Rival Sanctities

Glen Newey

Reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders has solemnly reaffirmed the right to joke. The French state – which banned the magazine three times between 1961 and 1970 – has piled in to defend laicity. A humid stupor presents itself as moral clarity, voiced by such statespeople as Le Pen, Wilders and Farage.

Liberals, who tend to distance themselves from Thomas Hobbes’s account of state power, have as partial a view of it as he did. Hobbes thought physical security mattered so much that people would trade most of their rights to get it. Liberals see the trade as overpriced, because it may well include things like free speech. Hobbes was clear-eyed about that. But he was much less clear on the other side of the question, as regards those for whom worldly security matters less than, say, their eschatological destiny. Either the concern for security lacks the decisive force that Hobbes needs it to have, or it has it, but recast as security not for one’s mortal coil, but one’s eternal soul. The avatars of modern jihadis spook the pages of Leviathan, and were hardly unknown to Hobbes: Thomas Harrison, a New Model Army commander and puritan fanatic, used to yodel ecstatically in battle when he saw royalists being run through. Hobbes’s case for obedience is vulnerable not only to liberal goods, but distinctly illiberal ones.

Do modern liberals have it better? John Rawls aspired to show that liberalism was more than ‘just another sectarian doctrine’. The aspiration is loftier than merely showing that liberalism is something we like more than theocracy or communism. A notable if chilly fact about human beings is that they usually kill one another for a reason – for example, when they believe vital goods are under attack. Rawls thought different world-views, secular and religious, could reach a ‘reasonable’ agreement or ‘overlapping consensus’. But when it comes to specifying its content, ‘reasonable’ faces problems parallel to those facing Hobbes’s ur-value of security. Reasonable people disagree: for Rawls, acknowledging this helps to shape what reasonableness is. Can people reasonably disagree about which disagreements are reasonable? Rawls says nothing that rules that out, and quite a lot that rules it in, since he thinks there are credal reasons – what he calls ‘burdens of judgment’ – why people disagree. That being so, ‘reasonable’ becomes cognate with a disposition to co-operate, rather than being defined by its content. Someone with absurd beliefs of the giant-turtle variety could still come out as reasonable, in this respect, if undisposed to proselytise: being reasonable is no longer a purely doxastic matter, but depends on liberal inclinations. In this respect it’s as stipulative as the Hobbesian desire for self-preservation.

Provocation targets others by affronting what they hold dear. As representations, some of the cartoons of Muslims in Charlie Hebdo are as grotesquely caricatural as those of Jews in Der Stürmer. How far satire subverts asymmetries of power, and so offsets them, depends on where it comes from and who it aims at. Since the provocateurs play on the difference between their own values and those they target, it’s unsurprising that the provoked act in line with what they value. I’ve defended elsewhere a broad content-based free speech norm, but it doesn’t follow that every exercise of free speech is valuable in itself, particularly if it further denigrates the downtrodden.

If nothing else the murderers have outed the norm, especially its blindingly simple no-holds-barred version, as an article of liberal faith. Robert Frost said that a liberal is someone who can’t take his own side in an argument. One could take that as a reductio of Rawls’s aspiration to elevate liberalism above sectarian doctrine. No hedging: I’d much rather live in France than under IS. I hope I’d be ready to die or kill if it came to a face-off. But the stakes are those of rival sanctities.


  • 9 January 2015 at 7:55pm
    stettiner says:
    As representations, some of the cartoons of Jews in Charlie Hebdo are as grotesquely caricatural as those of Jews in Der Stürmer. Some of the cartoons of Jews in The Guardian are as grotesquely caricatural as those of Jews in Der Stürmer.

    But Charlie Hebdo is not Der Sturmer. I'm not so sure about the G.

    • 10 January 2015 at 1:52pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ stettiner
      The Guardian is as bad as Der Sturmer? That's a bonkers comment, even by your standards.

    • 12 January 2015 at 8:21am
      Alan Benfield says: @ stettiner
      Not only bonkers, but I challenge stettiner to trawl back through the archive of Guardian cartoons on their website to find an example which supports his 'argument'.

    • 15 January 2015 at 7:39pm
      stettiner says: @ Alan Benfield
      The Guardian's washed take on the "Jew as a puppet master" theme: An un-washed version from Saudi Arabia (Al-Watan, on October 11, 2008):

      Der Sturmer original at a Public Library of your choice.

