specific cartoon.

This cartoon was made in wake of hordes of sexist men engaging in a mass sexually assaults on hundreds of women in the streets of north European cities on New Years eve, 2015.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon was in direct response to the language and actions of European ultra-nationalists and racists. The cartoon mocks them by ironically exaggerating their claims "and yes had Aylan not died he too would have grown up to become a groper". To take this literally is yet another instance of politically correct morose politics. We may have different standards of judgement, but public denunciations branding Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as racist is uncalled for. We could try and understand French cartooning before commenting on it. It is sad to see this shoot-from-the-hip attitude even from those who have challenged the ‘hurt sentiment’ industry in the past.

It is even more distressing to note that the outrage directed at Charlie Hebdo took place at the same time as the violent attacks on women across Europe. Feminist and progressive voices – by and large – overlooked this outbreak of violent misogyny. Those who are speaking out happen to be white supremacist & ultra-right formations who are openly racist. The progressives are silent for fear of being called racist.

Charlie Hebdo is fiercely hostile towards discrimination against migrants and minorities. Over the past year it has lambasted Europe’s political leaders’ callous response to the refugee crisis. One cartoon, ridiculing Europe’s pretensions to be a Christian continent, showed a Jesus-like figure walking on the water ignoring a drowning child. ‘Christians walk on water’, the text read, ‘Muslim children sink’. The cartoon is captioned ’Proof that Europe is Christian’.

This cartoon was in direct response to the Polish ultra-right. Another cartoon attacks European consumerism by playing on the photo of the drowned Syrian child on a Turkish beach. The cartoon showed a toddler face-down on the shoreline beside a MacDonald’s advertising billboard offering two children’s meal menus for the price of one. ‘So close to making it…’ read the caption. An editorial denounced Europe’s ‘hypocritical response’ to the migrant crisis and compared today’s indifference to the plight of migrants to its attitudes toward Jews fleeing Nazis in the 1930’s.

In 1971, four years before its promulgation of the law permitting abortion, 343 women proclaimed openly that they had broken the law by aborting. The manifesto attacked: "fascists of all stripes... they call themselves Catholics, fundamentalists, demographers, experts doctors, lawyers, responsible me... Debré, Lejeune, Pompidou, Pope." In its own way, Charlie Hebdo contributed to the success of this manifesto, in a special issue to support the manifesto. They named it ‘Speciale-salopes’ [‘Bad-women’ special]. Their cover page mocked the politicians – by showing Michel Debre the defence minister, known for his conservative views, replying sheepishly, "It was for France!"

I am appalled at the repeated attack by leftists on Charlie Hebdo. The latest one is about an April 1971 cover page of Charlie Hebdo

with this question in the cartoon “Who empregnated these ‘dirty-women’ or ‘bad-women’ of the manifesto on abortion?” Above the text was a sketch resembling the face minister Michel Debre. The cartoon was attacking the politicians of the time who were opposed to abortion. This cover become so famous that across society and even today the manifesto is mostly known as the Manifest des 343 Salopes [Manifesto of 343 bad women]

Now to the question of the mass sexual assaults on New Years eve 2015 about which those charged up with the Chalie Hebdo cartoon have remained silent. In most reports from German and north European cities (Helsinki, Malmo, Stockholm, and Salzburg), there were clear reports of large groups of young immigrant men (reportedly from Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morroco etc.,), based on victims accounts, complaints and preliminary police reports etc. It is difficult to direct specify ethnicity or nationality because many police forces (as for example in Sweden) are disallowed from revealing national or ethnic origins). But the assailants were very clearly migrant men in large groups.

Now working class men come together all over Europe around football matches, but rarely does that turn into mass sexual assaults. Gangs of young men encircling and violently groping women at large public gatherings is something new in Europe.

What happened on December 31 [2015] seemed to reproduce something from outside Europe. In the Arab world, it has a name: taharrushgamea. Sometimes the girls are teased and have their veils torn off by gangs of young men; sometimes it escalates into rape or sexual assault.

Five years ago, this form of attack was the subject of an award-winning Egyptian film, 678. Instances of young men surrounding and attacking girls were reported throughout the Arab Spring protests in Cairo in 2011 and 2012. Lara Logan, a CNN journalist and Caroline Sinz from a French TV network, were raped in Tahrir Square in the middle of the famously celebrated Arab Spring while they were covering the fall of Hosni Mubarak [2].

Taharrushgamea has arrived in Europe. Leftists and feminists everywhere should denounce it for what it is with no fear or favour to any.


Entretien Marieme Hélie Lucas " la gauche a sacrifié les droits des femmes " Par Angélique Kourounis (20/01/2016) ]


[1a term used by Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI) movement of the 1960’s, Detournement is usually translated into English as ‘diversion’ and was the method of artistic creation used by the situationists. It was, in effect, plagiarism where both the source and the meaning of the original work was subverted to create a new work.