The latest cartoon from the Charlie Hebdo stables to spark outrageous reactions involves a depiction of Queen Elizabeth kneeling on the neck of Meghan Markle in an irreverent reconstitution of the death of George Floyd. The title of the cartoon is ‘Why Meghan Quit’ with the Duchess of Sussex depicted as saying, “Because I could not breathe any more”.
Now the French satirical magazine is no stranger to controversy and this cartoon has come under fire from different quarters. The cartoonist’s subject is clearly one of the major take-aways from the Markle-Oprah interview – the bit where Markle revealed concern from an undisclosed member of the Royal family regarding the colour of her soon-to-be-born baby’s skin. That and the fact that Markle had been refused permission to leave the Palace on a few occasions.
The clumsy cross-reference to the death of George Floyd has been criticised as being over the line. So has the depiction of the nonagenarian Queen as a red-eyed, hairy-legged rabid sadist gleefully asphyxiating a prostrate former Duchess of Sussex by kneeling on her neck.
One condemnation of the cartoon reasoned that this kind of satire lacks respect to the demise of George Floyd. The manner of that death, the criticism goes, can never be used as satire – even to make a point about racism.
Another condemnation concerned the depiction of the Monarch. This depiction is based on a gratuitous, unfounded conclusion that makes the Queen the main cause of all the ills suffered by the Sussexes. The Queen, the argument goes, was unfairly depicted as an evil oppressor taking pleasure out of the harm being caused to Markle.
To be fair I do not think that the ‘outrage’ we are witnessing, in this case, is half as bad as that provoked by other more infamous Hebdo cartoons in the past. It is a good example to begin to understand the complexity of free speech and its boundaries. We can distinguish, for example, between the message and the medium used to portray it.
In this case, we had a satirical take on the issue of racism in the royal household that went terribly wrong because of the use (abuse) of imagery that diluted any intended anti-racist message. Condemnation in this case was more of the medium than of the message itself.
This brings me to yesterday´s events in Malta. I had barely woken from my afternoon siesta when I browsed the good old Facebook. It was alight with messages of condemnation and litanies of outrage at the latest abuser of the power of free speech on the net.
Godfrey Leone Ganado had left a few comments underneath a Facebook transmission of an interview of Opposition Leader Bernard Grech by Norma Saliba (PBS Head of News).
Leone Ganado is a private citizen with an active profile in NGO and activist circles that begins to blur the line between private and public figure. In any case, he seems to have discarded any form of sieve between the brain and the fingers typing out his words aimed at the PBS Head of News.
In two separate interventions, he first set loose a series of comments seemingly inspired by Saliba´s appearance. Saliba’s get up became a lame excuse to get to past linguistic slip-ups involving playground-level sexual innuendos by disgraced ex-Minister Konrad Mizzi and tree-nemesis Minister Ian Borg. Still playing on his twisted perception of Saliba’s looks, Leone Ganado then took a second swing at her calling her a “political prostitute”.
The first comment concerning Saliba’s “hot” look could never hold any water. It should never have been uttered and can only be seen for the stupid, gratuitous insult that it is. In no world is it justifiable or defendable. The “political prostitute” attack gets the same level of condemnation.
The problem, in this case, lies in the fact that Leone Ganado chose misogynist imagery to highlight the fact that the PBS Head of News makes use of the position to please the government in power. Any possible validity of the criticism levelled at the PBS newsroom and its acting as a voice for government newspeak is lost because all attention is drawn to the “prostitute” part of the statement.
And so we had a flurry of condemnations. As a nation we excel at this, especially in the political sphere. Damnation was dispensed from all sorts of quarters and continued to be dispensed much after the perpetrator of condemnable comments had retracted.
Occupy Justice and Repubblika, two NGOs with which Leone Ganado is strongly associated, condemned the language used. In other quarters, Leone Ganado was described as a friend of the right-leaning and moralist community and questions were asked about whether the right-leaning moralists would indeed condemn Leone Ganado.
The race on who could best damn Leone Ganado was on. Bernard Grech condemned the comments, the Labour party blamed Bernard Grech for provoking them.
What I find interesting is the outcome of condemnations. Leone Ganado understood that his stupid actions were wrong and apologised. Which is fine. It should be clear that this kind of imagery is not the correct medium with which to dispense criticism. Especially not imagery that amounts to hate speech. Condemning Leone Ganado’s comments remains the obvious thing to do.
Wouldn’t it be great though if, once the flames of hellfire and damnations subside, the same army of condemning inquisitors took up the message bereft of the twisted imagery and battled with equal force the evident hypocrisy with which the Newsroom of State Television is run?
Or are we only good at damning the obvious?
A damn nation, that’s what we are.