Category Archives: Article Series

SEASON 2, 2015 – Foreword

The fact that some satirists were murdered for drawing cartoons about Islam had a particular resonance for us: some of you might know why. Shockingly, a fair fraction of commentators and satirists themselves started to look at satire as the root cause of the tragedy. We immersed ourselves in all the arguments and decided nothing short of a re-boot of our old article series Perlustrating Asseverations would be in order to debunk this bunk or, at least poke some fun while both sides play cat and mouse over the tragedy. PA is a deliberately wordy series with a name that readers don’t understand and a method of deduction the authors can’t comprehend. And it’s all under the banner of a satire of people’s non-satirical condemnation of satire. Simple.

÷Now, join us as we throw straw men down slippery slopes onto truth-bombs and hope they don’t blow up in our face.

NB These posts were all written well before the more recent attacks in Paris and our publication date reflects our dilatory workflow, not our opportunism.

PA: Charlie Hebdo — Nothing to do with religion

÷ Religion had nothing to do with the Paris attacks ÷

A commonly issued qualification following the IS beheadings and the Paris attacks was that they were not about religion. President Hollande, for example, said of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket: “These attacks have nothing to do with Islam.” The warning is presumably an admirable example at trying to militate against xenophobic or bigoted reactions to the crimes. Based on past experience, such fears are clearly warranted, especially in France — but is the statement actually true?

The public debate surrounding the above incident displays a fishy mix of attributions of motive, such that the original offence taken by the gunmen was religiously motivated, whereas their dispensation of vengeance was not. Thus it seems that religion was present as a motivating factor on both sides of the incident (cartoonists and gunmen) until the moment of shooting, just as the gunmen were yelling: “God is great!”. Translation errors aside, this statement contains a strong religious overtone, but it is at this point that God left the scene and was replaced by an atheistic ideology. Then, in the aftermath, God returned in a veritable parousia of blame, as the defining feature of the group being targeted by bigotry i.e., devout Muslims.

Others say that it’s not really a religion that these attackers have, it’s an ideology and they are under its sway. A reading of the ideology in question reveals that it has the following features: belief in an afterlife, a deity, a prophet, a set of moralistic preachings, a demand for others to comply, an apocalyptic vision of the future, a warrant for killing non-believers, a holy text and a mission of bringing about an Islamic religious state, the Caliphate. Despite the scent of religion in these elements, the ideology is still defined as secular. Perhaps this is an inversion of the familiar case of Catholics in Western countries, whose lives are exclusively composed of secular elements but who nevertheless insist their lives are, according to census forms, religious.

Some commentators also claim that we wouldn’t blame religion if the attackers were not Muslims, but of some other faith. We can test this case by substituting in another religion to see if there is some inconsistency. If a Christian went on a rampage and killed people in the name of God, and indeed said he was doing it in the name of Dog, would we say it was religiously motivated? It’s an interesting hypothetical and for it we would need an example of Christians undertaking some kind of violent crusade against non-believers or believers in rival sects. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation (see Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), conflict in Northern Ireland, massacres in the former Yugoslavia, or indeed Buddhist violence in Burma, the Sikh violence in India, or the self-inflicted violence of the Heaven’s Gate cult —  are any of these violent episodes standardly attributed to religion? What about The Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17 centuries? Were they about religion?

A weaker version of the hypothesis is that the attacks are not only about religion. Many scholars, after decades of theological studies, believe that religions are not separable as a cause of strife and violence. A proponent of this view, Reza Aslan, defends it by saying that he doesn’t feel prominent public atheists are qualified to talk about religion, because they have not studied theology to the doctoral level that he has. Such a proposition also implies that 99% of the world’s faithful are also debarred from the privilege of talking about their own religion and Aslan is debarred from talking about the 99% of topics on which he doesn’t have a PhD; such ideas lead to absurd logical conclusions redolent of the very stuff of this column, but do at least confirm Wittgenstein’s notion that even if a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.

If we think that religion is a shroud for the actual causes of events, then we also need to be sceptical of other actions taken, allegedly in the name of religion, such as praying in a church or mosque. The same degree of incredulity should be levelled at anyone attempting to depict the Prophet Muhammad — is it really about religion? Possibly not. Is this satire of satires about religion, about religion?

