This week's post comes to us from friend and colleague Kurt Guner. Kurt is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah and specializes in Modern Turkish History and Middle East Studies.
The PEN America Gala was this past Tuesday evening. Tickets went for $1,250 a pop, and plenty of major literary figures were in attendance. A small group of writers publicly decided not to attend, skipping the event in protest of an award given to Charlie Hebdo. The award seems innocuous enough, especially considering its goal: to award writers/publishers who defend free expression. For Hebdo, which continued to publish even after many of its cartoonists and editors were murdered by an Islamic Militant group, this award is just one of the many ways that Western governments have celebrated their dogged attempts to insult and annoy everyone equally. If you’re being charitable, you might use the word “satirize,” but I will not.
The writers who protested the gala, numbering around 200 in a written petition, and the writers who were scheduled to host tables at the ceremony (Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi) had thoughtful reasons for protest that were shouted down by many others in the media (including Salman Rushdie), but it is important to understand their protest and its importance. In order to do that, we have to understand what, exactly, satire is supposed to do.
Satire is complicated, just like humor is complicated, but it boils down to an attempt to exaggerate or ridicule in order to point out the fallacies or ignorance of a group of people. Jonathan Swift’s famous work “A Modest Proposal” does this by taking the callous disregard for the lives of the poor in England to its logical extreme, suggesting that the poor be used as a source of food. This really only works when it attacks or criticizes those in power. That’s where it draws its power and influence. By punching up instead of down, satire gives oppressed groups a venue to seek justice or at the very least have their voices heard. Satire, then, has basic limits and boundaries, and a purpose that drives it.
What was so stunning about the Charlie Hebdo incidents is the lack of context given to the magazine itself. It goes without saying that the horrific attacks that were carried out under the guise of Islamic purity should be condemned. However, the seemingly immediate attempt to glorify Charlie Hebdo was stunning, to say the least. This is a magazine that for the past several years has traded in targeted racist caricatures and cartoons mocking African immigrants, Muslims, and other minority groups, groups that had already experienced violence from their neighbors and oppressive legislation from their government. What was the purpose of these cartoons? If it was simply an attempt to be an equal opportunity jerk, well that’s fine I guess, but how is that different from hate speech? This sort of analysis was largely lost in the immediate rush following the attacks and the “Je suis Charlie” rallying cry spread across the continents via social media and sympathetic marches.
Empathy with survivors of a horrible attack is understandable and to be encouraged, but it is telling that such a movement was able to spring up in the aftermath of the violence… France, and much of Western Europe, was already primed to march against their Muslim neighbors. Far-right political groups like UKIP in England or the National Front in France have pushed an Islamophobic narrative for years and ridden a wave of anti-foreign sentiment to a surprising amount of political power. It was easy for people to say “I am Charlie” because their political leaders have been telling them “you are not Ahmed” for some time now.
The context of Hebdo is important, and that context is not one that makes Hebdo out to be a free speech champion. Instead, the magazine simply bullied the oppressed religious minorities in their country in order to boost their circulation. They are not the first to do something like this and they won’t be the last, but it is important that we recognize Hebdo’s hate speech for the embarrassment that it was. It is possible to both empathize with a group that was attacked so viciously while still being critical of their actions. Without that balance, we risk lionizing a group whose only distinction is their ability to insult and degrade the weakest of their neighbors.
The point here isn't that Charlie Hebdo is deserving of the tragedy brought upon it or that its right to free speech should be limited. The point is that the publication is being praised for its bold use of satire to humiliate radical extremists. In reality, its publications, rather than being satirical, use the same tired cliches and jokes about radical Muslims to paint a broad and somewhat hateful picture of anyone who is left feeling uncomfortable about its content. Their displays of Muhammad serve as an indiscriminate attack, one which can offend the peaceful and the violent alike. At its core, this is not satire, it is just hate speech. Still worthy of protection under the auspices of freedom of speech, but hate speech nonetheless.