I Signed the PEN Dissent Letter (or: I Refuse the “Support Our Troops” Version of Free Speech)

3 May

LetterA recent controversy has erupted over 204 PEN members — including myself, Joyce Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Kamlia Shamsie Teju Cole, and more — disassociating themselves from PEN’s decision to award French magazine Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage AwardThe situation has been framed again and again by other writers, so I won’t restate it here.  For a good introduction — when there were six rather than 204 of us — click here. And for the full text of the letter, click the image to the left.

I wish to address, for those familiar with the situation, why I support the letter.  I would like, also, to express what sort of reassessment took place in light of the response to the dissenters.  I also wish to address how all of us, myself included, are responsible for deepening our understanding of freedom of speech and expression, rather than condoning a “support our troops” version of it.


I signed the letter with a sense of relief.

It came from an anonymous sender and echoed statements I’d thought but not voiced.  It was a challenge I may not have taken up on my own.    

Will you sign this?  Do you agree?  Will you disassociate yourself from the award?

Here was a small group of writers who felt compelled to say something about the Freedom of Expression Courage Award confusion.  These were writers I knew and respected.  Some of them are among my favorites.

I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list.  I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name.  I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions.  I someone doing my best to sort through information to understand the truth.  Like most of us, I often fall short in this task.

One of the ways I look for truth is through the act of writing. 

That is to say: I write mostly because it helps me understand and feel more compassion for others.  Truth and compassion intertwine, are dependent on one another.

I replied to the email quickly: Yes. 

The list of supporters grew.  Though each signatory issued support for the same letter, we all, no doubt, have different takes on it, and inwardly emphasize different aspects.  And though we are all members of PEN, we all have different feelings about freedom of speech.  This controversy should, if nothing else, make clear that there is no monolithic view of what, exactly, PEN membership means, nor that there is a single version of freedom of speech among PEN members.

That said, below is how I read the letter, why I supported, and continue to support it.

First, it is important to state: the letter is a letter of disassociation. 

It is not a letter, as some critics have stated, to revoke the award or to end the ceremony.  I did not wish to be part of the honoring of Charlie Hebdo.  I would not have signed a letter that demanded shutting down the ceremony.  This may be how some interpret the letter.  That is not in the content of the letter.  There may be other PEN members who signed the letter because they wanted the award ceremony canceled.  That was not my feeling.  Instead, I simply wanted to say, I am not a part of this award.

The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo appeared racist to me.  They appeared Islamophobic.  They appeared anti-Arab. They appeared cruel.  I do not speak or read French.  I do not know much about French culture.  They appeared racist, Islamophobic, anti-Arab, and cruel nevertheless. 

When the letter was made public, some bloggers and authors wanted the signatories to know: these cartoons are not racist.  They are not Islamophobic, they are not anti-Arab.  They are, instead, complex cartoons embedded in a French context I could not possibly understand.  I don’t know how these bloggers could claim to understand this counter-truth without themselves understanding French culture, but I paused.  Perhaps they were right.

Then there was an anti-racism organization in France – a “leading anti-racism” organization, I was told – stating Charlie Hebdo was itself anti-racist.  Short, translated blurbs from the organization circulated.  Again, these were mostly circulated by non-French-speaking people not embedded in French culture.  This was touted as proof that I and the other signatories were fools, or worse.  It didn’t matter that many of the circulators had not heard of the organization – SOS Racisme – until the PEN controversy.  The statements held the puzzling but irrefutable might of a magic bullet.

I was confused.  On the one hand, I was supposed to not trust what I saw of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, because I didn’t understand French culture.  On the other, I was expected to completely understand the complexities of this organization, SOS Racisme.  Many of the bloggers likely understood both no better or worse than I.  I looked up what I could.  I communicated with French-speaking people.  I discovered that SOS Racisme itself holds a contentious position and has been criticized by French leftists and French Muslims for some of its actions and policies.  I also was told that Charlie Hebdo is racist by French people. 

I was left, therefore, in a more complicated version of where I started.

So I tried to imagine analogues.  For SOS Racisme, I imagined the HRC, a gay and lesbian rights group in the US that has a rocky relationship with many marginalized people. They have neglected trans people, they have paired with conservatives, they have divided a progressive cause, and pushed a largely mainstreamed and too-cute version of “gay rights.”  I’ll bet many people in non-English-speaking countries think the HRC represents all queer people.  They do not.  They do not represent radical values.  Perhaps this is a false analogy.

For Charlie Hebdo, I wanted to recognize the limits of my knowledge and assume, for the time being, that they are not, in fact, a directly racist publication.  I tried to imagine their US counterpart: TV shows like Family Guy or South Park.  These shows are irreverent, offensive, silly, angry, harsh.  Sometimes they make me laugh. They use racism to make fun of racists.  I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile trade-off.  They attack religion, not just religious institutional hypocrisy. They are the subject of debate amongst American leftists.  Again, perhaps this is a false analogy.  I am trying my best to understand.

No matter what else is said about Charlie Hebdo, it is true that secularism is used as a weapon against deeply held religious identity.  Secularism is being used strategically – by Charlie Hebdo in total lockstep with many members of the French government – to “banalize” Islam. No one, whether disassociating from the award or defending the magazine, questions this.   No one at Charlie Hebdo can deny this: “banalize” is a quote from one of its murdered staff.  That should be kept in mind. 

I do not mean to ban dissections or critiques of religion.  I and my many communities – queer, sex worker, Arab – are frequently attacked by certain religious institutions and people.

Charlie Hebdo does not just attack power, but identity.  Whether or not this is “racism” is murky.  But we can see clearly: demanding what many find sacred be turned into profane, be “banalized,” is not an attack on power, it is an attack on identity.  In the case of Charlie Hebdo, it is – as the letter indicates – an attack on the identities of marginalized people.  Perhaps because I am not French, I fail to understand? 

The struggle for a more secular world does not need to be imperialist.  But if you replace “kill the marginalized person” with “kill the marginalized identity” then it surely is.

Perhaps, then, it is not a surprise that the PEN member who most supported Charlie Hebdo for the award also supports liberation wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, a combination of kill the person and kill the identity.

When the criticisms of signatories came, we were attacked, Charlie Hebdo-style. 

We were called “pussies” and “stupid” and “pro-terrorist.”

“The struggle between the two worlds can permit no compromises,” said Mussolini.

“Either you are with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” said George W. Bush.

Now we are being told the same thing by “leftist” writers who care about “freedom.”

There is no room for human beings or disagreement in a clash of mystified, archetypal ideologies.  There is no room, either, to dissent, even in plain language.

“Us” in the case of this letter means the “free” world, filled with “free” speech.  “Terrorists” were, well, everyone else.  We the signatories were with the terrorists, apparently.  How dare we not share a total (totalitarian?) unified vision — defined by people other than ourselves — of free speech?

I am not used to being told I am with terrorists or that I don’t embrace free speech. 

If I am with the terrorists, if I don’t embrace and support free speech I can’t imagine how.  I have been verbally and physically attacked and threatened by many forms of extremism: anti-gay extremism, anti-Arab extremism, and most often these days, anti-sex work extremism.

As a porn performer for nearly eight years, I have, like most porn performers, risked discrimination, stigma, ridicule, travel restrictions, and threats for doing what I do.  These are risks taken on by all porn performers either intentionally in the name of free speech or as an unexpected consequence of bearing the burden of free speech. 

I portray a sort of expression that many refuse to even acknowledge as expression. 

There is no PEN award for sex workers.  Even “enlightened” and “literary” people, even staunch leftists condemn porn performers. They say we are brainwashed.  They say we are stupid.  They say we are making the world a worse place.  I don’t have space to discredit the arguments here, but it should be obvious that the sex worker community carries quite a heavy burden of free speech, especially free speech about sex and sexuality.  Perhaps, in shouldering that burden, we even help lighten it for others.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, whether blatantly or ironically racist, are sex-negative.  They use sex as the punchline to attack power.  This demeans sex in a way that pornography, which actually portrays the sexual act, never can or will.  Porn, particularly bad porn, might make sex simplistic, but it does not sacrifice sex to destroy people.

There is a long tradition of jokingly using sexual imagery to attack people in power. Have I ever laughed at it?  Yes.  Does Charlie Hebdo occasionally contain sex-positive cartoons? Sure.

Do I think it balances the its sex negativity out with sex positivity, or that its expressions of sex as a punchline deserves a PEN award for courage?  No.

This was not in the letter.  I did not feel it necessary to add it, but it played into my decision to sign the statement.

I do not think, as has been suggested, that Charlie Hebdo should be banned.  Thankfully, that idea is not in the letter I signed.  There is a call in the letter for responsibility in the way we treat each other and interact with one another.  There is a call to notice all human suffering and all violence.

In one critique of anti-dissenters, a writer boldly declared that leftists should aspire to be blasphemous.  It is unclear to me whether or not anyone who is not religious can actually blaspheme.  For if to blaspheme is to rail against a God that does not exist or to vulgarize things that have no sacred value, then it is to accomplish nothing.  Either we are atheists with nothing the blaspheme, or we are religious and wish to be kind in the eyes of God.  In any case, I don’t think we should aspire to be blasphemous.

The people who walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and shot the staff members were, certainly, blasphemous to the faith of Islam.  Blasphemous by murdering, blasphemous by demanding non-Muslims follow the tenants of (an extremist version of) Islam, and blasphemous in saying there was no room to critique Islam.

Crying for blasphemy when you do not believe in the God you’re insulting is a child’s game.  It is merely a cry for defiance.  Defiance has its values, but I do not think it is courage. I would not try to find allies amongst those who aspire to be blasphemous. Instead I seek to find them amongst the people who aspire to be compassionate.

If we are going to dismantle power, I do not think that we do a good job by aspiring to blasphemy and drawing holy figures with their asses up in the air. That does not strike me as effective.  It strikes me as imagination-less and lazy.

I also don’t think we do a good job dismantling power by creating cartoons so exaggerated in caricature that those who don’t understand every intricacy of context will think the cartoons are racist.

There is an insistence that these cartoons are not racist.  And yet many experience them that way.  Shall we demand they discard their fear, their anxiety?  Maybe we should demand they authenticate their pain to us before we take them seriously?  Shall we call them stupid pussies as the bombs rain on them and the guns are turned on them?  Perhaps they are terrorists for misunderstanding foreign caricatures that portray them with big noses and wild eyes.

Perhaps when someone I don’t know calls me a towelhead, I should give them the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe they were critiquing the people that call me a towelhead.  I will do my best to assess the situation. 

Have I ever slipped into angry critiques that might have been misconstrued, taken out of context, or had unintended effects?  Yes.  Do I think that should be celebrated or honored?  No.

I feel a great sadness for the loss of life at Charlie Hebdo.  I can only attempt — and I will fail in my attempt — to imagine the fear, the terror they felt as they were attacked.  I appreciated the outpouring of grief and support that followed the shootings.

I noticed, also, how it was used by people in power to make whatever point they wanted, to demean whomever they pleased.  And I noticed that the outpouring of grief turned into attacks on Muslims and Arabs afterward. 

That does not mean we should not grieve.

I do not want to be associated with the rewarding of Charlie Hebdo.  That does not mean in any way that I wish to be associated with the censoring of it.  It does not mean I cannot appreciate satire.  It does not mean I celebrate violence, either. 

I understand my perspective is limited by my circumstance and who I am.  It is, perhaps, because of these limits that I want to disassociate myself from the conflict. I am unable to fully understand.  So I must go forward with what I know. 

I know I am not interested in the trap of a “Support Our Troops” version of free speech, one that cannot be discussed. It’s one that reduces human beings and suffering — whether experienced by the staff of Charlie Hebdo by Muslims and Arabs in the context the letter describes — to an unquestionable ideology.

I know that I prefer to walk away from that version of free speech and help support, or, if need be, create a better one, one that is truly free.  In the meantime, many are losing site of people, preferring the ideologies instead. 

This is happening on all sides. 

To achieve that one must first destroy love and compassion. This is why the attacks on dissenters become controlling and intimidating, insulting.  The attacks become compulsive.  They become “for us or against us.”  In other words, they become battle cries.  A shouting monologue that leaves no room for real people may be absolute speech, but there’s not much that is “free” about it.


Thank you to the writers who signed the letter, and also to those who voiced disagreement with the dissenters in a caring and thoughtful way.  Thanks, also, to PEN, whose work cannot be summarized by this one event, work that I, as a member, will continue to support and try my best to improve.

Further reading:

On the complexities of anti-Muslim sentiments and Charlie Hebdo in France.

Suzanne Nossel, who advanced Charlie Hebdo’s for the award, and military intervention.

Noam Chomsky on the hypocrisy of Je Suis Charlie outrage.


Update: the final number of signatories when the letter was turned over to PEN on May 5 was 242.

29 Responses to “I Signed the PEN Dissent Letter (or: I Refuse the “Support Our Troops” Version of Free Speech)”

  1. Will Blue May 4, 2015 at 12:14 am #

    I understand, but rhetorically: is PEN just against government censoring, or is it against any use of force to silence the printing press?

    Isn’t there a parallel here with porn? Larry Flynt lost use of legs during a legal battle that basically got porn covered as freedom of the press.(really broad brush I know) And their are many people that feel porn is bad, but understand that it part of the price of the free press.

    Hopefully you pick the analogy out. Cold med’s keep derailing the train of thought.

  2. kalmatan May 4, 2015 at 5:24 am #

    Being I suppose what one would call a French African (not from France, but from a former, West African colony of France) from a majority Muslim country, I must say I find this outrage against Charlie Hebdo rather interesting. I do think people do not understand Charlie Hebdo, and not just because they aren’t French. Even in France, many people do not understand what Charlie Hebdo is about. Before the attacks, Charlie Hebdo was ‘has been’, it represented an old French leftism in which notions of class struggle and anticlericalism loomed much larger than issues of group identity (though not individual sense of identity). Everywhere today, including in France, this old leftism is in retreat because of the emphasis, in the West at least, on group identity (gender, sexual orientation, race, religion). So Charlie Hebdo was a declining and struggling brand and I think they’d have closed shop in a few years, were it not for the attacks. They’re neither racist, nor Islamophobic. They’re anticlerical, meaning, one of their chief target is organized religion (not just Islam). Statistical tallies of their attacks on religion have been made often, and their primary target by far in this quarter is very clearly the Catholic Church. They also attack Judaism and Buddhism, more rarely Protestantism. Attacks on Islam are fairly recent, although they have become more numerous in the last decade than was the case before, but they are still less numerous than those on Catholicism.

    What this pattern shows is that Charlie attacks any organized religion that has become sufficiently powerful in France to actually shape French public order in the direction of religious influence on society and the law. That is so because the fundamental origin of Charlie is the French Revolution, which was not just an uprising against the Crown, but also against the Catholic Church, then a quasi-state unto itself in majority Catholic countries like France (see the situation in majority Catholic countries like Italy, Spain or Ireland, where this kind of uprising did not happen: the quasi-state power of the Church on many aspects of social and economic life lasted much longer). For much of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church tried to recover some of its former power and glory in France, placing the country on the list of ‘mission countries’ in the 1820s (just as if it was a non-Christian country to be conquered for the Church). The Church managed to do it to an extent, but much less than it wished, because of the fierce opposition of a now entrenched anticlerical tradition. Charlie is one of the last remnants of that tradition, which is on the wane because Catholicism is no longer such a relevant force in France nowadays (although the surprisingly strong opposition to the recent gay marriage law in France was mostly fueled by Catholic protest).

    So clearly people at Charlie saw Islam, which has become more present in French life in the 2000s than it used to be, as one more target to add to the anticlerical roster. I do think they did it in a silly and nasty way — as is their wont anyway. But they did not do it in an Islamophobic way. Granted, they did (do) not like Islam, but not as Islam, rather, as ‘organized religion’, with the power that such a thing inherently has on people through their beliefs, and therefore with the influence that this ultimately has on public life. They have nothing against individual Muslims, and in fact, in the recomposition of their team of cartoonists now being made after the January bloodbath, they have been joined by Ali Dilem, an Algerian cartoonist. Also, one of the people killed by the Kouachi brothers at Charlie’s HQ was Mustapha Ourrad, the magazine’s proofreader, also Muslim and of Algerian origin (though a French citizen).

    This said, the argument that by attacking Islam Charlie was weakening a disenfranchised community in France is interesting. I don’t think it is false, and I do think Charlie was incautious in that respect especially given the electoral fodder that the far right was (is) making of Islam in France. Plus, their headlines against Islam very likely increased their readership and so the high profile of ‘dangerous Islam’ in the mind of people (generally confused about this topic nowadays). I suppose they saw this increase in readership as vindicating their notion that attacking Islam was the right kind of anticlerical struggle in the 21st century, since it showed that the organized religion of Islam had become hugely relevant in France. But still, it put them in the uneasy neighborhood of the fascist Le Pen family (who, of course, they also savagely lampooned), who play on and profit from the politics of identity rather than on that of class and anticlericalism. This, I think, is part of the complexity to which you alluded. Those who signed the letter targeted something that Charlie is not, but seems, or might seem, to be. Because Charlie is so nasty, I can see how the confusion might arise, but it is a confusion nonetheless.

    • Conner Habib May 4, 2015 at 5:44 am #

      Thank you for this. Very much appreciated. I must also say: I think I address much of what you’ve mentioned in my post.

  3. Craig May 4, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    Conner — As usual, your posting is well thought out and clear. (I would have expected nothing less!) At first, I was surprised at your stance, but as I read on, your reasoning and logic became clear and, frankly, persuasive. While I am not a member of PEN and, thus, not really affected, you would have convinced me to sign with you. Well done!

  4. Frido May 4, 2015 at 10:24 pm #

    There would be many things to say… We are still grieving…

    As for SOS Racisme, it is a puppet organization which was created by the Socialist Party (PS) to divert activist energies and to reap the benefits of a massive march for racial and social equality in 1983 which was sparked by the fact that the police had shot and wounded a man of Algerian descent once again. It was a great march called Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme. The PS wanted to take the lead and to gain votes from the movement without having to concede any structural change. So they created SOS racisme as well as other puppet organizations (later, Ni putes ni soumises meaning Neither whores nor submissive) and took decisions within the closed doors of their bureaus (as bureaucrats do) instead of respecting the self determination of the marchers. Some racialized marchers in France first believed it was a good organization because they thought yes why not the movement should be structured, but later they left when they realized it was a travesty of democracy and grass roots organizing. As for many white people back then, the organization allowed them to “feel good” and feel anti racist by just wearing a badge stating “Don’t touch my buddy” (touche pas à mon pote) which is a paternalistic slogan as if the racialized “buddy” was mute….

    Basically they wanted to take the lead. The opposite of self determination.

    SOS Racisme is also in favour of the criminalization of the Boycott Divest Sanction movement, as they signed a petition with this stance in the daily Le Monde.

    I went down the streets to pay tribute to all Charlie Hebdo, Montrouge and Hyper Cacher victims because life is sacred. Again, we are still grieving.

    That said I did not buy Charlie Hebdo after the attacks as a matter of honesty and consistency because I had stopped buying it many many years ago because I thought they were racist, sexist and homophobic. This is to sum it up, because in theory they were not racist, sexist and homophobic. They hate the National Front, Sarkozy, they make fun of the Pope and his stance again abortion rights etc.

    I also want to stress that the families of the victims “of color” of the Charlie Hebdo and Montrouge were subjected to racial discrimination by media + politicians during the aftermath of the attacks.

    The family of Ahmed Merabet, a policeman who was killed in the streets next to the paper offices that day, held a press conference shortly after the killing. He was a Muslim and of Algerian descent. A journalist asked them what they were thinking of the Prophet caricatures. The question was so offensive.

    The family of Clarissa Jean-Philippe (who is the killed police woman in montrouge) was snubbed by Hollande and politicians on the big march of January 11. They are black folks from Martinique.

    • Conner Habib May 5, 2015 at 3:07 am #

      Thank you for this and the following comments. They will be illuminating to readers who take the time to think about them. Alas, this information and perspective has been largely ignored in favor of hero worship and “good vs evil” narratives (aka “free speech vs terrorism”)

  5. Frido May 4, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

    I also want to stress that Charlie Hebdo has the same lawyer as Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK), who is a serial rapist including has raped an African woman hotel worker in new york city. In no way do I meaning that all writers of Charlie are responsible for the rapes commiited by DSK. But it is troubling to see the tight connections between the direction of Charlie and a guy who has, to say the least, an horrendous record on racism and sexism.

  6. Frido May 4, 2015 at 10:57 pm #

    While many feminist writers wrote in the pages of Charlie, I would also like to stress that the (female) partner of the (male) founder of Charlie has written that she was subjected to collective rapes organized for profit by her husband.

    That is to say that the core foundations of Charlie were very far from being antisexist !!!!!

    “Mais les passes virent parfois au cauchemar et se transforment en scènes de viol collectif.”

  7. Frido May 4, 2015 at 11:05 pm #

    For instance let’s take this cover (which was published way before the 2015 attacks).

    I think it has nothing to do with queer PoC visibility. It was a straight white guy using homosexuality in his attempt to “civlize” the supposedly angry Arab, to “democratize” him.

    This cover is funny if homosexuality AND Arabness AND Muslimness are to be made fun of and if whiteness and straightness and maleness are “central” and the default of french citizenship.

    I wanto to say that yes their covers were sooooooooo problematic politically.

    But they were human beings. RIP.

  8. muslim604 / Yousuf May 4, 2015 at 11:11 pm #

    A portion of hyper-secularists in France really want to force “laicite” on everyone in that country. Just a few days ago, a Muslim girl was sent home from school because her skirt was too long (???) and the French Minister of Education commented that she supported the school’s decision.

    France is becoming more of an intolerant country every day. Attacks such as the one on Charlie Hebdo will only make things worse obviously, but no one is responsible for them except the people who commit them (not the French Muslim population as a whole). And anyone who claims to care about “freedom” should be worried about the direction that country is taking.

    While we should all affirm Charlie Hebdo’s right to be the morons they are, giving them an award is an awful decision. I wonder if they will give Dieudonne an award as well, who was jailed for a Facebook post. Or Akin Akingbala, the French professional basketball player who was fired for re-tweeting a tweet that said “Je suis Ahmed.”

    • Conner Habib May 5, 2015 at 3:08 am #

      Thank you for expressing the complexities of this situation (as well as some simple truths).

  9. alanyount May 5, 2015 at 12:33 am #

    Well said. I don’t know how I feel about it all, but I certainly see your points and am inclined to agree with you.

  10. In C May 5, 2015 at 4:46 am #

    I have no opinion about whether or not CH’s cartoons where/are racist, though from what I’ve seen I can say they definitely lacked finesse. But similar to what you say, I wonder: If some guy screamed racial slurs repeatedly at a black man on a street corner, got beaten unconscious by him, then insisted it were performance art intended to make the world a better place–would he deserve an award for it? The beating, no, but an award?

    Now, the CH tragedy isn’t exactly analogous, and the attacks were indefensible and sick, but you get the general idea.

    It should be pointed out that CH have an absolutely vile history of hounding the church over it’s alleged record of covering up “abuse”. Abuse in quotes because: massive payoffs; prominent cases, like Stanley’s, involving recovered memories; and just in general a viciously homophobic sex panic, as demonstrated in this article from sadly defunct Boston fag rag, The Guide.

    So even if they weren’t anti-Muslim types, they were nasty and bigoted in other ways. Tragic and sickening nonetheless.

    As a side note, have you seen this article by JoAnn Wypijewski?

    • Conner Habib May 5, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

      Thank you for your perspective and the excellent links. Much appreciated.

      • Frido May 5, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

        The rape epidemic in the Catholic Church should not be overlooked. We all know victims or witness of such abuses. To say this is gay sex panic is horrendous.

    • In C May 5, 2015 at 8:34 pm #

      I hope, Frido, I have not been misunderstood. Breaking the law and child abuse cannot be condoned, obviously, but many scholars do feel the abuse scandal involving the church is a moral panic, and also that the late modern obsession with child abuse is homophobic. For a quick canvassing of the issues, you might want to check out this exchange between Philip Jenkins, Judith Levine and a few others. And a few other pertinent links: this Counterpunch piece and this one on the homophobic roots of current panic; and this interview with Camille Paglia; and so on some more; and so on yet more.

      And for a good video summary of modern sex panic, check out this video of Judith Levine speaking (a couple people speak before her, though; the last ten minutes are particularly enlightened).

      Sorry for the inundation with links, but this is too complex an issue to cover succinctly here. I hope I have offered a nice primer. Peace and love.

      • Conner Habib May 6, 2015 at 12:13 am #

        Thanks for this. I truly love Judith Levine.

      • In C May 17, 2015 at 6:08 pm #

        Yeah, she’s awesome. She wrote this recent article about moral panic over elder abuse.

        Noticed your comment on the feed on the bottom of the blog about Happy Valley. Remember: recovered memories are bullshit. Elizabeth Loftus, who is a leading expert on false convictions, has quietly said, in so many words, that the entire case was bullshit; for more, this post concerning the case. People are afraid to speak publicly. None of this, including the recovered memories, is mentioned in the film.

        Sorry… I’m an obsessive, autistic crank. Please forgive me!

      • Conner Habib May 17, 2015 at 9:31 pm #

        Oh yes, I believe recovered memory is mostly (perhaps not totally) bullshit. But that must be said with the caveat: our understanding of memory – whether we’re talking about Elizabeth Loftus’s version or some UFO abduction theorist’s – is in general problematic and flawed. So that adds a a lot more layers to this discussion.

      • In C May 17, 2015 at 11:08 pm #

        Well, I guess I actually agree with that. I’m not into overly simplistic binaries, either.

        I do think it’s entirely possible for someone to forget something, but then years later go, “Oh yeah, remember when–“. In those cases, I think the memory is usually benign.

        But, then again, what is “benign”? Can a memory ever totally be innocent? The dominant discursive mill that we feed our memories through tends to be a self-interested one, liquidating blame for personal failures: We rewrite our pasts in light of our present adult problems.

        The devilishly funny James Kincaid:

        “As many healing books tell us, if you have an inkling that you may been sexually abused as a child, then you probably were and should proceed on that assumption. Such inklings may be inferred from symptoms you develop, symptoms you can find out about (if not develop) by consulting any number of lists that will allow you to trace backward from problem to source. If you find yourself anxious or depressed, suffering from low self-esteem or overconfidence, feel uncomfortable being touched or like it too much; if your child has trouble concentrating, eats too little or too much, has fears or phobias, has noticeable changes in behavior, or is incorrigible, the cause is clear.”

