Tag Archives: Media representation

The myth of free speech in the Western world

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists this week were atrocious and unfair. There is never any justification for the cruel massacre of 17 people and the terrorizing of a whole city for three days. But I am not Charlie and I feel very uncomfortable with the global endorsement of that hashtag. Although it has been pointed out to me that the hashtag is just a show of solidarity for the victims, I am extremely uncomfortable in supporting free speech that makes fun of Boko Haram sex slaves – sexually abused children – to make a (racist) point about welfare.

In a breath of fresh air, the leaking of internal Al Jazeera emails to The National Review revealed that they have privately positioned themselves against the global support of Charlie Hebdo. One of the quotes that most stood out for me was the following by journalist Omar Al Saleh: “Journalism is not a crime [but] insultism is not journalism. And not doing journalism properly is a crime.”

In the fast-paced world of online journalism and Twitter, a condemnation of the attacks and an unquestionable support for free speech was demanded left and right. It has become a matter of “If you’re against Charlie you’re pro terrorism/against free speech,” whereas the question here should really be: “Free speech is great, how do we use it responsibly?”

Even if free speech is an unquestionable right the Western world prides itself in, the right to publish anything you want doesn’t excuse the use of irresponsible, racist, polarizing cartoons. You are free to make fun of Boko Haram sexual slaves but the question is – should you? (Hint: No.) David Brooks of the New York Times puts it well:

“(…) Whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.

“We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

“But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (…) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.” – David Brooks, I Am Not Charlie, The New York Times

The thing about freedom of speech is that it does not exist in a vacuum where it has no impact, especially if you are a journalist exercising your right in a major publication. Once your words appear in a magazine or newspaper, those words matter and they will influence the people who read them. You may tell yourself that people will decide for themselves to be racist and that you had nothing to do with it – but if you publish a racist sentiment you are validating thousands of racists who already feel that way and you might influence people who don’t know much about the subject.

Some people have claimed that Charlie Hebdo’s racist cartoons have spurred on debate about Islam. And here, I ask: who was part of this debate? Was Islam presented accurately by white cartoonists who probably don`t have any Muslim friends? Through the medium of the depiction of the prophet with a star on his ass, was Islam represented fairly or was it vilified? What use is a debate where only one side is heard – the side of the voyeurs?

Free speech is not about petulantly publishing offensive content that adds nothing to difficult conversations we should be having about religion, race and oppression. And neither is it “brave,” like many have claimed – it is actually pretty cowardly to incite Islamophobia in a country where Muslims are increasingly discriminated against. It is ignorant and reeks of white privilege.

Religions are not beyond reproach but the Charlie cartoons were very racialized and polarizing – they othered a group of people. Extremism can and should be questioned but not to the expense of generalizing an entire group.

The Myth of Free Speech

Much has been said about how free speech is under attack in the Western World because of this attack. Frankly, this is extremely hypocritical when, as a woman online, I see the silencing of people of colour and women every single day.

It can be through extreme harassment in orchestrated attacks or just a woman being pushed out of a forum because of gendered slurs aimed at her. It can be through the prominence of racist cartoons over the voices of real Muslims where Islam is concerned: and the erasure of these voices and the lack of positive representation of Muslim characters in the media can result in violent Islamophobia and othering. I have heard of female journalists being told their content was “too women centred” or too “politically correct” for the broader media. As the brilliant Sunny Hundal puts it:

“(…)Let’s also stand up for free speech when Muslims are being threatened. Some of the voices I hear piping up about free speech only do so when Muslims are the perpetrators not victims.

“That isn’t just inconsistent, it also makes me think you don’t really care for the principles at stake. And that also makes it much harder for all of us to convince Muslims about why they should embrace more free speech and the right to insult their religion.” – Sunny Hundal, Why do liberals find it so hard to persuade Muslims about free speech?, Liberal Conspiracy

It must be pointed out that in France, the use of the hijab is forbidden. In 2012 several Muslim institutions sued Charlie Hebdo for their racist content but the case was dismissed. To me, this is a clear double standard: racist cartoons inciting hate? Okay. Embracing Islam as a religion publicly? Not okay. This is only one instance in which free speech is exposed as a myth, or rather a selective right: it is only available to the powerful majority.

