In the Grey Zone
Slavoj Žižek on responses to the Paris killings
The formula of pathetic identification ‘I am …’ (or ‘We are all …’) only functions within certain limits, beyond which it turns into obscenity. We can proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie,’ but things start to crumble with examples like ‘We all live in Sarajevo!’ or ‘We are all in Gaza!’ The brutal fact that we are not all in Sarajevo or Gaza is too strong to be covered up by a pathetic identification. Such identification becomes obscene in the case of Muselmänner, the living dead in Auschwitz. It is not possible to say: ‘We are all Muselmänner!’ In Auschwitz, the dehumanisation of victims went so far that identifying with them in any meaningful sense is impossible. (And, in the opposite direction, it would also be ridiculous to declare solidarity with the victims of 9/11 by claiming ‘We are all New Yorkers!’ Millions would say: ‘Yes, we would love to be New Yorkers, give us a visa!’)
The same goes for the killings last month: it was relatively easy to identify with the Charlie Hebdo journalists, but it would have been much more difficult to announce: ‘We are all from Baga!’ (For those who don’t know: Baga is a small town in the north-east of Nigeria where Boko Haram executed two thousand people.) The name ‘Boko Haram’ can be roughly translated as ‘Western education is forbidden,’ specifically the education of women. How to account for the weird fact of a massive sociopolitical movement whose main aim is the hierarchic regulation of the relationship between the sexes? Why do Muslims who were undoubtedly exposed to exploitation, domination and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target in their response the best part (for us, at least) of the Western legacy, our egalitarianism and personal freedoms, including the freedom to mock all authorities? One answer is that their target is well chosen: the liberal West is so unbearable because it not only practises exploitation and violent domination, but presents this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite: freedom, equality and democracy.
Back to the spectacle of big political names from all around the world holding hands in solidarity with the victims of the Paris killings, from Cameron to Lavrov, from Netanyahu to Abbas: if there was ever an image of hypocritical falsity, this was it. An anonymous citizen played Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the unofficial anthem of the European Union, as the procession passed under his window, adding a touch of political kitsch to the disgusting spectacle staged by the people most responsible for the mess we are in. If the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, were to join such a march in Moscow, where dozens of journalists have been murdered, he would be arrested immediately. And the spectacle was literally staged: the pictures shown in the media gave the impression that the line of political leaders was at the front of a large crowd walking along an avenue. But another photo was taken of the entire scene from above, clearly showing that behind the politicians there were only a hundred or so people and a lot of empty space, patrolled by police, behind and around them. The true Charlie Hebdo gesture would have been to publish on its front page a big caricature brutally and tastelessly mocking this event.
As well as the banners saying ‘Je suis Charlie!’ there were others that said ‘Je suis flic!’ The national unity celebrated and enacted in large public gatherings was not just the unity of the people, reaching across ethnic groups, classes and religions, but also the unification of the people with the forces of order and control – not only the police but also the CRS (one of the slogans of May 1968 was ‘CRS-SS’), the secret service and the entire state security apparatus. There is no place for Snowden or Manning in this new universe. ‘Resentment against the police is no longer what it was, except among poor youth of Arab or African origins,’ Jacques-Alain Miller wrote last month. ‘A thing undoubtedly never seen in the history of France.’ In short, the terrorist attacks achieved the impossible: to reconcile the generation of ’68 with its arch enemy in something like a French popular version of the Patriot Act, with people offering themselves up to surveillance.
The ecstatic moments of the Paris demonstrations were a triumph of ideology: they united the people against an enemy whose fascinating presence momentarily obliterates all antagonisms. The public was offered a depressing choice: you are either a flic or a terrorist. But how does the irreverent humour of Charlie Hebdo fit in? To answer this question, we need to bear in mind the interconnection between the Decalogue and human rights, which, as Kenneth Reinhard and Julia Reinhard Lupton have argued, are ultimately rights to violate the Ten Commandments. The right to privacy is a right to commit adultery. The right to own property is a right to steal (to exploit others). The right to freedom of expression is a right to bear false witness. The right to bear arms is a right to kill. The right to freedom of religious belief is a right to worship false gods. Of course, human rights do not directly condone the violation of the Commandments, but they keep open a marginal grey zone that is supposed to be out of the reach of (religious or secular) power. In this shady zone I can violate the commandments, and if the power probes into it, catching me with my pants down, I can cry: ‘Assault on my basic human rights!’ The point is that it is structurally impossible, for the power, to draw a clear line of separation and prevent only the misuse of a human right without infringing on its proper use, i.e. the use that does not violate the Commandments.
It is in this grey zone that the brutal humour of Charlie Hebdo belongs. The magazine began in 1970 as a successor to Hara-Kiri, a magazine banned for mocking the death of General de Gaulle. After an early reader’s letter accused Hara-Kiri of being ‘dumb and nasty’ (‘bête et méchant’), the phrase was adopted as the magazine’s official slogan and made it into everyday language. It would have been more appropriate for the thousands marching in Paris to proclaim ‘Je suis bête et méchant’ than the flat Je suis Charlie.’
Refreshing as it could be in some situations, Charlie Hebdo’s ‘bête et méchant’ stance is constrained by the fact that laughter is not in itself liberating, but deeply ambiguous. In the popular view of Ancient Greece, there is a contrast between the solemn aristocratic Spartans and the merry democratic Athenians. But the Spartans, who prided themselves on their severity, placed laughter at the centre of their ideology and practice: they recognised communal laughter as a power that helped to increase the glory of the state. Spartan laughter – the brutal mockery of a humiliated enemy or slave, making fun of their fear and pain from a position of power – found an echo in Stalin’s speeches, when he scoffed at the panic and confusion of ‘traitors’, and survives today. (Incidentally, it is to be distinguished from another kind of laughter of those in power, the cynical derision that shows they don’t take their own ideology seriously.) The problem with Charlie Hebdo’s humour is not that it went too far in its irreverence, but that it was a harmless excess perfectly fitting the hegemonic cynical functioning of ideology in our societies. It posed no threat whatsoever to those in power; it merely made their exercise of power more tolerable.
In Western liberal-secular societies, state power protects public freedoms but intervenes in private space – when there is a suspicion of child abuse, for example. But as Talal Asad writes in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech (2009), ‘intrusions into domestic space, the breaching of “private” domains, is disallowed in Islamic law, although conformity in “public” behaviour may be much stricter … for the community, what matters is the Muslim subject’s social practice – including verbal publication – not her internal thoughts, whatever they may be.’ The Quran says: ‘Let him who wills have faith, and him who wills reject it.’ But, in Asad’s words, this ‘right to think whatever one wishes does not … include the right to express one’s religious or moral beliefs publicly with the intention of converting people to a false commitment’. This is why, for Muslims, ‘it is impossible to remain silent when confronted with blasphemy … blasphemy is neither “freedom of speech” nor the challenge of a new truth but something that seeks to disrupt a living relationship.’ From the Western liberal standpoint, there is a problem with both terms of this neither/nor: what if freedom of speech should include acts that may disrupt a living relationship? And what if a ‘new truth’ has the same disruptive effect? What if a new ethical awareness makes a living relationship appear unjust?
If, for Muslims, it is not only ‘impossible to remain silent when confronted with blasphemy’ but also impossible to remain inactive – and the pressure to do something may include violent and murderous acts – then the first thing to do is to locate this attitude in its contemporary context. The same holds for the Christian anti-abortion movement, who also find it ‘impossible to remain silent’ in the face of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of foetuses every year, a slaughter they compare to the Holocaust. It is here that true tolerance begins: the tolerance of what we experience as impossible-to-bear (l’impossible-a-supporter’, as Lacan put it), and at this level the liberal left comes close to religious fundamentalism with its own list of things it’s ‘impossible to remain silent when confronted with’: sexism, racism and other forms of intolerance. What would happen if a magazine openly made fun of the Holocaust? There is a contradiction in the left-liberal stance: the libertarian position of universal irony and mockery, making fun of all authorities, spiritual and political (the position embodied in Charlie Hebdo), tends to slip into its opposite, a heightened sensitivity to the other’s pain and humiliation.
It is because of this contradiction that most left-wing reactions to the Paris killings followed a predictable, deplorable pattern: they correctly suspected that something is deeply wrong in the spectacle of liberal consensus and solidarity with the victims, but took a wrong turn when they were able to condemn the killings only after long and boring qualifications. The fear that, by clearly condemning the killing, we will somehow be guilty of Islamophobia, is politically and ethically wrong. There is nothing Islamophobic in condemning the Paris killings, in the same way that there is nothing anti-Semitic in condemning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
As for the notion that we should contextualise and ‘understand’ the Paris killings, it is also totally misleading. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley allows the monster to speak for himself. Her choice expresses the liberal attitude to freedom of speech at its most radical: everyone’s point of view should be heard. In Frankenstein, the monster is fully subjectivised: the monstrous murderer reveals himself to be a deeply hurt and desperate individual, yearning for company and love. There is, however, a clear limit to this procedure: the more I know about and ‘understand’ Hitler, the more unforgiveable he seems.
What this also means is that, when approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we should stick to ruthless and cold standards: we should unconditionally resist the temptation to ‘understand’ Arabic anti-Semitism (where we really encounter it) as a ‘natural’ reaction to the sad plight of the Palestinians, or to ‘understand’ Israeli measures as a ‘natural’ reaction to the memory of the Holocaust. There should be no ‘understanding’ for the fact that in many Arab countries Hitler is still considered a hero, and children at primary school are taught anti-Semitic myths, such as that Jews use the blood of children for sacrificial purposes. To claim that this anti-Semitism articulates, in a displaced mode, resistance against capitalism in no way justifies it (the same goes for Nazi anti-Semitism: it too drew its energy from anti-capitalist resistance). Displacement is not here a secondary operation, but the fundamental gesture of ideological mystification. What this claim does involve is the idea that, in the long term, the only way to fight anti-Semitism is not to preach liberal tolerance, but to articulate the underlying anti-capitalist motive in a direct, non-displaced way.
The present actions of the Israel Defence Forces in the West Bank should not be judged against the background of the Holocaust; the desecration of synagogues in France and elsewhere in Europe should not be judged as an inappropriate but understandable reaction to what Israel is doing in the West Bank. When any public protest against Israel is flatly denounced as an expression of anti-Semitism – that is to say, when the shadow of the Holocaust is permanently evoked in order to neutralise any criticism of Israeli military and political operations – it is not enough to insist on the difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of particular policies of the state of Israel; one should go a step further and say that it is the state of Israel which, in this case, is desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims, instrumentalising them as a way to legitimise political measures in the present. What this means is that one should flatly reject the notion of any logical or political link between the Holocaust and current Israeli-Palestinian tensions. They are two thoroughly different phenomena: one of them is part of the European history of rightist resistance to the dynamics of modernisation; the other is one of the last chapters in the history of colonisation.
The growth of anti-Semitism in Europe is undeniable. When, for example, the aggressive Muslim minority in Malmö harasses Jews so they are afraid to walk the streets in traditional dress, it should be clearly and unambiguously condemned. The struggle against anti-Semitism and the struggle against Islamophobia should be viewed as two aspects of the same struggle.
In a memorable passage in Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001), Ruth Klüger describes a conversation with ‘some advanced PhD candidates’ in Germany:
One reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that? the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution … You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps, I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.
We have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation. This, perhaps, is the most depressing lesson of terror.