Shaping Discourse though Satire

Free­dom to Read Week: Feb­ru­ary 22–28, 2015.

Free­dom to Read, Entry #2: author Elise Moser on Char­lie Heb­do and the con­cept of satire

As I write this, the first issue of Char­lie Heb­do since the mas­sacres has appeared. The media are full of pho­tos of peo­ple lin­ing up before dawn in Paris to get their copies, which are quick­ly sell­ing out. I’m sor­ry to see it.

Don’t get me wrong. I appre­ci­ate the ges­ture, whether it is one of sol­i­dar­i­ty or sim­ple curios­i­ty. But I won­der what it will change. I think a lot of those copies of Char­lie Heb­do will, like Salman Rushdie’s The Satan­ic Vers­es, go unread. A title pos­si­bly unknown to many of the peo­ple who are thumb­ing through Char­lie Heb­do this morn­ing, when The Satan­ic Vers­es was pub­lished in 1988 it offend­ed some Mus­lims, pro­vok­ing the Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni to declare a sen­tence of death on Rushdie. (Rushdie was not killed, although one of his trans­la­tors was.)

I was work­ing in a book­store at the time, and I remem­ber try­ing to unpack the just-arrived car­tons of books and hav­ing peo­ple reach over my shoul­der and grab copies out of the box before I could even price them. Even the new Anne Rice nev­er caused such a fren­zy. Unlike Char­lie Heb­do, though, The Satan­ic Vers­es was a big, seri­ous nov­el, and full of ref­er­ences that would go way over the heads of read­ers not famil­iar with Islam and the Quran—a tough slog for a less com­mit­ted read­er.

Char­lie Heb­do, judg­ing by the car­toons repro­duced in the news­pa­pers and var­i­ous com­men­taries, of which I’ve now seen quite a few (although I’ve nev­er seen an actu­al copy) is more like a French Mad Mag­a­zine with polit­i­cal over­tones than a Satan­ic Vers­es. I wish the crowds lined up to cham­pi­on free­dom of expres­sion were buy­ing a news­pa­per (…mag­a­zine, book, lit­er­ary jour­nal, com­ic book, or any oth­er kind of art) that had a crit­i­cal analy­sis of soci­ety, a long view of his­to­ry, a com­pas­sion­ate approach to human suf­fer­ing instead. “Mak­ing fun of every­body” is none of those things.

Of course, I don’t believe it’s okay to kill peo­ple. I don’t even believe it’s okay to kill ani­mals. So I cer­tain­ly am not say­ing the Kouachi broth­ers were in any way jus­ti­fied in their attack. But being a vic­tim doesn’t make you good. Char­lie Heb­do’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for its offen­sive car­toons, that they were “mak­ing fun of every­body,” is child­ish and also bad pol­i­tics. Good satire sub­verts pow­er. If you make fun of the pow­er­ful and the pow­er­less in equal mea­sure, you have mere­ly rein­forced exist­ing pow­er rela­tions.

Way to go.

The only peo­ple who “make fun of every­body” are peo­ple who already have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of social pow­er. They risk noth­ing (that’s the one thing the attack on Char­lie Heb­do may have changed) and it’s bor­ing – if you are going to make fun of every­body, who cares? Your tar­gets are, effec­tive­ly, ran­dom. Tak­en as a whole, that is no com­ment at all on soci­ety.

Jon Stew­art at the Ral­ly to Restore San­i­ty and/or Fear, Octo­ber 30, 2010

That’s why Jon Stew­art is often so gen­uine­ly funny—he goes after those bloat­ed with wealth and cor­rup­tion, and he deflates them by using facts, not by mak­ing fun of their for­eign appear­ance, their big noses or stick­ing-out ears. That’s gen­uine sub­ver­sion and as a result it helps shape pub­lic dis­course.

The imbal­ance in resources that makes it hard for writ­ers and oth­er artists, who when they are good are observers and crit­ics of soci­ety, to do their work and dis­sem­i­nate it, is a kind of bar­ri­er to free­dom of expres­sion that is hard­er to see. The imbal­ance of pow­er that makes it hard­er for women and peo­ple of colour (11 of the 12 vic­tims at Char­lie Heb­do were men, and all but the Alger­ian-born copy­ed­i­tor were white) to gain an audi­ence for their work and their opin­ions is a bar­ri­er to free­dom of expres­sion that is rarely acknowl­edged. The rel­a­tive absence of crit­i­cal and mar­gin­al voic­es is part of the alienation—a qui­et violence—that feeds ter­ror­ism.

Social injus­tice inevitably injures free­doms of all kinds, includ­ing free­dom of expres­sion. It would be a much more effec­tive act of sup­port for free­dom of expres­sion if the crowds of Char­lie Heb­do buy­ers spent some time read­ing alter­na­tive view­points and enlarg­ing their views of the world, or spent some mon­ey buy­ing art, lit­er­ary or oth­er­wise, that offers a cri­tique of soci­ety.

And then act­ed on what they have learned or new­ly understood—with his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness and com­pas­sion.

Eilse Moser, author

Elise Moser’s most recent nov­el is Lily & Tay­lor. She is on the board of PEN Cana­da, and encour­ages you to join to sup­port free­dom of expres­sion in Cana­da and abroad. Check out PEN’s Cen­sor­ship Track­er: