By BRUCE ROBBINS
When I lived in Switzerland in the late 70s and played (badly) for a local basketball team, one or two of my teammates tried out some Jewish jokes on me in the locker room—jokes that, based on my US experience, were surprisingly unfriendly. It seemed to me that I was expected to smile and shut up, demonstrating that I was a good sport. And that’s what I did. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But if I didn’t get as many minutes as I wanted, I’m pretty sure it’s because the team had better players to put on the floor.
This moment came back to me after the affair of the Danish Mohammad cartoons in 2005. In its defense, the newspaper that published the cartoons, Gyllans Posten, offered the same “be a good sport” argument. Can’t you Muslims take a joke? By mocking the Prophet just as we freely mock anything else we want to mock, we are treating you as equal participants in our freedom. Don’t you see that this is your chance to prove you belong?
Judging from what I know of Denmark, it seems to me possible, though I might be wrong, that however offensive, the joke in this second case too was meant as a kind of hazing ritual, purposefully causing pain but also aiming in the direction of acceptance and membership. Of course the acceptance would have worked only on certain terms, onerous ones for Muslims. For this reason and others the ritual performance, if that’s what it was, went badly awry. But its infelicity is not incompatible with the hypothesis that what was intended was not simply to inflict injury. An intent to injure, and nothing but an intent to injure, is what you would assume was involved if you took for granted that anti-Muslim prejudice in Europe is deeply, unyieldingly, immutably toxic. But if you can imagine that racism of this and other sorts is more historically contingent, then you can also imagine that the intention may have been rather (or also) to achieve some rough form of social bonding.
The glaring difference between the two cases may not be in the intention, in other words, but rather in the fact that for European Muslims, but not for me, the exchange acted out an enormous inequality of power.
Power, or more precisely differential power, seems key to Etienne Balibar’s ongoing project in “On ‘Freedom of Expression’ and the Question of ‘Blasphemy,’” of which we have here a provisional and fragmentary but also very exciting outline. While awaiting further elaboration of the argument, the last sentence of Balibar’s hand-out specifies an immediate task for intellectuals: “to make free speech possible, hence real.” The premise here is that what we call free speech is not real— that it is more a normative ideal than an actuality. Some of the West’s misplaced defensiveness in the face of what it sees as civilizational otherness, Balibar suggests, can be traced back to the mistake of treating a normative ideal as if it were an actuality, an accomplished fact and prized possession, something therefore that is to be guarded anxiously against hostile or uncomprehending outsiders. To see freedom of speech on the contrary as an aspiration is to face the task of making it actual–first and foremost, by some action to undo or diminish inequalities of power. Balibar has famously proposed that freedom requires equality as much as equality requires freedom. Each is means as well as end. Neither word should be used without the other; hence the need for the neologism “égaliberté,” or equaliberty. The word does not trip off the tongue, but the point of the coinage, I think, is not to suggest how difficult and even paradoxical this enterprise is. Balibar differs from many of his contemporaries in assuming that a politics capable of making a significant change in the balance of power is accessible to us here and now.
How should the right to freedom of expression be weighed against the rights of those who feel themselves injured by expression that to the eyes of common sense seems a bit too free? In trying to answer this question, Balibar’s first and overriding principle is clearly his solidarity with the disempowered. From the perspective of emancipation, he states in a 2007 interview, “it is never possible to deny the viewpoint of the victims, even when it expresses itself only in the mode of a symptom.” Much of his argument here can be plausibly construed as a creative attempt to win new respect for the viewpoint of the victims, and to do so by building that viewpoint (the viewpoint that sees satire as blasphemy) into the very definition of freedom of expression. Balibar sees freedom of expression less as an individual right than as a public good. This means it exists only if all possess it; it ceases to function, or rather has not yet begun to function, if some have it and others don’t. This also means that freedom of expression is necessary in order for society to understand itself. Structural discursive violence deprives both the powerless and the powerful of the possibility of self-knowledge. Rawls’s veil of ignorance has to be reconceived, therefore, not as a thought experiment but–it’s a wonderful leap– as a description of the society we now inhabit. The price of being a supposedly free and empowered speaker when others around you are disempowered is to be veiled and ignorant, not to understand one’s own society or one’s own place in it, hence not really to act freely in it at all. By reformulating the nature of freedom of expression, Balibar sidesteps the apparent contradiction between it and blasphemy, or rather tries dialectically to subsume it.
As I read him, however, this is not the endpoint of the argument. Solidarity with the powerless may be Balibar’s first principle, but it does not fully satisfy him, and his lack of satisfaction with it animates and torments his thinking, driving it toward necessary and valuable complications.
The complications start to appear if you follow out his references to Judith Butler, whose book Excitable Speech is her own most direct encounter with the hate speech dilemma. In the Columbia University seminar where the hand-out was circulated, Balibar expressed enthusiasm for Butler’s position (a position that is not shared by everyone dealing with discursive racism) that even the most virulent hate speech is open to political resignification. Victims are not obliged to remain victims. Power is not fixed or unified. Butler has of course insisted time and time again that those who are empowered in one place may well be weak and victimized in another, and vice versa. The complexly intertwined histories of class, race, gender, and sexuality ought to have made that clear. Balibar agrees.
Recent experience would seem to confirm the need for caution in embracing anyone as a legitimate victim of hate speech solely on the grounds that they self-identify as disempowered. The French government has passed a law banning support for boycotts against Israel. (See the essay by Michael Harris in this issue.) In the US as well, Zionists and their children have been claiming to be personally harmed not only by BDS, which they equate with anti-Semitism. but by the mere presence of critics of Israel on their campus. Students, with the connivance or passive complicity of administrators, have turned their supposed vulnerability to charged words on hot topics into what will look to some like activism, to others like bullying–in either case, into an undeniable exercise of power. If you want to illustrate the trickiness of any quick-and-dirty attribution of the adjectives “powerful” and “powerless,” you could do worse than take the example of secularism. Critics like Talal Asad, who denounce secularism as just another religion but one that dares not speak its name, take for granted that secularism and power are identical. (In a collection of essays in honor of Asad’s work, José Casanova accuses Asad of attributing too much power to the secular .) Yet in the United States, a superpower with an African-American president, soon to be succeeded perhaps by its first female president, it remains almost impossible to win political office if one does not testify on numerous occasions to one’s faith in a divine being. This does not sound to me like a situation in which power lies unambiguously in secularism.
To insist that there is always some uncertainty as to the location of power may seem like an unproductive and even irritating quibble, the real-world stakes being as high as they are. But the point is to arrive at a more productive political model. Utterances can be confidently described as performative, as Balibar, following Butler, wants to describe them, if their context is built into them– if response is always already internal to address. In the case of European Muslims, this would mean that injury to Muslims has already been anticipated by the speaker, who is in effect “awaiting an answer.” At times there seems, sadly, no doubt about it, as in the recent Charlie Hebdo cartoon which imagines little Aylan Kurdi, if the toddler had not drowned on a Turkish beach, grown up and participating in the New Year’s Eve assaults on women in Cologne. But is context necessarily built in? In Excitable Speech Butler is careful to bring forward Austin’s distinction between the illocutionary, which does what it says in the moment of its saying, and the perlocutionary, which merely has eventual effects or consequences “that are not the same as the speech act itself” (3). For the perlocutionary, context is not built in. But doesn’t some uncertainty about its eventual consequences insinuate itself into any speech act? Deconstructively speaking, it would seem that, the context or “total speech situation” never being available in its entirety, the distinction would be impossible to maintain; the illocutionary would tend to dissolve into the perlocutionary. Derrida has no doubt said this better.
Freedom of speech in its full or proper sense, Balibar suggests, requires risking a confrontation with the opinions of others. This sounds like the sort of moral idealization one would have expected from a Habermas or a Levinas–or it does until one notices that it is a reformulation of what he has been talking about earlier, the fact that you can only know the performative if you also know its context. The opinions of others are the speech act’s context. But why then do they involve a risk? Balibar doesn’t quite say, but the answer would seem to be this: free speech is risky because the opinions of others are invested with power, power over the speaker. This model differs from the more familiar one of speaking in the face of (state) power in that you don’t know how much power you are facing, but also in the sense that you the speaker, privileged as you are to make use of the freedom of speech, are in that sense also a possessor of power, even if (again) you don’t know how much. This seems to be what Foucault meant by “the speaker’s benefit.” At the very least, Balibar’s assumption cannot be that as a speaker you don’t possess power.
Speech is risky, then, because it entails a confrontation or exchange not between the empowered and the disempowered, but between the empowered and the empowered, and because it is an exchange in which different distributions of power are possible.
