Satire And Democracy: The Problem With Charlie Hebdo


‘Tis not as wide as a church door, nor deep as a well, but the injury done by the violence of the CH calamity to “free speech” is enough to warrant a fundamental question: what role does satire play in democracy?

There’s no denying that the loss of twelve vital lives, the rending of public confidence and the worsening of cultural differences is tragic. Stirring images of the three million-plus demonstrators who took to the streets across France recently are rousing fodder across television networks, facebook feeds and conversational lines. Many unlikely alliances have been forged to express outrage over the tragedy.

But what we should be talking about is comedy.

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine. Included in its arsenal of political critique are weapons of mass offence and personal attack. In this sense, Charlie Hebdo is an example of a society subjecting itself to brutal criticism. This kind of boldness found its critics, as well as its targets, to the right and the left.

The cartoonist Robert Crumb offered an explanation of Charlie’s political significance:

“[Charlie Hebdo] say the left is hypocritical, bullshitters and opportunists, and all that… But they just came out with that every week. Every week. And people would just look at it and laugh, “Oh, you know those guys, those crazy guys. They’re outrageous”

This explanation is an apology at best. There is something that irks about the eternal shrug that hurriedly walls critique behind the comfort of the “outrageous”. It is a prophylactic to genuine engagement: a refusal to tackle the message on its own terms. We need to see Charlie Hebdo as the political agent it wants to be. Charlie needs to be held to the same standards of criticism to which it subjects the world around it.

These standards may beckon us to ask the simple question: There is a view that “repeating something ironically is still repeating it.” This is a pretty easy thought to have, and doesn’t really engage with the political potency of satire. Parody, irony, satire and comedy can create new and important relationships between society and the things that offend it. Looking at satire as mere repetition doesn’t take into account the ability for humans to be self-critical.

Satire has the benefit of removing us from the event that caused the initial offence by showing that we understand it. It does so by placing this event within a narrative that depicts it as somewhat ridiculous. The ironic distance created by its satire allowed Charlie Hebdo to use the same imagery the Far Right used to criticise and displace the negative connotations of its ideals. Charlie Hebdo used visual quotation to show people the confronting reality of political ideology. This is no new trope.

Satirical cartoon has always represented the ideas of its targets to make them seem groundless or obscene. The old Punch-style archetypes of bears and fat men were simply replaced by Charlie with pregnant Boko Haram victims squealing for public benefits and zoomorphic black Frenchwomen. While these cartoons were situated in a wider political discourse, the aggressiveness of the material is undoubtable.

In this sense, as Junkee contributor Char Parkhill waxed, “The caricature…does something that few Anglophone cartoonists would dare attempt: it uses overtly racist imagery as a means of satirising racism.”

Yet even this violent form of parody was comfortably directed towards those in power. The problem is with Charlie’s representation of less enfranchised groups. What can it mean when a publication takes aim at a vulnerable minority? The image of the Prophet Muhammad circulated by Charlie (six times on the magazines covers since 2006 and 12 times within a single issue) was targeted not at the ruling white class but members of an often vilified and misunderstood Muslim sector of French society.

The narrative that Charlie was trying to create was one in which extremism and dogma were connected to grievous acts of violence and discrimination. The audience to whom it was appealing was the middle-class Left as well as a broader community of anti-extremists. This is supposed to include moderate and peaceful French Muslims.

If it was Charlie’s goal to unify ‘ordinary’ Muslims and secular Frenchman in a narrative of opposition to fundamentalism, the means that they adopted were disturbingly underthought. The content of the various editions ranged from depicting Muhammad as gay, weeping from fear of fundamentalism and threatening “100 lashes to those who don’t laugh”.

In the most nefarious (and more recent) issue, Muhammad is depicted as the victim of an Islamic State beheading. The implications of this are not directed explicitly at shaming Muslims, but repudiating a fairly narrow trend of fundamentalism. What Charlie failed to do was to couch an agreeable object of satire in language and imagery that included Muslims within its sphere of concern. Using images of Muhammad (a taboo in most dominant Islamic doctrines, especially among the Sunni adherents that dominate French Islam) is not a very effective way to bring ‘moderate’ Muslims into your scope of inclusion.

While the content may have been “well-intentioned”, it failed to act sensitively towards the very people it was putatively trying to embrace.

Nowhere is the democratic tension between Islam and secularism so rife with conflict than in France. The competition of Laicité (French secular values) with acceptance of religion often is a dangerous one. Indeed, it is not so rare a phenomenon that France’s commitment to “enlightenment” ideals becomes an oppressive means to homogenisation.

The very real cultural and religious difference that exists in France is often given secondary importance to the ‘national values’ that emphasise the separation of society and faith. Where satire becomes an avenue for the enfranchised to insult the disadvantaged, we can safely say that its credentials as “satire” are dubious.

So what is an acceptable democratic response to media that vilify the weak? How do we negotiate between freedom and inclusiveness? Solidarity is an obvious answer, but there’s too much to be said about what this really constitutes. Adroit critic Scott Longives describes solidarity in terms of sensitivity to what we are not:

Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same.

Solidarity, on one hand, is definitely never a simplification of the other’s experience (like Crumb’s charge of “outrageousness”), nor should it ever be used to legitimise violence. But it may form the foundation of a re-evaluation and restructuring of the moral order.

One of the most important articulations of solidarity comes from Islam itself. Two and a half per cent of annual income is dedicated by all capable Muslims to Zakat (syndicalised charity). Those with the means are required by faith to assist the vulnerable.

Here, freedom of belief is juggled with commitment to solidarity. So long as the enfranchised lend their support to those finding their feet in the mess of a postcolonial, multicultural modern society, less suffering is likely to be caused.

This involves the privileged few taking account of the power of “freedom” and its demands. It befits to end with the thoughts of Feministing journalist Katherine Cross.

“Free speech… is not a toy. It is a responsibility, a compact, which democracy presupposes we are mature enough to use justly. We are called on as citizens not to use our rights for bacchanals of self-indulgence and emotional expectoration, but to do the work of maintaining society.”

Giacomo Bianchino

Giacomo Bianchino is a philosopher and commentator on politics and culture.