In the fallout of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, there are so many avenues of investigation that require a spectrum of analysis – and in due course the tragedy will no doubt be discussed from every angle, and in excruciating detail. Over the past week, there has been comparatively little debate on the idea supposedly central to the Parisian publication itself though – satire. In an age of seemingly perpetual outrage, offensive material is routinely accepted because it dresses in the clothes of ‘satire’. But in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, somebody needs to ask the question “what exactly is satire, and who should it serve?”
It’s probably a good idea to begin by consulting with one of the all-time kings of comedy. In his 1918 essay, Charlie Chaplin explained in simple, black and white terms why, when he dropped an ice-cream in his film The Adventurer (1917), it had to land on a wealthy woman. “People as a whole get satisfaction from seeing the rich get the worst of things.” He went on to explain that the majority of the world is poor, so to put it in the form of a pun, when the rich get covered in ice-cream, it’s their just desserts. That, in a nut-shell, is the essence of satire. It’s a chance to show the elites of society up as weak and challengeable. The wealthy lady is a signifier of dominant ideology that is supposedly prim, proper and untouchable. Yet the ice-cream shows her, and what she represents, to be as fallible – and that we could run society from the bottom up, just as effectively as the wealthy individuals we are supposed to show deference toward.
It’s justice in the form of a simple joke.
Is it satirical then, as Charlie Hebdo did, to tar ordinary believers and extremists with the same brush, and draw a miscellaneous big nosed, bearded Jew, and a miscellaneous big nosed, bearded Arab with the caption “Must not mock”? Is it kicking upward to draw the slave brides of Boko Haram as self-entitled benefit cheats? No, not really. In another life it’s the sort of crass, bigoted ‘bants’ you’d expect to see a university rugby club answering an investigation for.
However, were the modern, mainstream, Clarkson-esque use of the term ‘satire’ applied to Chaplin’s scenario then that ice-cream would have to land on a female, homeless, blind, bulimic, black, benefit-claiming Muslim immigrant. Because ‘you can’t say that sort of thing anymore’. Except that literally everyone does say that sort of thing, all the time. Unfortunately, the problem with dominant thought is that, thanks to the human minds that it occupies, its rhetoric is by no means rigid. It can flex to adapt to criticism – and even absorb successful techniques, subsuming them and putting them to work in its own favour. The minds that play host to established ideology tend to belong to wealthy individuals who often own, or have extended access to society’s means of communication – and so soon they become the most regularly seen proponents of ‘satire’. Popularising the idea that a disconnected, undemocratic minority currently enforce ‘political correctness’ with an iron hand from there is easy.
Of course, political correctness actually originates from grass-roots campaigns of liberation groups fighting against mainstream stigmas. They were LGBT+ activists tired of living with the innocent fun of being labelled perverts. They were ethnic minorities fed up of harmless rib-tickling over race riots. They were women done with being told their potential rape was a joke. The basic level of respect they receive now were not handed to them on high by an aloof gang of autocrats, it was hard won against the wishes of a genuine elite who benefit from the oppression of all of them. Rebelling against this fictitious PC elite is the most insidious form of subservience to genuine dominant ideology, and the ruling class that perpetuate it.
Subsequently, people often confuse satire with simply being offensive for the sake of being offensive.
But satire isn’t about lashing wildly out at the first easy target that springs to mind; that’s actually what’s known as bullying. Satire is a courageous act; it is to laugh in the face of tyranny, not surround and silence the tyrannised. That is what the dominant narrative would have us believe Charlie Hebdo stands for – a brave and unbowed free press standing up to the would-be censorship of a homogenously barbaric religion. But that would be to completely mythologise the entire context surrounding the incident.
It’s a mythology many so-called ‘satirists’ in the UK and US took as gospel. The responses of Western cartoonists predictably revolved around hyper-mythologised clichés about the personified enlightenment values fighting extremist boogeymen using nothing but pencils. It’s imagery that I suspect the French Mosque-goers since targeted by petrol bombs might dispute – and something 12 civilians in Yemen hit by a US drone might decry if they hadn’t been killed by something a little more potent than pencil-shavings on the same day. Because the West uses missiles to wage its wars, and it uses them indiscriminately. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, and then Iraq, Muslims have been increasingly marginalised in the West, treated as suspicious outsiders at best. This is especially true in France, where the so called ‘left’ have capitulated spectacularly into toeing the line when it comes to depicting Islam as an authoritarian religion, and Muslims as indoctrinated collaborators of terror, whilst the French state assists in the global slaughter of millions of Muslim civilians.
‘Leftist’ Charlie Hebdo was the distilled essence of that surrender to right-wing narratives on Islam – perpetuating it uncritically whilst excusing it as ‘satire’.
In France, no political force, no party, no publication has truly taken an effective stance against that – and in a world where those without power are deprived of speaking against their oppression, terrorism becomes a sad inevitability. Satire is one of the most powerful weapons we have in fighting that – it makes Presidents shake and CEOs shiver, show up their ‘common sense’ for nonsense, and can make an untouchable ruling elite an impeachable joke in the process. But to avoid simply being more bland, establishment banter, it must give a voice to the voiceless, and rather than turn to the forces of reaction, help them to believe a better world can wash this farce away. ‘Secularists’ need that as much as believers in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.