Ultimately we find something attractive in not attributing the cause of anything to religion, as it leads to the inescapable deduction that religion was not the cause of Muhammad dictating the The Quran÷ and the ultimate conclusion that God cannot have caused the world to exist: atheistic pronouncements that, ironically, would anger religiously motivated extremists — if there were any.

PA: Charlie Hebdo – Sufficient Context

÷I fully condemn the murder of the the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, but we need to consider the wider context.÷

While a great number of people lined up passionately behind the freedom of speech hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, a significant fraction limited their support, adding the caveat that the satire was clumsily messing with a volatile menagerie of political and religious anger and that therefore the violent response may have been understandable when put in context. We here attempt to understand this caveat of context and determine its validity.

We are actually free to expand our context continuously so let’s explore the effect of modifying our scale. Firstly, on the everyday timescale and spatial scale an observer (say, one of the casualties) would experience, the event is an absurd slaughter without cause and should be fully condemned. If we zoom out to a world-wide reach and all-of-history timescale we find thousands of years of horrific, religiously inspired autocracies which we can contrast with our own time and place: a veritable oasis consisting of a few hundred years and a handful of countries safe from the stranglehold religious ideology has had over human dignity. This scale of context actually supports the cartoonists and would convert the “but we need to” to an “especially when we” in the original claim.

However, between these vantage points there are a select few decades of horrible events including wars, terrorism, Western intervention, decolonisation and secular–Islamic conflict that act as juicy, context-rich ingredients for left-wing commentators to muddle together to make the comic absurdity of satire the bad guy. This isn’t possible at any other level, for if we zoom out to the scale of the anthropocene, it becomes difficult to see any meaning at all. Zooming out still further to infinity we reach a limit of perfect apathy as we stare down, doe-eyed and awed at the meaninglessness and the absurdity of our very existence across the infinitude of space and time.

Figure 1 | Widening context changes the meaning of the event in a nonlinear way.
Figure 1 | Widening context changes the meaning of
the event in a nonlinear way.

Rather than slide down this slope to nihilism, the strange dip between the local and historical scale is the range that allows one to reduce condemnation; what we have dubbed the “Aslan zone”, named after not the discoverer but the current chief capitaliser of the effect. (Editor’s note: we have censored the beak-shaped dip). Applying mathematical real analysis, provided the curve is continuous there must be at least two zero-points each representing pure apathy. If time is the only variable the first zero-point must be some moment between the immediate shock of the news and the next university tutorial where the event can be abstracted to obfuscation. If space is the only variable, the first zero-point is somewhere between Paris and University of California, Riverside. Unfortunately it is most likely to be some complex, untenable combination of space and time; we may search forever for the dependence and never find it, however the uncertainty will allow us to talk in circles in news interviews while making zero points.

The choice of scale of context is clearly arbitrary, so we should obviously select our scale to match that of God’s omniscience where all true causes are known. A God’s eye perspective can presumably be accessed through the word of God, via a book that was well studied by the attackers, making The Quran the ultimate con text.

PA: Charlie Hebdo — Reasonable Response

÷The violent response to Charlie Hebdo is understandable considering how much Islam reveres the Prophet.÷

A strong version of the “you need to consider the wider context” argument, the above statement is part of an attempt to help non-Muslims understand how truly horrible the offending cartoons must have been for Muslims. Because the Prophet is so revered and because depicting him is so heinous according to some creeds, the damage done to pious Muslims is actually commensurate (or nearly so) with the crimes of revenge. This implies that the violence enacted in revenge is, prima facie, a valid response to blasphemy.

The argument is a faint echo of the “it takes two to tango” formulation most familiar from teachers’ adjudications in the kangaroo court of the classroom. A typical classroom example may involve little Muhammad punching little Charlie in the face in retaliation for Charlie using crayons to draw a crude likeness of Muhammad with stink lines emanating from his rear. The ensuing tears from Charlie may result in the punishment of Muhammad for settling his disputes with fists and the stern objurgation of Charlie not to provoke other students. Even in this example the teacher has arguably reacted in a disproportionate manner, unfairly censuring Charlie for a comparatively minor offence. Still, a punch is possibly still in the same region of wrong as a libelous drawing.

