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: