Expressen, Sweden, January 20, 2015, Information, Denmark, January 22 2015
"What good is this for?" is a question that is not asked as much as it used to be. Once it was being asked all the time. Whatever you set about to do, it was expected to be good for something. Schlepping a violin case around was by most music critics in the backyard of my childhood deemed as being good for nothing. Why play the violin when you could play the guitar and become a star?
The demand that what you do be must be good for something has since been weakened. Today each and everyone is expected to do their own thing and whatever that is good for is no one else’s business since what is good for me must not necessarily be good for you.
The out-datedness of the question might be easier to discern if you extend it to: what good is this doing society?
I am fully aware that there must be different views about what is good for society, and even what we mean by society, not to mention what we mean by a good society, but that doesn’t explain why the question itself has become something of the past. As if the freedom for everyone to do their own thing is no longer contingent on the society in which it is exercised. But if human society is still changing for better or worse, and if what we do might determine which it will be, then it must certainly be a reasonable question to ask from time to time.
For example, it must be reasonable to ask it in a France where two brothers of North-African Muslim origins born and raised in the banlieues of Paris have just murdered a large part of the editorial staff at a relentlessly Islam-bashing satirical magazine in central Paris, and another man with a similar background has just murdered four peacefully Sabbath-shopping Jews, and everybody is till pondering the consequences for the French society.
To the question what Jihadist deeds of terror are good for, the Jihadists have an unabashed answer; it is good for provoking fear, distrust, insecurity and everything else that sharpens the contradictions in a democratic society and weakens it, which is fine with the Jihadists since they hope to replace tolerant democracy with terrorist theocracy.
This however doesn’t necessarily absolve us from the question what a relentlessly Islam-bashing satirical magazine is supposed to be good for in a nation where people of Muslim background are strongly underrepresented in the elites of society and strongly overrepresented in its margins, and where an openly Islam-bashing party is about to become the largest in the nation.
I suspect that there might be those arguing that this question is not only out-of-date, but after the deeds in Paris improper as well, since no answer should be allowed to explain or rationalize a massacre, which is a position I fully understand. Still, answers of sorts have already been given, for example that to satire nothing should be sacred. If anything should be sacred to satire then its is the freedom to provoke everyone and everything without having to answer to the question what it should be good for.
This is of course easier for the provoker to say than for the provoked, specially when the provoker has access to public megaphones while the provoked must make do with clenching his fists in private. This is also easier to say for the one who makes the choice about what and whom to provoke. The weekly display of the Prophet Mohammed in various obscene positions, predictably provoking Muslims, is only one choice among many.
The role of satire is certainly to provoke and it is in the nature of provocation that the reactions are somewhat unpredictable. Provocation is a demand for human communication, since it aims, in one way or the other, to upset the target. At best this may enliven the communication, at worst it may kill it. As a way of communication it functions at best when provoker and provoked share a common culture and language. And when the provoked are the mighty and not the powerless, which throughout history has been satire’s manifest position and function.
Not so manifest any longer, it seems. In any case, it is hard to see in what way the relentlessly Islam-bashing satirical magazine in Paris was targeting the mighty of the French society, when it repeatedly exhibited the bottom of the Prophet or similar affronts to Muslim sensitivities to public derision and disdain. Islam may deserve all the satirical attention it can get, and Jihadism may be an irresistible target for ridicule (reward virgins in heaven for “martyrs”, etc), but in a situation when a fiercely Islamophobic Front National might soon become the largest political party in France and attacks on Muslims and Muslim institutions have become daily routine (since January 7th more than thirty French mosques have been the targets of shootings, arson attacks, pig heads and graffiti), I find it hard not to choke my laughter. And hard not to ask what it is good for. And hard not find at least one answer; such provocations under such circumstances are good for provoking fear, distrust, insecurity and everything else that sharpens the contradictions in a democratic society and weakens it.
That is what can be expected to happen when a provocation is coming from above or from the outside. There is a difference between blasphemy and abuse, between peeing in your own tent or peeing into someone else’s. Most satire throughout history has been of the former kind, also the satire that erupted in the Muslim world during the short Arab Spring. Much of the satire we have seen in Europe during the last decade, from the Danish Mohammed cartoons and on, have been of the latter. Much laughter has been choked. Many fists have been clenched. All too many fists have been raised.
That is also what can be expected to happen when freedom of speech is transformed from means to goal, when the right to provoke everyone and everything is placed above any discussion of what good it is doing.