A more appropriate analogue would be if we scaled up the actions of the kids to match the Paris attacks. In our new example Charlie draws Muhammad (without stink lines) and Muhammad’s friends shoot Charlie and his friends with assault weapons, riddling their tiny bodies with fatal wounds. In such a case, the equivalent response to Charlie’s parents would be, “I’m not saying that Charlie deserved to be slaughtered like a dog in a one-sided gun fight, but he also shouldn’t have provoked Muhammad’s friends. You know how they are.” Oddly enough, the “boys will be boys” attitude that mitigates the crime seems to apply most aptly when the boys are replaced with men.

An equivalence between offence and revenge requires a metric to determine it accurately. The degree of offense that was inflicted by satirical depictions of the revered Prophet can be considered as a loss of face (see figure 2). The attackers were able to recover most of their loss by shooting the cartoonists; but both attackers and satirists will eventually converge on the typical profile for a Homo sapiens, i.e. total loss of face as the body, face included, decomposes completely, with only a bare residuum of face enduring in the form of images (photographs, drawings, etc.) of the deceased.

Figure 2 | Loss of face with age. Typical Homo sapiens approach, but do not reach zero.
Figure 2 | Loss of face with age. Typical Homo sapiens approach, but do not reach zero.

A special non-visual note must be made of Muhammad’s profile, which initially followed the standard trajectory, with the Prophet’s putrefaction leading to a facial reduction, but was artificially kept at zero by the prohibition of any post-mortem depiction. Although, at such small values, the curve becomes rough and in some places ill-defined when considering what exactly constitutes a representation.

Figure 3 | Although there is a fear of loss of face and the Prophet’s face has been artificially kept at zero, faces have accumulated steadily for the faith.
Figure 3 | Although there is a fear of loss of face and the Prophet’s face has been artificially kept at zero, faces have accumulated steadily for the faith.

The loss of face endured by believers having their prophet mocked may well be significant, but is probably less than the loss of maxillofacial structure endured by the cartoonists who were shot in the head.

PA: Charlie Hebdo — Punching Down

÷Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the
powerful… When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel
— it’s vulgar.”
÷ — Molly Ivins

Continuing our exploration of asseverations made after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the above is often quoted as the raison d’être of satire. This leads one to logically conclude that if Charlie Hebdo picked easy targets, then the cartoonists weren’t actually doing satire and so they are not completely innocent victims. The image conjured is one of a room of vulgar cartoonists “punching down” on a powerless minority.

Assuming the definition holds, whom can we satirise? According to the quote we must satirise only those that are in power. Even within the powerful there is a hierarchy so satirists should aim at the very top Dog. If this being exists, His power would be infinite. He would eclipse everyone in power, meaning all satire should be aimed against Him. Alas, this leads to a recursive trap because His perfection would make the identification of foibles and hypocrisy difficult.

Relaxing this idea of power leads us from God Himself to those with the means and motivation to do great harm — men such as males, warlords, leaders and messengers of God. A perfect example of such a man was Muhammad himself, whose power was not only exercised during his lifetime by his dogs of war, but has managed to persist to this very day in the form of Islam which has the power to influence how a billion people live.

We must be careful, however, to not satirise him until he became the powerful and influential man he was; we must not satirise young Muhammad the kid, when he was over-powered by others. After Muhammad’s death, his influence continued through his young wife Aisha, upheld as an example of an influential woman in Islam. As a member of the elite herself we may satirise her during the period she had power, but not before. There is a grey area in the twilight time period between 6 and 9, between the time she was over-powered and when she became a woman. Both examples are ideas that are surely unacceptable to the author of our original quote.

Moving to a more timely example, one can make fun of a radicalised terrorist (powerful and violent), but not a merely religious person (potentially an oppressed minority). This means the go/no-go to satirise is based on the information you have of the person at the time. A Western cartoonist may not make fun of Islam. However if the follower of Islam proves to be a terrorist, then the axis of power has flipped and the cartoonist may draw. More precisely, the satirist must not satirise a man of Middle-Eastern appearance as he enters the office (in case he is one of the oppressed), but she may do it after he has clearly drawn an assault rifle with intent (thereby identifying himself as a terrorist oppressor). The cartoonist must pull her punches, amicably establishing a “Friend Zone” until this happens. This leaves a painfully short window, the ironically named “Safe Zone” (see Figure 4), in which the poor, liberated cartoonist scrambles to take pencil to paper, furiously scrawling her scathing caricature, further angering the terrorist and basically fattening herself for slaughter. Such an action will escalate the situation into the “Dead Zone” formed a few seconds later when he permanently finalises the order of power between the belligerents.

