Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tragedy at Charlie Hebdo

Today there was a terrorist attack on the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo.

In 2011, I recommended a documentary about the paper and their struggles surrounding the publication of anti-Islamist cartoons. What struck me in the film, surprising given the paper’s (often self-promoted) image as not just irreverent but irresponsible, was how thoughtfully the people at Charlie Hebdo approached humor in this case.

There have been so many examples over the past several years of irresponsible approaches to humor, especially in the US. So many people have tried to rationalize the harms caused by their (attempts at) humor, seeking to convince others, and possibly themselves, that it’s a form of speech outside the realm of ethics. People have dismissed and even celebrated the damage caused by their words or images, arguing facilely that “humor should offend” and that the only issue involved is free speech.

The attitude of the editors at Charlie Hebdo, as shown in the film, was quite different. They recognized the potential for harm to innocent people and went to great lengths to avoid, as far as possible, provoking racist sentiment, trying to ensure that the humor itself was clearly targeted at Islamists and wouldn’t be seen as a characterization of Muslims generally. Rather than using an appeal to free speech as a blanket justification for any statements, they acted to defend everyone’s right to publish – without much support from the government or the rest of the French media – while remaining thoughtful about what they did say. Their publication of these satirical cartoons, they emphasized, formed part of a history of satirizing numerous religions and political tendencies.

The people at Charlie Hebdo have been courageous, refusing to shrink from sharply mocking even the most humorless and violent. But it would be a disservice to present them as heedless provocateurs or martyrs of a freedom of speech devoid of all content and ethical responsibility, or to react to this attack in a careless and stupid manner. As portrayed in the documentary, they represent an approach to humor that is as thoughtful and responsible as it is raucous and hard-hitting. That, I believe, should guide the response to this vicious attack.

1 comment:

  1. The problem I see is that you need to know a lot of context not just to get the jokes, but also to arrive at an interpretation of the cartoons that isn't racist or xenophobic or homophobic as the case may be. And yet, the cartoons are always on the title page, meaning they're the only thing most people see.

    And if I do take all that into account, there are still cartoons I can't simply get over. Take, for instance, "Le pape à Paris: Les Français aussi cons que les nègres", depicting a bunch of extremely goofy-looking white people (I'm actually still laughing) out of their wits fawning over a smiling pope. Is it lampooning the racist prejudice that only "Negroes" could be so daft? Or is it repeating the prejudice by saying "we shouldn't be as moronic as Negroes, we should rise above that"? In the long-term context I naturally lean toward the former interpretation and chalk up their word choice to what has been called "hipster racism" or "yuppie racism" – "I can use that word because everyone knows that I know it's racist and that I'm not racist" –, but that's not remotely obvious from the picture itself, which, again, was a title page.

    Heated discussion here. Page where I saw the cartoon I mentioned here; it's the 4th from the top, and I'm aware that the translation of "nègres" as the American N-word is off.