Reframing Charlie Hebdo

By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

My professional life has involved study of the attitude of individuals towards risk and it is this perspective that I employ to reflect on some aspects of the Charlie Hebdo affair.

My interest in the subject emerged in graduate school when I found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the idealized behavior described in Western textbooks of economics with actual behavior I had observed in South Asia. My conclusion was that context mattered much more than acknowledged, followed very quickly by the realization that context was not constant.

One implication was that attitude towards risk was not a genetic trait – people were not born risk averse or risk preferring – but a behavioral response to specific contexts. I became convinced of this when my thesis adviser mentioned all the radical things he would do once he was awarded tenure.

Not only that, there was no one attitude to risk. Behavior has a fascinating multi-dimensionality in which a person could be cautious along one dimension and reckless along another – think of a chain-smoking miser as an example.

Every context or situation poses certain risks – even the crossing of a street – and individuals decide how much risk they are willing to take in that particular situation to achieve whatever might be their objective at the time.

(This inference is subject to a qualification that is generally missing in Western textbooks: The choice of how much risk to take is not always voluntary – many people are forced to take involuntary risks simply in order to survive – think of workers who descend underground to clean sewerage pipes or ascend flimsy scaffolds to construct buildings.)

In this perspective the editors at Charlie Hebdo either misread the context in publishing the material they did or they knew the risk they were incurring and felt it was worth taking to achieve the kind of world they believed in. If the latter, they were seemingly no different from the many journalists who risk being tortured and killed by intelligence agencies or the students who protest knowing they could well join the Disappeared. Except that the latter act in local contexts while the former were doing so in one that was truly global.

Framing the Charlie Hebdo affair as one of freedom of speech ignores the real world in which we live in favor of a normative one that validates a particular set of values. This introduces a complication that we discount at our peril. For very long most of our actions were confined to local domains where people were aware of prevalent values and had been part of the shared experience in which they had evolved. Today the audience for many actions is global throwing together people who subscribe to very different sets of values. In such a world our objectives and the risks we take to promote them are both confounded and compounded to an extent that calls for careful reconsideration.

Let us assume we subscribe to freedom of speech as a desired end for all but exist in a world with two groups: The majority in one group holds the value of free speech sacrosanct while the majority in the other assigns that status to the value of respect. Both sides contain minorities prepared to exploit the clash of values for political ends. That’s the way it is – nothing much is gained by labeling one group enlightened and the other unenlightened.

Let us assume further that the self-proclaimed enlightened group wishes to engage the alleged unenlightened one to move it towards the objective of recognizing the supreme value of free speech. Would it make sense to initiate the engagement with a gesture of disrespect trammeling the very value that would provide an entry point for reasoned discourse? The fact that anti-clericalism is a venerated French tradition carries no weight, rightly or wrongly, for the audience that is not French. To demand an engagement according to one’s values comes across as a losing proposition from the outset.

It seems reasonable to suggest that an appreciation of the context, no matter how much one might dislike it, ought to govern the nature of cross-cultural engagement. It should also have a bearing on the extent of risks that need to be taken to move that engagement in the desired direction.

Of course, it is ultimately the free choice of individuals how much risk they are prepared to take at any particular time for what they believe in. What one cannot do is wish away the reality that we live in a world comprised of people with fundamental disagreements on how life is to be lived and by what rules. There must be a better way to move closer together than to enter into excessively risky confrontations with unpredictable outcomes.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This reflection appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on February 21, 2015 and is excerpted here with permission of the author.

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6 Responses to “Reframing Charlie Hebdo”

  1. Vikram Says:

    I feel the use of the risk analysis paradigm seems unsuitable and counter-productive. There are a few reasons for this:

    First, Charlie Hebdo do not have the goal of professing the value of free speech to anyone outside of France. They are simply a French magazine that makes cartoons. And on the contrary, their goal could well have been to show exactly that a large number of Muslims do not share the ideal of free speech.

    Second, there is very little ambiguity in the position of Charlie Hebdo, and even the French state, you can say whatever you want, and the state should/will protect you. The positions that extremist Muslims and many academics have taken are far more ambiguous. Where exactly is the line between what can be said and what cannot ? How can one determine the consequent levels of risk here ?

    Borrowing from an argument made by Aniket Alam (, what if the majority of the population in Muslim majority countries (those who cant actually come out and burn flags and buses) feel, that there are specific elements within Islamic traditions that are among the reasons for their political and economic suppression ? Arent you effectively silencing them in the name of risk ?

