One week ago the Paris office of a French satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked, and 17 people died as a direct result of the incident and the ensuing hostage situations. France has insulated itself from the presence of terrorism in the last decade, unlike many other countries in Western Europe and North America. It is sad, to say the least, that terrorism has reared its ugly head, and no words suffice to express sympathy for victims, families, friends and all of France.
It being the case that so many others are addressing the most straightforward aspect of the incident — terrorism’s unacceptability as a means to achieve an end — I think another aspect of this incident needs some examination: Charlie Hebdo itself.
Charlie Hebdo has become the poster child for free speech in recent days. While I am not personally partial to the publication, I think it poses a particular problem for us insofar as it is a rather controversial example to be using to.
No, it can’t. Satire may be unbounded in what it is allowed to say, but that doesn’t make it a prudent way to say it. For instance, I think we clearly find that matters of faith, which some consider sacred — different from religion, the human institutions that attempt to regulate faith — cannot be approached with satire.
Satire cuts people of faith out of the discussion. One can critique the way Islam treats women (for example, the wearing of the veil) with satire and possibly engage in productive discussion after. But if one publishes a cartoon of Muhammad, a taboo in Islam, the cartoonist has probably just alienated most pious Muslims from the dialogue through an offensive, hurtful and useless exercise of a right.
I would like to quote the controversial novelist Salman Rushdie’s statement in response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo at length. It represents the attitude of Charlie Hebdo and demonstrates the problem of satire:
“I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
Rushdie may be right, but I would like to highlight the gray area between religion and faith where human silliness mixes with the sacred. If those things come in contact — and they often do — then critiquing the “stupidity” of the Catholic Church or Islamic traditions suddenly becomes a examine the limits of free speech. Charlie Hebdo offers a unique opportunity to examine satire’s relationship to free speech.
First, I don’t think the shooting at Charlie Hebdo is a matter of a right to free speech. Terrorism targets many things — financial structures, symbols of power and poor villagers in the developing world, just to name a few. Yes, Charlie Hebdo was the aim of the attack because of what it published, but the attacks were not meant to systematically limit what it could print. That would come in a legal challenge if it were to come. The weekly will continue to print what it likes, no doubt.
No, a right to free speech is not currently under sustained threat. It is a wide-ranging right that has next to no bounds. In the West, satire is not limited by law.
Secondly, a point worth considering is whether satire is a useful tool for participation in any discussion. That is, can satire effectively and liberally participate in all aspects of our society? slap in the face in addition to the serious critique.
The real problem of satire arises when we consider whom we want to include in our discussion and how much they might be willing to take before walking away. For me, I cannot justify Charlie Hebdo’s style, not when it isolates so many for the benefit of others. #JenesuispasCharlie.
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