Charlie Hebdo: free speech or provocation?

Terrible events in France – a teacher beheaded, stabbings of innocent bystanders, and the shooting of a Greek orthodox priest – are recent examples of a clash of cultural identity systems that remain stubbornly alien to each other.

It appears that hopes for a cosmopolitan world in which cultures converse amicably and learn from each other are fast fading as angry populists and fundamentalists take centre stage.

Last September, to mark the beginning of trials of accomplices of the murderers of their colleagues, the editors of the self-styled satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republishedthe cartoons that resulted in the devastating attacks on their Paris headquarters back in January 2015. On 6th October of this year, a high school teacher in France showed the cartoons to his students during a class discussion on free speech. A local imam and several Muslim associates, including the father of one of the teacher’s students, publicly condemned the teacher and called for his dismissal. Ten days later, a young Muslim, who appears to have been in contact with those people, carried out the brutal attack on the teacher. The murderer was shot dead by police and his accomplices are now under investigation.

These events are as horrific as they are tragic. No right mind could justify the kinds of terrorism that are becoming commonplace in contemporary Europe and beyond. However, it does raise an important question: Was the decision of Charlie Hebdo’s editors to republish the cartoons a defiant defence of free speech, or was it a flagrant provocation?

Satire has been deployed in the past in literature, opera and in plays to draw attention to hypocrisy and incompetence among state elites and their cronies and to the social injustices these people confect – deliberately, uncaringly, or just because they are idiots. Its principle characteristic is a clever use of wit to puncture pomposity, disingenuousness, and arrogance. Encouraging people to laugh at the foibles of fools in power and drawing attention to emperors without clothes has been its forte over the years. At its most effective, the satirical use of wit entails the forensic use of the comedic to speak truth to power.

But today satire and wit (at their best, the two are inseparable) seem to have fallen on hard times. What claims to be satire too often is insolence, straight out rudeness, or contemptuous insensitivity. Much of what passes as satire today is less about the people in power, but directed more at subject peoples via a cynical disregard of their feelings and deeply-held beliefs. Not surprisingly, they are increasingly bewildered and resentful of the slights and arrogance generally afforded them by the high-and-mighty and by the “satirists” sending them up. Cynicism is replacing satire and the world is much the poorer.

This is not to say that all present day comedy is witless – though the bulk of it is. I agree with Stuart Rees (Pearls & Irritations, 3 November 2020) that the great satirical tradition coming from Jonathan Swift in the eighteenth century still threads its halting way into our contemporary world. Professor Rees highlights some good examples: Bertolt Brecht’s courageous send-ups of the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany; Leunig’s witty insights about today’s complacent Australia; and Hannah Gadsby, one of the greatest living satirists. Maybe Sammy J. But, the field is thinning out. Satire is in danger of becoming extinct. Wit has all but disappeared.

So, what are we to make of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons? Was it justified in publishing them in 2015 in the name of satire? Was the republication of the cartoons last September a satirical act? Were the cartoons satire? Of course, the answers to these questions are likely to be a case of chacun à son goût. But we still need to interrogate these matters.

In their depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, they were deliberately irreverent, drawing ugly caricatures of a figure greatly revered in many countries around the world. They have done the same with other equally revered figures such as popes, bishops, politicians, celebrities, actors, writers and intellectuals. What is mostly on display in these depictions is a mixture of contempt and anger rather than wit or satire. Axes are being furiously ground in nearly all of them. In relation to their cartooning about the Prophet, they have routinely – insensitively, stupidly – confused Islam with Islamism, and this has proved to be fatal.

It would be interesting to explore the origins and depths of this contemptuousness and anger. Some of it at least evokes sympathy. Certainly, some of the figures that Charlie Hebdo depicts are deserving of contempt and anger. But whoever, or whatever, the cartoons are lampooning, there is no evidence of any self-awareness, no insights about themselves from the artists who draw them or the editors who select them.

Why the contempt and anger? What is driving the Charlie Hebdo project? In the case of the Prophet cartoons, could it very well be the opposite side of the coin to the contempt and anger we see regularly in the actions of Islamists and those crazed loners and small cabals who try to ape Islamists’ cruelties and their ghastly ideological obsessions.

This leads one to wonder whether more broadly if Charlie Hebdo a despairing expression of post-modernity’s myriad cultural confusions.

In the original decision to publish the cartoons in 2015, and then to republish them in 2020, it is clear that anger and contempt overshadow any satirical intent on Charlie Hebdo’s part. The consequences on both occasions have been horrendous. No one could justify the actions of the terrorists who responded with such contempt and anger to the publication of the cartoons. But Charlie Hebdo cannot be absolved of any guilt on this count too. Contempt and anger poured out from both sides of this tragic equation, and satire flew out of the window well before the terrible events took place.

In the meantime, it is important to acknowledge that contempt and anger may be necessary but they are not sufficient conditions for anything, or anyone, claiming to engage in satire.

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Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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