    • 16 January 2015 at 8:19am
      Alan Benfield says: @ stettiner
      Pretty thin stuff: once again confusing criticism of Israel (and particularly Netanyahu and the Israeli right) with anti-Semitism.

      I note that the second cartoon was dug up by a blog called CiF Watch which makes a hobby of tracking down supposed anti-Semitism on the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' section and it comes from a Saudi paper. It was used by the CiF Watch people to 'show' how anti-Semitic Steve Bell's cartoon was.

      One significant difference: the Al-Watan cartoon shows the classic anti-Semitic view of the powerful Jew hiding in the background as he manipulates the world, a trope you would definitely have found in Der Stürmer. Bell's cartoon, by contrast, depicts a known Israeli politician who often has Western politicians (Bell depicts Blair and William Hague) dancing around him rather than engaging in any serious criticism. The criticism by Bell is largely aimed at Blair and Hague for being puppets. Netahyahu is just shown as a thug - which he is.

    • 16 January 2015 at 10:02am
      stettiner says: @ Alan Benfield
      Ken Livingstone says hello....

  • 9 January 2015 at 8:35pm
    ander says:
    There is no analogy between Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of Muslims and those of Jews in Der Stürmer. While practically all cartoons of Muslims in Charlie Hebdo are grotesquely caricatural, so are, in roughly equal measure, those of Christians and Jews. This crucial equilibrium was absent in Der Stürmer whose objective was to selectively demonize the Jews.

    • 9 January 2015 at 8:48pm
      ander says: @ ander
      To see Charlie Hebdo's satirical evenhandedness, go to, which posts a perfect example.

  • 10 January 2015 at 2:19pm
    ander says:
    They've posted another one.

  • 14 January 2015 at 10:10pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Like Newey, I would prefer to live in France (though I doubt the French would like me to) than in an Islamic State, or for that matter, any Muslim society. And, luckily, I have that choice open to me, though why I’d make it remains unclear to me. However, as well-written as his piece is (wait, mostly well-written – I have no idea why Hobbes has an “ur-value” rather than just a plain old basic value, or why we readers should have to put up with “doxastic”, but, dearie me, that’s me being picayune -- oops, I mean picky), he seems to be slipping onto some fairly slippery slopes. For instance, if making fun of Mohammed somehow denigrates the already oppressed (which I doubt it does), then one must examine just how much self-denigration is involved in the kind of religious exaltation that revering Mohammed makes possible. See what I mean? It’s interesting to me that the “Stuermer” is brought into play here. As the unrepentant dirty old man Julius Streicher’s rag, its insults were directed not at the Ineffable (Jahweh, who, after all plays a role in Christian fantasies too, the Old Testament somehow being realized through the bright and shiny New one), but at a whole group of living, breathing human beings, a far nastier insult to my mind, especially because it was intended as an incitement to murder. This doesn’t seem to be the case with most of the cartoons that have offended Muslims (are Danes or Frenchmen being incited to murder?), but it does imply that Mohammed is no mere mortal in the minds of the offended, but rather a sort of demi-god. Christians have the excuse for their touchiness about satirical representations of Jesus that he is, in some complicated genealogical way, Jahweh himself, after a mysterious process of trifurcation, or would that be, taking the Holy Ghost into account, “double-self-cloning”? But many people in allegedly Christian societies laugh openly and speak freely about such nuttiness – that’s a kind of progress toward better arrangements for our rather deranged species. Muslims, on the other hand, use a verbal-magical formula in which the M-man becomes god’s only authorized spokesman, in other words a public-relations man, but with more clout. These kinds of beliefs, be they Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist, all seem laughable when you sit still and think about them, which, I suppose, is the basis of Charlie Hebdo’s approach to satire and cartoons. The crew there is coarse, omnidirectional in their distaste for religious pieties, and terribly offensive to people that take their religion seriously (including “civil religions”, by the way), all of which is in fact their probable only virtue. Why someone should hedge their opinion about this on the basis of avoiding offending others is not clear to me. I can understand the argument that it might be useful for people to keep their opinions about such matters to themselves in order to avoid riots and mayhem (an entirely practical consideration), but not an argument that elevates defensive common sense to an “ethical principle”.

  • 6 February 2015 at 2:22am
    Walter10065 says:
    Comparing Jews to Nazis, great idea. Let's see, how's it work out? Nazis made fun of Jews with cartoons, then tried their best to exterminate the entire race. French cartoonists make fun of Arabs, and then ... hmmm, not quite the same at all.

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