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January 10, 2015

In Non-Satirical Defense of Charlie Hebdo


It's important to remember how hard it is to understand satire created in another language and culture.  For example, this Charlie Hebdo cover seems shocking and deeply offensive:


Charlie hebdo


These are girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, saying "Don't touch our (welfare) allocations!"  This cartoon has been used as an example of the vile, bigoted anti-Muslim animus of Charlie Hebdo.


But French people who know the entire context are saying it was meant and was understood to PARODY those who criticize "welfare queens."  One way to look at it may be like a Colbert Report cartoon:  take a right wing position and push it to the extreme to show its absurdity.  This seems to me to be most likely the correct interpretation.


This brings up a response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre that has troulbed me: the notion that while the murders were wrong, Charlie Hebdo itself is not worthy of our defense.


Joe Sacco, a cartoonist I greatly respect, drew this cartoon that has been praised as nuanced and thoughtful. 




Read the entire comic here.


But what exactly is he accusing Charlie Hebdo of?  His grief came with thoughts about the "nature" of some of Charlie Hebdo's satire.  Well, I'm not sure what that nature is, and I'm not sure Joe does either, but he describes it as "tweaking the noses of Muslims."


Well, what is that?  Making fun of them as a people?  Or making points they may not like?  Or satirizing their religion?  Or drawing pictures they may have religious objections to?  It's a cartoon not an essay, so Sacco can't fully expand on this, but the fact that this is unclear undermines his point that it's a "vapid" use of cartooning.  


Because creating art that has the effect of tweaking the noses of a group of people (Republicans, Communists, Catholics, dog owners, etc.) is pretty much what satire is.


He then draws two cartoons he thinks will "tweak the noses" of Western sensibilities, with the implication, "See? How do YOU feel?"  For me, this utterly failed to make his point, because my reaction was mild disappointment, not offense or even existential outrage.  If these images have caused outrage anywhere, I haven't seen it.





(He also implies Charlie Hebdo was hypocritical because it fired a cartoonist for an alleged anti-semitic column. This assumes that Charlie Hebdo is/was anti-Muslim, but I don't know that to be the case.  They ran cartoons that offended many Muslims, but was it anti-Muslim?)


But I was especially disappointed in the final three panels, in which he asks us to consider why Muslims can't "laugh off a mere image."  Well, just as it's hard for us to know the full editorial intent of Charlie Hebdo from a few re-published out-of-context cartoons, it's even more difficult to know whether or not Muslims are unable to laugh off these mere images.  


It was not the Muslim community that killed those twelve people, it was two gunmen.  I don't know how outraged Muslims were at Charlie Hebdo, but I would imagine their responses would be as greatly varied as they are irrelevant to the murders.


Sacco then imagines that Some would answer that Muslims can't laugh this off because "something is deeply wrong with them." But just as he's right that we must not generalize about Muslims in this way, it is also true that we should not generalize onto all Muslims an imagined response to the satire.


Charlie Hebdo and the Muslim community's reaction to it is a complicated issue.  But the murders are not.


Twelve people were murdered because of the publication of ideas.


We can try to figure out what those ideas are, but it is irrelevant to our reaction to the murders.


We can look at the value of those ideas, but it is irrelevant to our reaction to the murders.


We can look at the affect of those ideas on a larger community, but it is irrelevant to our reaction to the murders.


Our reaction to the murders should be to defend the expression of those ideas.




UPDATE 1/11/15: 

My point was that we should defend Charlie Hebdo regardless of their satirical intent, but it was also difficult for the non-French to even know what that intent was.  Turns out more information has confirmed my intuition on that intent.


I now think that while Charlie Hebdo was willing to use inflammatory images that would offend some Muslims (and many others), the purpose of those images was pro-Muslim, pro-immigrant, and anti-racist.  Here Chad Parkhill does the work of describing other cartoons (in addition to the one in my original post) that look to foreign eyes as brutally racist, but puts them in context and convincingly argues that within France they were fully understood to be anti-racist.  And Olivier Tonneau, a Frenchman and self-decribed leftist, says that not only isn't/wasn't Charlie Hebdo anti-Muslim, it was "the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism."


I aslso found this piece by Arab cartoonist Karl Sharro interesting.  He writes:


"On the right, some claim that Muslims’ beliefs are incompatible with modernity and Western values. On the left, some construe the attack as a retaliation for severe offenses, essentially suggesting that Muslims are incapable of responding rationally to such offenses and that it is therefore best not to provoke them. The latter explanation is dressed up in the language of social justice and marginalization, but is, at its core, a patronizing view of ordinary Muslims and their capacity to advocate for their rights without resorting to nihilistic violence."



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