Charlie Hebdo on Aylan Kurdi: the ultimate act of white entitlement?

Few pictures have captured the suffering of Syrian refugees as poignantly as the photograph of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying, face down and alone, on the beach. This picture provided the inspiration for Charlie Hebdo’s most controversial cartoon of late. Captions that accompany the drawing of the drowned child portray him as a greedy, glutinous toddler who died ‘so close to the goal’ while crossing the Mediterranean to get his hands on a ‘buy one get one free’ happy meal deal. Of course, the cartoons and illustrations are satirical. Yet, the depictions have elicited much passion and division. It seems arguments have been centred on two main questions. Firstly, should the publication be able to practice its satirical art and express its political views without censorship? And secondly, should Charlie Hebdo take any notice and act on the offence, distress and impact it is causing?

As far as the first question goes, it has been widely argued that censoring journalists, or artists practicing within the boundaries of the law would be unenforceable and undesirable in any democratic state. This is a position that Charlie Hebdo and many of its supporters have readily advanced, often seemingly to shield themselves from criticism. Perhaps too, to avoid burdening themselves with the labour of thinking. Censorship is the joker card that brings all constructive discussions on free speech to an end, and so naturally it is pulled out by anyone unwilling to engage in nuanced examination of any given scenario.

In relation to the second question, the response from Charlie Hebdo and from those who remain on ‘ team #jesuischarlie’ has been indifferent. In essence, those calling out the newspaper on the offence and distress it has once more inflicted, those who have attempted to ask ethical questions on the impact of the cartoons beyond its artists’ pencils or intentions, have been asked to grow up, to get smart or to shut up.
Detractors have been informed that they are not getting it, that they are missing the point. They are the unfortunately ignorant, incapable of grasping the nuances and complexities of French satire and unable to appreciate the value of free speech. And ‘so what’, if Charlie Hebdo also depicts this Aylan? Other media outlets have freely used the photo in question, after all. Following on from this observation, accusations of racism levelled against the publication have been decried. It clearly cannot be racism since others have used the pictures. A couple of examples, will suffice I suspect, to illustrate the fallacy of this proposition. Imagine the following exchanges:

Person 1

I think the way the Somewhere’s police force treats Black people is motivated by racism.

Person 2

Well, it can’t have anything to do with racism because police in so many places treat Black people this way.

Or again…

Person 3

Calling Asian-looking people P…kis is so racist!

Person 4

It is not racist since so many people in my family/village/profession call them that.

