The killing of 12 people inside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, has ignited a passionate international conversation about the rights of free speech.
Unfortunately, many of them are bassackwards, apologetic defenses that boil down to this: Satire is a protected form of self-expression, but not all satire is created equal; nobody should die for the beliefs they express, but not all beliefs should necessarily be expressed.
The line in the sand in this particular case is that Charlie Hebdo regularly publishes cartoons that mock Islam, and that Muslims in recent years have proven to be exceedingly thin-skinned about such portrayals. In the Muslim world, most images of the prophet Muhammad are considered sacrilegious. Therefore, images that mock the prophet (or the Prophet) are automatically beyond the pale.
Politico magazine recently published a piece by Remy M. Maisel that illustrates the thought process of many “defenders” of free speech. After an obligatory opening that says nobody should die for satirical depictions of any political or religious situation, Maisel differentiates between “true” and “pseudo” satire.
True satire, the writer notes, makes a particular point with a goal of improving the civic conversation, while pseudo-satire is “simple mockery.” Examples of true satire, Maisel says, are “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” while pseudo-satire is the realm of “Family Guy” and “South Park.” Apparently, programs like the last two negatively color the public’s view of so-called legitimate satire. Maisel doesn’t go so far as to connect the dots between fear of pseudo-satire and the violence visited on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week, but the insinuation is there.
Charlie Hebdo lands squarely in the pseudo-satire category, based on Maisel’s definitions. Perhaps if the newspaper included a Web link to a Christian website with each cartoon, it could be seen as offering a valid alternative and could move into the light along with other “legitimate” forms of satire.
A certain elitism permeates the Politico argument. Apparently, mock news programs that poke fun at current events are somehow superior to animated programs that do the same, especially since “Family Guy” and “South Park” are designed primarily as entertainment. (And “The Colbert Report” wasn’t?)
I’m not a regular viewer of either of Maisel’s examples of pseudo-satire. “South Park,” particularly, with its dark, dingy, nihilistic view of the world, is not in my wheelhouse. Yet I don’t doubt that each program is doing its part, satirically, to poke fun at the established culture and encourage free thinking beyond the parameters of accepted authority. If they’re providing a few laughs and selling some advertising along the way, what of it? The last time I checked, neither Stephen Colbert nor Jon Stewart had taken vows of poverty.
In the old days, print journalism’s goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Newsroom cuts and cowtowing to the remaining slices of advertising and readership pie have effectively ended that, leaving satirists as one of the few remaining levelers of an unequal society.
Organized religions, be they Muslim or Christian, occupy places of power on the world stage. One need not provide a viable alternative or option to either. Mockery is sufficient.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are producing award-winning satire or are raking cartoon muck from the bottom of the inkwell. It doesn’t matter if they are catering to elitists, the rank-and-file, or the great unwashed masses. It doesn’t even matter if what they publish is racist or hurtful. They have a right to publish it. Readers have a right to read it, agree or disagree with it, and either keep buying or decide it’s not for them. They can also take up pens and draw and write their own responses. Distinctions between satire and pseudo-satire, like distinctions between “high” and “low” art, say more about those making the judgments than it does the work itself.
I’m not sure how Maisel reaches the conclusion that pseudo-satire “fosters cynicism, apathy, and intolerance.” But if it does, what of it? I can’t defend apathy, but if Charlie Hebdo makes the world more cynical and intolerant of organized religions’ claims on the minds and hearts of their adherents … well, that’s more than enough reason to justify its existence and mourn the loss of its practitioners.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Jan. 15, 2015, in The Alliance Review.