        I feel like this sort of stuff meshes with other ritualized displays of feigned trauma, too–Israel’s public relations theatrics and whatnot,
        trigger warnings, reality tv shows (think The Voice’s contestant backstories, gaudily pimped out with ritualized, affective confessionals of suffering), the UVA rape hoax, and so on.

        And most of these people who loudly foist their traumas in the faces of others are white and/or middle class, privileged folk–even though most cases of actual violence are committed against the poor, the dispossessed, or people of color.

        Non sequitur, but have you read this long document (not sure what to call it) on the connections between anthroposophy and postmodernism? I run the gamut of hating critical theory with a searing passion one day to liking it the next, but I found it interesting anyway. Okay, I’m done. Promise.

  11. Frido May 5, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

    This one was disgusting.

    It says: Boko Haram Sexual Slaves Are Angry – and the characters say: “Do not touch our welfare checks !!!”

    This was during a week when Boko Haram kidnappings were on the headlines, and the other hot topic was the “cap” for welfare provisions (or allocations familiales / child benefits / family benefits) for upper middle class families (it was not means-tested beforehand).

    I thought that was not funny in any way, and sexist and racist. Although if asked they would probably have said that they were only making fun of Boko Haram, or making fun of everything and every one, or saying that their ‘bad taste’ humour was in fact not to be read litterally and that in reality of course they abhorred Boko Haram, etc.

  12. Frido May 5, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    This Charlie Hebdo cover was published during a week when the French government wanted to criminalize sex workers clients. It was also the time of the Miss France contest, which is the same as Miss America.

    It reads: We don’t have whores any more – but we still have Miss France.

    In this one, other articles are critical about the nuclear lobby and its effect of the people of Niger (Areva, une malédiction nigérienne), critical about the advertising industry (à bas la pub – down with ads).

    There is also a court report on a woman who was fired from a kindergarden because when she was back from maternity leave, she was back with a headscarf over her head. The highest Court in France stated that sacking her was valid. Charlie Hebdo was in favour of the decision, for the sake of secularism and religious neutrality in presence of children.

    The kindergarden managers hired Mr Malka as their lawyer (the same lawyer as DSK and Charlie).

  13. ric romano May 6, 2015 at 12:17 am #

    Conner, this is brilliant and it should serve as an example to all of the intricacies and yes power of responsible communication. Standing Applause. ….if blankets are to be used to make unity it should be one similar to what you’ve woven here.

  14. Joe May 6, 2015 at 1:55 am #

    “The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo appeared racist to me. They appeared Islamophobic. They appeared anti-Arab. They appeared cruel. I do not speak or read French. I do not know much about French culture.”

    You probably should’ve looked this up, at easily googled sites like http://www.understandingcharliehebdo.com , before signing onto a letter, you stupid asshole.

    • Conner Habib May 6, 2015 at 6:11 pm #

      The only reason I’m not trashing this comment is to let people see these kinds of reductive, stupid arguments. Actually, “argument” is generous.
      It’s also fine to have this link here. I looked at that site again and again, actually. It was informative as to some context, but, as anyone who reads this essay can see, insufficient.

  15. Shirley Frederick May 7, 2015 at 12:34 am #

    Thanks, Conner, for your thoughtful and much-needed examination of “free speech”–and how that speech can be mean-spirited, offensive, and counter-productive. Just because we have that “right” doesn’t mean we should use it against people we don’t like. It’s like bullying, something we have way too much of in this country. People abusing other people just because they can.

    • Conner Habib May 7, 2015 at 2:41 am #

      And to the point in this case: It doesn’t mean we have to honor it.

  16. hotjock51 June 12, 2015 at 6:37 pm #

    Connor, sorry this comes so late. I really appreciate your analysis of “us versus them.” I find this to be the biggest stumbling block in our slow march to a better society.


  1. Connerhabib's Blog - September 2, 2015

    […] from a queer perspective, as well as bigotry masquerading as new atheism.  We also talk about the PEN America/Charlie Hebdo kerfuffle I was involved in a few months ago.  Abby just moved to New York to start her new show, The […]

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