In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:
The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?
It is indeed ‘politico’ speak. On Wednesday afternoon, the day of the attacks, I watched Baroness Sayeda Warsi on the BBC prefixing her contribution with precisely this kind of disclaimer. Although everything she said was right and worthy and she certainly meant it, it nevertheless wasn’t an answer to the question the interviewer had put to her.
I think we do this because we are now quite practiced at responding to terrorist atrocities, and can be a little more sophisticated the inevitable debates that follow. In answer to Sam’s question of ‘why is it necessary?’, I’d say that Baroness Warsi and others are insuring themselves. We’ve learnt that part of the debate always includes disingenuous accusations that this person or other is somehow endorsing or excusing the crime. A boilerplate disclaimer at the top of a debate is a time-saving measure.
Quickly sealing a consensus on the despicable and criminal nature of the act itself also allows us to move onto more interesting and important topics, such as whether social factors tip someone into this criminality, how freedom of expression relates to other rights, and the most appropriate way to protect ourselves against such attacks in the future. You can’t have a proper debate over these issues if you’re being accused of trivialising a death or excusing a murder.
Sam is right to say that being forced to say something is anti-free speech. But in such cases as this one, I think vocalising our condemnation quickly and early allows us more space and time to speak with nuance on the complex issues raised by such attacks. That’s a good thing.