Power here means of course unequal power. Does this imply that as soon as you open your mouth, you are reinforcing the structural inequality and hidden violence that, for Balibar, have always deformed liberalism’s ideal of freely circulating ideas? No, it doesn’t, though Balibar doesn’t spell this out. Having walked us through one paradox–you can’t have freedom of speech without equality, and you can’t have equality without freedom of speech– Balibar as I understand him is putting us in front of another paradox. As a speaker, you possess more than your fair share of power. But your empowered, privileged speech can be a means of undermining the inequality of power, a means of producing greater equality.
In a sense, I admit, this may sound like an anticlimactic conclusion. It merely states explicitly the quiet premise without which the effort to say and do would hardly be worth undertaking. That premise remains unspoken most of the time because it sounds so paradoxical. But there it is: what I have elsewhere called empowered dissent does not cease to be dissent merely because it is empowered. This is of course a reason for engaging in political speech.
In the specific case of hate speech against European Muslims, the tendency of those who take the side of blasphemy against freedom of expression has been to reject politics. Judith Butler reproaches Saba Mahmood on just this point in the collective volume Is Critique Secular?, which emerged from conversations about the Danish cartoons. Others, less intellectually rigorous than Butler, have politely agreed to overlook the apolitical or even anti-political impulse behind the speech-as-violation position. An interview with Mahmood in Jadaliyya after the 2011 events in Tahrir Square somehow neglected to ask why those events had been mobilized and sustained not by Mahmood’s pious-submissive women, who spurned political engagement, but by those “Westernized,” free-speaking, secular young people in whom Mahmood had heretofore shown absolutely no interest. One question to ask would have been: why were you so uninterested in them?
Butler herself is wary of politics at the level of the state. She does not want to make injurious speech actionable in the way that, say Catherine MacKinnon does with pornography, calling on the state to intervene against it. For Butler, such calls make it more likely that the state will sooner or later use its regulatory power against the very collectivities that solicited its intervention in the first place. What Butler recommends is for the victims of injurious speech to take the process of resignifying it into their own hands. It’s unclear how this strategy might be pursued by Europe’s Muslims, but the possibility is certainly intriguing.
Butler tells her reader not to expect “a set of clarifying solutions,” and the same holds I think for Balibar. A commitment to the process of politics, as opposed to politics as a set of solutions, is what distinguishes both of them from many of those who, like them, refuse simply to back free speech against the charge of blasphemy. Politics implies the existence of common ground. Mahmood and Asad reject politics because they reject the assumption of any common ground. That assumption would be a concession to the other side. For them, if anything appears to be neutral or shared, it can only be the cleaned-up battleground, all the blood and gore removed, where the other side was, as always, victorious. For Balibar as for Butler, on the other hand, these are political issues precisely because they are fought out on common ground. Or rather, the political goal is to create common ground. Genuine freedom of expression is not something that can be assumed to exist. It has to be created, or at least added to. As Balibar makes clear even in the restricted space available to him on a hand-out, freedom of expression as such requires (greater) freedom of expression for Europe’s Muslim population. And (greater) freedom of expression for Europe’s Muslim population will require equality of other sorts–for example, a Europe-wide movement against economic austerity, which is of course a devious way of imposing inequality. True freedom of expression has pre-conditions: reciprocity and rough material equality.
You are not really defending freedom of expression unless you are also universalizing it and, or by, extending its pre-conditions.
In the meantime, the dilemma of how to balance the rights of free expression against the harm done to Europe’s vulnerable (and dangerous) Muslim populations may be resolvable only at a pragmatic or sub-philosophical level. Call that level tact. Yes, you have the right to insult the Prophet, but really, why choose to exercise that right? There are other rights that we choose not to exercise when there is good reason not to. There must be ways of demonstrating that you are appalled by the last year’s worth of Paris killings without also needing to declare, “Je suis Charlie.”
It seems counter-productive as well as ungenerous to assume in advance that nothing more was involved in all this free expression than the seizing of an opportunity to vent racist malevolence, a racist malevolence that is always there, waiting for a chance to rear its ugly head. Tact and tactics both would urge us at least to entertain the contrary assumption: that even the most venomous racism can sometimes coexist with an urge, however obscure and unconscious, to be members of the same team. The assumption may be over-generous, but it encourages us to come up with ways of speaking that would make common membership seem more desirable to all the players.