This week the world was horrified when gunmen burst into the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 11 people, including four of the cartoonists. Charlie Hebdo had previously been a target of violence by people who claimed to be Muslim fundamentalists, as they were known for doing things like putting out covers like this:
“The Koran is shit…it doesn’t stop bullets”
People who were rightly outraged by this crime stood up to denounce the perpetrators (and, as usual, the entire religion they were a part of and anyone who shared the same race as the people in the area where that religion was born) and show support for the murdered cartoonists. Satire, they shouted, is free speech, and killing people who say things you don’t like is vile. Vive Charlie Hebdo! Je Suis Charlie!”
Well they’re right, of course. Satire is a potent weapon against tyranny and injustice, often used to bring about social change. The French especially have a long tradition of this art. Satire’s job is to mock, and to respond with guns is to admit defeat and show how potent it is.
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, though, things are a little muddy. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I don’t support radical Islam or murdering cartoonists. (I don’t support much of any religion, to be honest, or any murder.) The victims are clearly victims, not perpetrators. But that doesn’t make them spotless heroes or noble martyrs.
Defenders of Charlie Hebdo and its ilk will point out that it was an “equal-opportunity offender”, mocking Islam, Judaism, and Christianity alike. I was told of how much they had mocked French racism. But, as author Saladin Ahmed said on Twitter, “In an unequal world, satire that ‘mocks everyone equally’ ends up serving the powerful.”
Folks may claim that it’s “not PC” to make fun of “radical Islam”, but that’s wholly untrue. Radical Islam and “jihadists” are one of the few groups you can have a field day on, as far as the majority is concerned. Especially in Europe, where nationalistic racism is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, fueled by concern over immigrants, usually Muslim ones. Mocking Islam is a clear case of “punching down”, of targeting a hated subgroup while the audience applauds. It’s not brave or noble, even if there’s a chance the target will strike back. That Charlie Hebdo also had covers rudely mocking Christianity doesn’t make the “Muslim” caricatures (all big noses, beards, and turbans) any less troublesome. If a comedian makes fun of spoiled white people and then goes off on a Mexican with a “wetback stealing hubcaps” gag, it doesn’t even out.
It’s especially problematic when “radical Islam” is to Muslims what “thugs” are to black people. In 2015 we still hear people saying, with deep sincerity, “Oh I don’t hate black people, only n—–s” like that somehow makes a difference. Lampooning the bomb-throwing fanatic carries little heft when, for much of the audience, he’s just a stand-in for any Muslim.
I grew up on my dad’s copies of Mad magazine from the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Similarly, Mad claimed that no one was safe from its biting satire, and for the most part they were correct. But anyone can tell you, the “satire” reserved for, say, gay folks, wasn’t exactly biting or incisive, it was just plain reactionary faggot-bashing. You can’t argue that in those decades gays had a position of power and needed to be taken down a peg. Is this cartoon not bigoted, because it also supports native Americans and blacks?
Mad #145, Sept ‘71, from “Greeting Cards For The
Sexual Revolution” — “To A Gay Liberationist” (source)
Good satire isn’t easy. Your target needs to be large enough to require it, which means it’s usually well-insulated. It’s always David vs. Goliath, and you have to have just the right stone and aim just right or else the target won’t even care. Bad satire throws a bunch of stones at Goliath and hopes one hits. Worse satire just throws stones at regular Philistines because they’re easier to hit and everyone hates them anyway.
“I may not agree with what you say,” Voltaire didn’t say, “But I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Is free speech valuable? Yes. Is it worth protecting? By all means. But defending your right to it does not mean defending your ideology. Being murdered for your free speech doesn’t make the content of your speech noble.
There are people calling for — demanding — that the images which offended the gunmen be widely circulated and posted everywhere as a show of solidarity for free speech and a middle finger against “radical Islam”. Somehow, reposting juvenile caricatures will unite all of us against the tyranny of, according to the French man-on-the-street reaction, mosques and kebab shops. There’s something troubling about insisting that countries with a non-Muslim majority disseminate anti-Muslim images “for freedom”, especially when there’s the added insistance that the Muslim countries do so as well, to prove they’re good sports and not one of the “bad” ones.
The Charlie Hebdo attack was cowardly and abhorrent. The victims should still be alive, should still be free to do whatever cartooning they want. They are not responsible for what happened. That doesn’t make what they did noble and praiseworthy, however. I’ll stand for free speech. I’ll stand for satire. I’ll stand for not killing people. I’ll stand for innocent victims. I won’t stand for bigotry and bullying.