Given how well-informed and intelligent supporters of Charlie Hebdo claim to be, it is very surprising that so few of them have been able to integrate within their reflections the very fact that freedom of expression is a liberty that is not afforded uniformly within democracies. Indeed, France has a long history of selective state-sanctioned censorship. For example, rappers, and other artists who speak of the disfranchisement, police brutality and racism faced by French people of colour continue to attract condemnation and outrage as do those who speak of the historical atrocities committed by France. Several rappers have become embroiled in protracted legal disputes with the state. La Rumeur, an underground rap group famous for challenging social injustices such as the slaughter of over 400 French Algerians during a peaceful Paris anti-war protest in 1961, have faced numerous legal battles and widespread contempt.
In such cases, it was those with social power and racial privileges who have felt unjustly targeted and depicted. Perhaps, they do not ‘get’ street art. Or maybe their experiences, or lack thereof mean that a ‘correct’ analysis and comprehension of such expression can only evade them. In any event, often the sensibilities of the powerful have taken precedence over or at the very least, severely interfered with the artists’ rights of expression.
What is this audacious demand by the socially powerful to control what free expression can and cannot look like? White entitlement is the love child of white privilege and of egocentrism, fed by it’s own invisibility and self-important neutrality.
While white privilege refers to the unearned benefits afforded to white French people by virtue of their skin colour irrespective of their individual will or intention, white entitlement, may be envisaged as the expectation of such privileges. White entitlement unlike white privilege is wilful and it breeds further oppression. It takes away the conflict race inequalities should raise. It perpetuates aberrant double standards which are hidden behind liberalism’s assumed benevolence. It gives a platform to the well-intentioned to speak on behalf of the marginalised and to do so with an unshakeable sense of righteousness.
Thus, all Charlie Hebdo needs to ‘justify’ the depiction of Aylan’s dead body in this way is its good intentions. White entitlement enables the purportedly socially-conscious privileged to feed their paternalistic gaze on the other. It is the basis upon which Aylan’s little corpse can be appropriated and used as trope for a ‘bigger cause’. This makes it acceptable to dehumanise him and trivialise the painful loss and trauma his family, and others have faced.
Freedom of expression, in France and elsewhere, all too often translates into the freedom of the powerful to offend the oppressed. A liberty to ignore the experiences of those lower down the social hierarchy as their power to retaliate or defend themselves is limited. A freedom to erase, when required, the socio-political and historical contexts within which any artistic, scholarly or journalistic pursuit is located.
Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism are on the rise in France. French citizens of colour and Muslims are increasingly discriminated against; their lives have never been more expendable. Bring this backdrop into the picture alongside the hostility refugees face in Europe and the sight of the lifeless body of a Syrian child used as a site to score satirical points becomes more troubling. Things border on the absurd when the media’s liberals self-appoint as guardians of the dispossessed. Watch how quickly privileged people with ‘good intentions’ turn against the oppressed when the latter criticise the former. In the presence of white entitlement, empathy and compassion transform into contempt. White entitlement cannot tolerate that those it speaks for attempt to use their own voice. This wakes the dormant superiority it silently harbours and manifests in the denigration and mockery of those who show opposition or resistance.
White entitlement exclaims: how dare you turn the gaze onto me? Who are you to question what I do? How silly of you to resist that I invade your land or colonise the body of dead child whose parents are still mourning. It is for your own good and the good of humankind! It is not the cartoons that are inherently racist. It is the newspaper’s response to criticisms, its adamant refusal to even consider the validity of the experience of those distressed by its output. It is Charlie Hebdo’s difficulty in questioning its purported neutrality and failure to recognise that perhaps other perspectives may have something to add to the debate on free speech, that evokes racism.

This article was written for Media Diversified and was originally published on September 25th 2015. Media Diversified is a young and growing non-profit organisation which seeks to cultivate and promote skilled writers of colour, by providing advice, contacts as well as promotion of content online through its own platform. Click http://mediadiversified.org/2015/09/25/freedom-of-speech-is-a-liberty-that-is-not-afforded-uniformly-within-democracies/comment-page-1/ to find out more about Media Diversified.

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13 comments

  1. This is such a thoughtful and crucial analysis of white privilege (and entitlement) and the unquestioned right of media to publish dehumanizing views of those with little power – the scapegoats that deflect public attention away from the real causes of people’s increasing misery. As you rightly point out, France’s history in this regard bears careful scrutiny.

    As I read your eloquent arguments, I remembered a time when cartoonists were held accountable: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/nuremberg/NurembergStreicher.html. In one famous case, a cartoonist was found guilty of helping to create an environment in which atrocities like the holocaust could occur. Perhaps it’s time for Charlie Hebdo and their apologists to learn a little history?

    1. Hi Carol, thanks for the kind words. I’ve revisited the horrors that were recounted at the Nuremberg trials: thanks for the link, absolutely chilling. The power of mass media to elicit hate and dehumanisation remains. Today in much more subtle & indirect ways. Scary. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I so appreciate the wake-up call from your post, G. I have been trying to ignore the US media focus on the hate speech spewing forth from Donald Trump. Your post made me realize just how dangerous this really is. Remaining silent was the all too-frequent response of the educated public to Hitler’s use of scapegoating as a strategy to unite those suffering from economic and social marginalization. It is scary.

    1. Yes, it’s very easy to ignore people like Trump because he is so caricatural and grotesque in many ways but this should not take us away from the contents of his speeches and indeed the real impact they have on a group of citizen that suffers from much hostility and marginalisation already. Islamophobia is increasing alarmingly, on a global scale. Opportunistic political bigotry is all it takes for people to become targeted in the most hateful of ways. Additionally, creating further alienation is only going to help self-proclaimed jihadists recruit more easily…There can be no winners here, I really hope more people see this.

  3. You make excellent points here, principally the double-standards practised by the socially elite. This occurs everywhere, unfortunately. Power and its maintenance must be the greatest corruptor of human rights.
    I found my way here via Carol. Glad to have done so for the thoughts you clearly convey.

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