Are those Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the dead child really offensive?

Quartz india
Quartz india

Perhaps you saw this image on Twitter or your Facebook feed in the past week. It shows new Muslim migrants brandishing ISIS flags while fighting police in Germany.

It’s a case of the snake biting the hand that feeds it, specially galling because Germany has urged its European Union partners to accommodate more refugees fleeing civil war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Or, it would have been galling had the image actually been what it claims to be. In fact, it’s a three-year-old photograph of police in Bonn separating Islamic activists from an anti-Muslim rally by the right-wing Pro NRW party, after activists of that party had pasted cartoons of the prophet Muhammad outside mosques in a number of German cities.

It is worrying, of course, that German residents might feel attracted to ISIS in any circumstances, but the use of an old image in the current context falsely amplifies fears in Europe that the refugee tide is bringing with it not just displaced families but also a substantial number of militant Islamists. The persons who deliberately misappropriated the image must be satisfied at having turned thousands of wavering Europeans toward the anti-asylum camp.

A lie can travel halfway across the world before truth gets its boots on, Mark Twain said, long before mobile phones, the web and social media transformed the speed of communication. Well, Twain didn’t actually write that, at least as far as we can tell. The quote is attributed to him because half the witty sayings in the world sound like Mark Twain inventions. (The other half sound like Oscar Wilde inventions.) The earliest passage contrasting the speed of lies with the sluggishness of truth comes from the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift:

“As the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believed only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.”

The dead child

Jonathan Swift’s been on my mind in relation to a new chain of outrage set off by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, no stranger to controversy. The magazine published two cartoons about the refugee crisis based on heartbreaking images of dead children on a Turkish beach, images that shifted the attitude of thousands of Europeans, and gave Angela Merkel political space to make an appeal for more empathy. One cartoon has a Jesus-like figure next to a drowned boy, and text saying “Christians walk on water,” and “Muslim children drown.” The second shows a McDonald’s billboard advertising two children’s meals for the price of one, while Alan Kurdi’s limp body lies in the foreground under the legends, “Welcome migrants” and “So close to the goal.”

The early consensus about these cartoons was that they mocked Muslims/refugees/dead infants, and they were disgusting even if they did not do those things. The Daily Mirror, The Indian Express, Storypick, and other news outlets concurred with this analysis. Rutgers University professor Deepa Kumar called the cartoons “racism pure and simple.

Al Jazeera stated that the French magazine could face legal action for the cartoons. Back in 1729, similar outrage greeted an essay by Jonathan Swift titled, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public. As a solution to Ireland’s chronic poverty, Swift suggested the Irish sell their children to “persons of quality and fortune.”

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout… A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.”

Swiftian response

Swift nearly lost his patronage over A Modest Proposal, which is now widely considered the most important piece of political satire ever written by an Englishman. Charlie Hebdo ’s cartoons about the current refugee crisis will not achieve such fame or notoriety, but it was clear to me on first viewing that they are firmly in the Swiftian tradition of making shocking statements in order to draw attention to political hypocrisy in the face of dreadful tragedy. The cartoons, as a number of commentators have noted following the early wave of outrage, take aim at the self-image of Christian Europeans as caring, charitable people.

What can be done to prevent misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the kind seen in the examples of the ISIS flag photograph and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? In the second instance, the only option is to put one’s wares out in the marketplace of ideas and hope they will find buyers, for no single interpretation can ever claim absolute accuracy. The ISIS flag case is different, and increasingly familiar. Every instance of sectarian violence, every protest and riot in India, as in many other nations, now comes packaged with dozens of images that deliberately distort the truth to serve an agenda, usually in the form of old photographs torn out of their context and placed in the new one.

The Indian government’s usual ham-handed response, seen recently in Gujarat, which is to block social networking sites, and sometimes all data transmission, is not optimal, for it inconveniences millions of people in an effort to freeze the actions of a handful. On the other hand, even in cases when the truth is out there and malicious falsehood a matter of fact rather than interpretation, Jonathan Swift’s pronouncement has proved depressingly prescient. By the time people come to be undeceived, it is too late: the jest is over and the tale has had its effect.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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