Even the most offensive art can have two meanings

This week, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was criticised for publishing a shocking cartoon about migrants and rape culture.
It features a depiction of the terrible image of drowned three year-old Aylan Kurdi alongside what appear to be some dirty old men, chasing women Benny Hill style.

The caption reads:

Que serait devenu le petit Aylan s’il avait grandi? Tripoteur, de fesses en Allemagne.

This translates as: What would have become of little Aylan, had he grown up? Molester of buttocks in Germany.
On the face of it, this seems to imply that even drowned child migrants are (or were) potential gropers of the kind seen in Cologne recently. Such a suggestion would obviously be deeply offensive, to refugees and to the memory of Aylan Kurdi
However, my reading of the cartoon is that it is not making that (racist) point. Rather, it is satirising those who claim that all the migrants coming to Europe are sex pests and rapists.  In a rather shocking manner, the cartoonist reminds us that the migrants are not all young single men, bringing single-man style crime and social problems to their place of sanctuary.  There are also children and families among the refugees.  A restrictive, knee-jerk policy based on the events of Cologne will mean disaster for vulnerable segments of the refugee population.
The cartoonist is Laurent ‘Riss’ Sourisseau, who was shot during the infamous shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices last year, and hospitalised. He is now editorial director of the magazine, and has used the image of Aylan Kurdi before, satirising Europe’s confused attitudes to migrants. So I am confident that it was the second, satirical meaning of the cartoon that was intended, and not the more simplistic interpretation that some people have assumed.
This cartoon is, I think, a good example of why it is essential that there be no curbs on images or words that disturb and offends.  Sometimes, it is only the art that offend that can break through the political blather. It is not simply that offensive art needs to be tolerated.  Sometimes it also needs to be encouraged.

10 Replies to “Even the most offensive art can have two meanings”

  1. V.interesting piece. Although, as I’m sure you know, it’s not just Cologne. And I don’t think it is racist, given the events, to fear assault from any male migrants coming from countries with misogynist attitudes to women. It makes me sad that women’s safety in those countries has been so casually sacrificed for fear of being called racist.

    1. And although it is an offensive cartoon, my reading of it is that it highlights the tension between having compassion for human suffering on the one hand, and the fear of cultural differences on the other. Which is what I think has characterised Europe’s response to the crisis from the start.

      1. Hi Sharif. I thought it was obvious from the context of the events being discussed that I was specifically talking about the recent migrants. I’ve read the article (thanks for the link), but it’s not really applicable to my point. I agree that blaming race or religion for misogyny is neither accurate, nor a good thing for anyone, but that is not what I was doing in my original point. The fear I was defending was from a purely pragmatic point of view, as a female who’d rather avoid or prevent such assaults if possible.
        If anything, the thing that is no good for women is a haste to interpret legitimate debate on this topic as racism. To me, that’s just another version of ‘what about the menz’, and another way to silence people speaking out or trying to understand. And the fear of it has led to the cover-up in Sweden, for eg.

        1. Hi Clarice. First, this is a difficult topic to discuss, especially in this type of forum, so let me begin by saying that I appreciate your thoughtful responses. Second, I should clarify my concern. I agree wholeheartedly that all reports of sexual assaults on women in crowds need to be investigated thoroughly and studied carefully so that actions can be taken to prevent their reoccurrence, irrespective of the purported ethnicity or geographic origins of the perpetrators. I agree, too, that public debate about the causes and collective failures that led to such assaults is healthy and necessary. I certainly do not think debate should be shut down on grounds of racism, or for fear that it may stoke racist sentiment. But I do think we each have a particular responsibility to check our language very carefully when engaging in public debate on such highly-charged matters – precisely because the stakes are so high for all involved. Suggesting that recent events provide a licence to fear assault from *any* male migrants coming from the Middle East and North Africa (admittedly, my interpretation of your term “countries with misogynist attitudes to women”) crosses a line for me. It is tantamount to licensing prejudicial treatment by Europeans of men whose appearance suggests they may have recently arrived from the MENA region. In other words, racism. North Africa and the Middle East are large geographical regions populated by diverse communities comprised of diverse individuals with diverse views and behavioural norms. Certainly there are territories ruled by groups with misogynist views (ISIS comes to mind as the most extreme example) but I’m not aware of anywhere in the region where sexual assault of women in crowds is either lawful or socially acceptable (excluding the circles of criminals who perpetrate such assaults). More importantly, the appalling state of women’s rights in much of the region shouldn’t be conflated with the myriad views held by individual men who live there – or who have recently left it for Europe. I migrate frequently between the Arab world and the UK, and I am aware that my melanin-rich appearance betrays my roots in a part of the globe that is sunnier than South-East England. But my origins and appearance provide precisely no indication of my views on gender relations, whether I am law-abiding, or how I might behave in a mixed crowd. I should hope that if you saw me in a crowded public place you wouldn’t fear assault by me any more than you would fear assault by, say, Robert Sharp. If, notwithstanding this comment, you still can’t help but fear me, my hope is that you will trace the roots of that fear and acknowledge that it is the product not only of the media and political hysteria surrounding Muslims and migrants in this instant but also of centuries of cultural production in which the figure of the Muslim male has been set up in the European imagination as a sexually voracious and violent animal. Part of the reason that stories of migrants from the MENA region committing sexual assault sell so many papers in Europe is that they appear to validate the pre-existing fears and prejudices of their readership. The ongoing attempt by certain right-wing groups to profit politically from recent events by portraying Muslim migrants as culturally incompatible with Western liberal-democratic values, including respect for women’s rights, should be resisted by all who care about protecting such values and such rights. A first step is taking particular care with the language we use in public debate and rejecting any framing of the discussion that posits women’s rights as being in opposition to refugee rights. Equally as important, it seems to me, is the need to resist any urge to sanction prejudice on the grounds of pragmatism.

    2. Oh, and I meant to say, while you may not think it is racist to “fear assault from any male migrants coming from countries with misogynist attitudes to women” that is, in fact, a perfect example of racism. The criminals who perpetrated the sexual assault of women on NYE (or any other day) are no more representative of their “culture” than the perpetrators of sexual assault of any other community are representative of their “culture”. That should really be self-evident. It concerns me that it needs to be re-stated. Especially on a website such as this.

      1. Hi Sharif. It may be ‘culturist’, but it’s not racist. It’s entirely orthogonal to the question of race. The question of representativeness isn’t really relevant – it’s not a question of how many migrants *don’t* commit such crimes as compared to those that do, it’s a question of women’s safety. And it concerns me that that should need to be re-stated, esp. on a website such as this.

        1. Yep. The divide is new vs. established — that’s all. Goes without saying (and surprising that it needs to be re-stated), but millions of newcomers will bring their own cultural values with them — and that might not chime with the established culture in the host culture. It’s a no-brainer that some kind of cultural integration and communication needs to happen, and that when it doesn’t, bad things happen. It’s sad that of course, it’s just women’s rights, so we feel the need to “debate” the rightness or wrongness of naming perpetrators and enforcing strict punishment — except the law-abiding Syrians, who are holding a rally tomorrow and advocating for deportation for any asylum seeker involved in crimes such as these.

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