We are kidding ourselves if we idealize journalism as some kind of noble profession when a lot of the content is produced for profit. Of course, the fact that it is for profit does not mean it cannot be used for good and for the public interest but your commitment to free speech is extremely polarized if you think everyone has the same footing when joining in the conversation.

Journalists, I am sceptical about your commitment to free speech if you are not seeking diverse voices to include in your work. Editors, I am sceptical about your commitment to free speech if you are not striving for a more diverse pool of writers. I am sceptical about the commitment of most of the press when their opinion sections look like this:

The Times, June 2014.
The Times, June 2014.
The Times, January 2015
The Times, January 2015
Question Time panel after the attacks in Paris.

Go ahead and say “But I am pro-diversity!” but this is not about you or your opinions. This is about systemic violence that silences women and people of colour across the Western world and the fact that people aren’t outraged about that. I am not Charlie Hebdo because I believe a diverse set of voices – not polarizing racist cartoons – will set us free.

UPDATE: Adding this helpful read about the two-layered type of humor Charlie Hebdo is all about – as well as an explanation of how it is also exploitative and racist.

My thoughts are with the friends and family of the victims of the massacre and the Muslims who will undoubtedly suffer Islamophobia as a result of these attacks.

The Brazilian media, Representation and ‘bullying’ of foreigners

Last week, the Brazilian Human Rights Commission approved a request by Congressman Marcos Rogério to remove a Guaraná commercial featuring Neymar that allegedly ‘promotes bullying against foreigners in Brazil’. Watch the video above.

In the commercial, foreigners ask Neymar how to order Guaraná, a Brazilian soda made from an Amazonian fruit. Neymar then writes the translation on a piece of paper. But he doesn’t write what they asked him – he writes common Brazilian sayings that make zero sense in the context of ordering a drink. And so the ‘gringos’ go off to Rio and embarrass themselves by saying things like “I am a dog sucking on a mango, please” (which is a phrase that means ‘ugly’).

Maybe it is a little bit offensive, but if someone is travelling to a place where they don’t know the language they should expect some confusion and ridicule. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being lost in translation – no one expects someone to speak all the languages. And if you are hung up on going places where the language is unknown to you… well, just stay at home.

In any case, the complaint was not made by any gringo (that I know of) but by Brazilian congressmen who are responsible for human rights in this country (it’s important to note that the former president of this human rights commission was largely homophobic, racist and sexist). From this I can only assume they a) have nothing better to do and b) have no idea what human rights actually are.

It’s very difficult to agree that this little prank qualifies as bullying and that this commercial somehow, as the request document put it, ‘violates the values of human dignity’ when so much of the media representation in Brazil is incredibly harmful to its own population.

For example, black women are notably either portrayed in soap operas as maids or sexual objects. The first ‘gay kiss’ on national television was aired a few months ago but comedy shows still largely rely on homophobia to make jokes. Women in general are told they are token prizes in commercials, or are regularly asked by yogurt adverts whether they are thin enough for summer.

If the issue really is ‘human dignity’ and not ‘don’t bully the gringos, they’re bringing us cash’, then why is the image of the Brazilian woman, for example, so warped? A study published by Avon in 2013 shows how women in particular have their ‘human dignity’ violated by the Brazilian media: half of Brazilian men think women are responsible for the house and 89% of them find it inadmissible when women do not keep the house clean. Around 50% of Brazilian men also think women don’t feel the need for sex and 69% of them will not allow their wives to go out without them.

Judging by the commission’s complaint against the Guaraná commercial, we can assume that these congressmen know the importance of media representation. And yet, the Brazilian media is sexist, misogynist, transphobic, racist and does not correctly portray our people – in fact they are regularly oppressed by it.

Slavery is constantly erased, and made into a joke – despite the ugly fact that Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, after bringing 3 million Africans to the country. Women are belittled and represented as sex objects. The history of native people is also constantly made fun of and the genocide of native peoples is erased by the mainstream colonialist rhetoric.

And this pathetic complaint, that uses ‘human dignity’ as an argument, is coming from a human rights commission that spent the larger part of 2013 trying to pass a bill of law called ‘Gay Cure’ that would allow doctors to treat homosexuality as a psychological disease.

When the population’s ‘human dignity’ is violated every day by harmful stereotypes and oppressive representation, it is really hard to care about Neymar laughing at a few tourists who are fortunate enough to be able to travel to Brazil to (presumably) watch the World Cup.