Figure 4 | Direction of punching flips following an escalation of suspicion.
Figure 4 | Direction of punching flips following an escalation of suspicion.

Moving from particular cases to satire in general, the quote implies satire itself has power to cause an effect (otherwise it wouldn’t matter to whom it is applied). This then puts satirists in an awkward position. Satire is famously one-sided: progressives seem the only side capable of it, and conservatives are more often its brunt. Thus the “powerful” in the very real battle of the minds in which satire is a weapon are the progressives themselves. Based on the metric of “ability to attack with satire”, then almost every piece of satire is punching down, akin to beating a weak mute until the cows come home. So we are left with a strange formulation where progressives should only punch themselves. This is rare but has been observed, for example, in First Dog on the Moon, whose satire is best described as essays in progressive mutual self-flagellation with pictures of dogs around it.

Oppression is applied nonlinearly to members of a society. The majority of a society stand to benefit from institutionalised advantage and get support from the multitude of their own creed and so are positively liberated. In contrast, minorities are disadvantaged while at the same time have less brethren for support and so are doubly burdened in their oppression. This results in a power law distribution of power, which we dub the “‘power law’ power law”. Only one member of the society can be completely free from the threat of satire iff this person is the lowest person in existence. Considering Muhammad is apparently satirisable by no one, then the Left’s prohibition implies he is equal to or less than this infimum.

PA: Charlie Hebdo — Racist Satire

÷The depictions of Muhammad were racist and therefore
condemnation of the attackers should be tempered÷

Past editions of Charlie Hebdo have included depictions of Muhammad, in a racialised manner and therefore condemnation of the killers✝ should be tempered by or accompanied with some recognition of the racist provocation of the newspaper. The foregoing is a popular viewpoint and is generally bolstered by comparisons to 20th century examples of racist cartooning and so deserves some scrutiny.

The French cartoonists’ depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were certainly caricatures, but did they rely on the exaggeration of ethnic features? Many commentators have pointed out the “hook nose” on Muhammad, but a cursory perusal of any Western political cartoonist’s work will reveal hook noses to be a motif encompassing everyone from Bob Hawke to Yes Minister’s Paul Eddington, whose own aquiline snout is nevertheless rendered as hawk-like as Bob’s, or as hook-like as Mo’s. Public figures generally accept this tendency towards the accipital, possibly because there are limited facial features to be exaggerated and limited ways in which to exaggerate. Our advice for drawing noses? Try a triangle or try an arabesque and hope it isn’t.

Certainly there is a warranted fear that something in the vein of the crude and anti-semitic cartoons drawn by Nazis, Romans and Muslims may be reproduced. But not all caricatures are deemed racist. The cover of the Charlie Hebdo edition in the week of the attacks depicted Michel Houellebecq in a repellant, bulbous-nosed, leer; it was fairly commensurate with the author’s actual leer, but few if any commentators have labelled it a crude gallic stereotype.*

Enough nasal-gazing. There is also the point that the French cartoonists may have actually produced an accurate depiction of what Muhammad really looked like, which we dub an “accurature”. Therefore, like the cartoons of Houellebecq, Hawke and Hacker, it could be an irreverent poke at the Prophet’s✝ dominant facial characteristics. Alas, we’ll never know what he looked like, because all attempts at depicting him have not survived, for reasons that must be obvious even to readers of this column. (The dearth of depictions and supplementary death of depictors✝ was plotted in an earlier article.)

There may also be problems for cartoonists using anthropomorphism. First Dog on the Moon generally depicts most humans as dogs, which seems either universally offensive or universally lighthearted, depending on taste. In fact it may depend on the target and the species: the hypothetical cartoonist First Pig on the Moon could do everyone as pigs until he got to police officers, in which case those pigs would have a cow. First Rat on the Moon could do everyone except Jews. Continuing the pattern, each satirical target seems to have one prohibited species and it seems Muhammad’s, unfortunately, is Homo sapiens; under this model it would be fine to experiment using other animals as guinea-pigs: cat-Muhammad, scotoplane-Muhammad or pubic lice-Muhammad, but First Human on the Moon would be hamstrung.

Perhaps progressives are trying to hold up an age old tradition whereby prophets can only be drawn as races they aren’t. Jesus is almost never drawn as a Middle-Eastern jew. A jolly fat Buddha is commonly east Asian. And Moses looks more like God Himself than the man himself. Ultimately, we find that it is difficult to depict Muhammad in a way that makes everyone happy. The Prophet’s proboscis is proscribed as profane by progressives and regressives alike. This leaves the rest of the population, whose lives aren’t overturned by an inked squiggle, wondering if it is the cartoonists or the extremists that are on the nose.

PA: Charlie Hebdo — Be the Bigger Person

÷“Regardless of freedom of speech, can’t we just be respectful
and not draw Muhammad?”÷

For those who aren’t so attached to the concept of freedom of speech, avoiding drawing cartoons of Muhammad seems a small price to pay for a more harmonious world. However, those who hold freedom of speech to be one of the keys to harmony see it not just as a betrayal of their beliefs, but as a bad precedent of voluntary submission to violence.

Ostensibly it looks like a good trade: the modern world removes only one thing from its artistic repertoire, dogmatic Muslims have one less thing to make them feel alienated and, to top it all off, Westerners can pat themselves on the back for trading lambs for lions.

However, the trade becomes less attractive when certain aspects are scaled. For instance, if it was a bigger cost, would we consider giving it up? If a band of murderous Jainists appeared who believed that the competitive nature of sport offended them deeply, would we kowtow to them? Those members of secular society without the constitution for sport (nerds, your humble authors) would probably be willing to trade, however we have the feeling that others in the West (jocks, normal people) would not budge on the important issue of throwing balls around, especially if such a game doesn’t even make a political point. Playing political football with football would be merely vulgar.

We must also ask if it is even possible to not draw Muhammad. For example, if one were to draw something that represents all men or even all humans — categories into which Muhammad falls — then you have drawn something that represents Muhammad implicitly. Immediately we realise that much of our previously innocuous symbolism becomes dangerous. Take the innocent toilet door whose standard, inclusive decal welcomes all men. Such a representation could be offensive, unless it’s edited to exclude the Prophet, placing the placating placard “*Not pictured: Muhammad”.

If this toilet door example is bad, the ultimate embarrassment is still out there. If such caveats existed in the 1970s, our kitsch, embossed message intended for aliens on board the Voyager 2 probe would have been blighted by an asterisk and disclaimer. The gold-plated, permanent message to other intelligences shows our alien brethren an effigy that “represents all men and women united in their humanity”*. *Not pictured: Muhammad. Even worse, the caveat would only prove to confuse the beings whose very existence disproves the divinity upon which the concern is based.

Such mappings of representation lead to interesting logical combinations. If, rather than an inclusive AND (drawing something that represents all men and so includes Muhammad as a consequence), what if we used an exclusive OR? This would mean drawing an image and mentioning that it is either the Prophet Muhammad or someone else very specific (say, Reza Aslan of University of California, Riverside). Then there is a 50/50 chance that Muhammad has been drawn. If this drawing is placed in a sufficiently obscured context, then would the author†? be both dead and alive? This big version of the famous physics gedankenexperiment we call Schrödinger’s Aslan.

Perhaps the West should give in and observe total aniconism. Some sects won’t even draw humans or animals, let alone Muhammad, which is likely to mean human/animal hybrids such as fauns and satyrs would be off the table. This would also take anthropomorphic satire off the table, sating those who fawn to humans acting like animals, although you wouldn’t know because they couldn’t be drawn as such.

Banning images of Muhammad puts his image, along with swastikas, in the same, small category of images the West proscribes. The ban on swastikas is to suppress the belief that encourages violence, though with the Prophet it’s to suppress the violence that belief encourages. Unfortunately, the only other proscribed image in the West is that of a sexualised child. Grouping Muhammad with child pornography may have some Internet filtering advantages, but doesn’t seem to offer much to those seeking respect, or the defenders of freedom of speech and least of all devout Muslims.÷