Slaughter in France, abusive power, the significance of satire

Slaughter in Paris and Nice by Islamist extremists raises the issue whether it is worth risking discussion of actions taken in the name of a religion, let alone re-asserting the value of satire.

In response to the fears which the murderers have generated, troops are spread across France. To yield to such fear means that free speech is stifled, and types of humour forbidden, such as the lampooning of the prophet Mohamed by cartoonists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

In January 2015, Islamic extremists murdered twelve staff and injured eleven others from that journal. Five years after the slaughter, the new editors wrote that it would be an act of political and journalistic cowardice not to support a cartoon because it was controversial.

Two issues arise. How might the leaders of democracies, not just the French President, respond to murder by extremists who claim to represent Islam? What is the value of satire to public education and understanding?

Macron’s Language

After the beheading of a school history teacher Samuel Paty, President Macron identified Islamic extremism as alien to secular democratic French culture and in consequence provoked virulent responses from leaders in Muslim dominated countries Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia.

Turkish President Erdogan adopted a characteristic, provocative stance by saying that President Macron should undergo a mental health check and he called for a boycott of French goods. Former Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamed advised that Muslims have the right to kill millions of French citizens.

By focusing on the religious background of the Paris and Nice murderers, and by questioning whether values inherent in Islamic teaching run contrary to the free speech principles of the French Republic, President Macron finds himself on one side of an ideological chasm. Democracy and human rights appear to be on one side, Islam and other religion influenced cultures on the other.

Bridging the chasm looks impossible but building could start. Macron might have acknowledged that abusive power is exercised by every state, religion and cult, every corporation, every army which breaks the rules of war and every perpetrator of domestic violence.

He might have said, ‘I am not just talking about Islam.’ He could have insisted, ‘Although I defend the principles of the Republic, and terrorism must be opposed by whatever means, I will not fall into the trap of scapegoating one section of French society because of murderous extremists.’

In identifying extremists’ violence as a phenomenon not confined to any one state, culture or religion, Macron could have shown the leaders of Turkey, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Pakistan that there is a healing way of responding to even the most heinous events. Advocacy of creative, non-destructive use of power does not mean turning the other cheek, which at this time would probably be anathema to French citizens.

Polarization between cultures, traditions and religious beliefs can be lessened by avoiding the insensitivity which implies that all western democratic values be adopted elsewhere. Macron could have said that he remembered not just danger from Islamic extremists but also the significance of Islamic culture in art, medicine, poetry, and architecture.

Perception is affected by language; hence the significance of what Macron might have said.

A Place for Satire

For centuries, satirists have opposed the violence that accompanies tribal, patriarchal, religious, hierarchical cruelties. Such abuses, religious or otherwise, has been expressed on the rack, with the lash, the scaffold, the stake, the bomb and the gun.

In response, there has been a long struggle to express principles of democracy and a certain tolerance and civility by criticizing establishment interests and sacred cows. Cartoonists and caricaturists, from Hogarth and Gillray, through Low and Searle to Larson and Leunig have criticized and deflated pomposity. They have championed tolerance, humour and humanity.

In the 18th century the Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift mocked the authoritarian rule of the English over Ireland.

In the 20th century, the American editor journalist H.L.Mencken exposed those who thought they had discovered religious, commercial and political truths. Such truths, he said, were indistinguishable from a headache.

The German poet, playwright Bertolt Brecht challenged Nazism and authoritarianism in all its forms. In a poem which sounds like a tribute to the achievement of all satirists, Brecht wrote On The Critical Attitude, ‘Give criticism arms, and states can be demolished by it.’

Cathy Wilcox the popular Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist has commented, ‘I believe satire is where sanity is found.’

Satire can be an antidote to authoritarianism and to bigotry. Such an art form challenges claims made for a myriad of ‘isms’ which nurture dogma and can’t tolerate doubt. In a poem In Praise of Doubt, Brecht wrote,

‘There are the thoughtless who never doubt.

Their digestion is splendid their judgement infallible

They don’t believe in facts; they believe only in themselves.

To arguments, they listen with the ear of a police spy.’

In future discussion about a world-wide common good, dialogue about non-violence and justice can bridge dangerous chasms. Solace might be found by recalling former Senator Daniel Moynihan’s observation ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’

Towards that goal, the ink from sensitive satire must continue to flow.

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Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”, Bristol: Policy Press. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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