    As a parallel, werent/arent there specific Hindu/Christian traditions that were among the reasons for the majority facing discrimination at the hands of an ‘upper caste’/white minority ? And wasnt the freedom to criticize these religions itself critical for political empowerment in those regions, despite the grave risks and consequences for many individuals ?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: I am willing to concede that the paradigm may be unsuitable but am not convinced by the points you raise. The strongest argument I can make in defense is that many publications (including the NY Times) considered reproducing the cartoons after the tragedy but decided against it explicitly on considerations of potential risk to their staff. I am not arguing whether this was right or wrong, just pointing out that a risk framework was used to arrive at a decision. See the following account of the thinking of the editor of the NY Times –

      “Mr. Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression.

      “He said he had spent “about half of my day” on the question, seeking out the views of senior editors and reaching out to reporters and editors in some of The Times’s international bureaus. They told him they would not feel endangered if The Times reproduced the images, he told me, but he remained concerned about staff safety.”

      It is disingenuous to argue that Charlie Hebdo is internal to France – anything that goes on the web has an international audience and everyone knows that. I made the point in the post that this is the big change from the past when print media did actually have local circulation only. I am also not talking about what the goal of the editors might have been. All I am saying is that there was a risk involved in what they were doing and it was their decision as to whether it was worth taking – the same decision that many other publications faced and dealt with. One can praise the editors for their courage but that is a different matter.

      No, you cannot say anything you want in France as the case of the comedian Dieudonné confirms. The French state is clearly drawing a line somewhere and one of the determinants in that decision is the level of risk resulting from the hurt to some sentiments.

      My argument is not intended to silence anyone as I stated by mentioning the efforts of journalists and students in countries like ours. All I am saying is that there is a risk involved and people evaluate that risk in deciding how they wish to proceed.

      I am also not negating struggles against discrimination – you have misunderstood my intention. I am pointing to the risk inherent in such struggles – based on their calculus some people participate and others don’t. It makes sense to be aware of the risks in one’s environment.

      Finally, consider the fact that no politicians, irrespective of their private opinions, can overtly make racist remarks in the US or casteist ones in India despite the protection of free speech simply because of the risk to their political standings. Once again, my concern is not the rightness or wrongness of such double-standards. It is to point out that a risk-analysis paradigm is at play.

      • Vikram Says:

        There are people in America who bomb abortion clinics and threaten to kill (and have killed) doctors who perform abortions. Clearly, there is a substantial risk to being pro-abortion in many parts of the US and an even greater risk to doctors who perform abortions.

        Has the NYT stopped airing the views of the pro-abortion camp and doctors because of these risks ? No, and rightly so. Whoever is right in the abortion debate, it is the state’s responsibility to protect the life and liberty of the people living in its jurisdiction.

        In a similar way, it is the French state’s responsibility to protect the lives of the Charlie Hebdo staff, no matter how high the risks generated by their exercise of liberty.

        If we adopt this framework of risk-restricted speech, wouldnt we be arguing that folks like Jibran Nasir and Asma Jahangir remain quiet, given the threats they have faced, and the fact that those issuing those threats remain active and dangerous ?

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: We are talking of different things. To use an analogy, I am saying people weigh the risks before crossing the road (especially in South Asia) and you are interpreting that to mean that I don’t want people to cross the road at all.

          The NYT case fits right into that paradigm: I documented that the editor decided not to run the Hebdo cartoons because of risk to the safety of staff. Clearly, the newspaper is covering the abortion news because the risk is perceived bearable. That makes sense – responsible employers would weigh staff safety in their decisions.

          Regarding, the French state’s responsibility, I am not challenging that. What I am saying is that the Charlie Hebdo editors miscalculated their assessment of whether the French state would be able to discharge that responsibility effectively. Clearly, it couldn’t and the editors paid with their lives.

          No, we wouldn’t be arguing that Jibran Nasir and Asma Jahangir remain quiet. What we are suggesting is that they must be prudently weighing how far they can go in their circumstances and that they can’t afford to miscalculate.

  2. skynut Says:

    Risk analysis is something we do all the time. Do I tell my children this or that? Do I let them do this or that? How else will we distinguish the foolish from the ‘wise’ ?

    at the same time in the Hedbo context we could also have a saboteur or even a martyr.

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