I’m really appreciative to all the Francophones on various sites who have taken the time to put Charlie Hebdo’s work in a rich cultural context, opening up the magazine’s visual aesthetic and clarifying their editorial and political vantage point with more nuance than most of our mainstream Anglophone sources. These people’s willingness to do the tedious work of translating image after image, kindly and with probably strained patience, has elevated a very stark conversation into a vastly more nuanced one.
Here we have a convergence of so many issues that compel our culture to debate: free speech, extremism, faith and fascism, violence, humor, bullying, mockery, racism, sexism, and art. And yet so many opinions seem to fall broadly into one of just two camps – the ones that just outright call CH racist, and the ones that cloak it in the venerable mantle of satire.
Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of a long discussion with me on the subject of satire knows that I really just, generally, don’t find any aesthetic pleasure and only very limited intellectual pleasure in satirical work. Even when it’s very well done, it is a mode of discourse that relies on a spectrum ranging from discomfort to derision, and my response is almost always to turn away on purely emotional grounds. I’ve been very open about this opinion; it’s not new this week. It’s made me feel very awkward about adopting the “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag, because I wouldn’t have said something like that before last Wednesday’s events. The hashtag makes the magazine a metonym for all the people killed – even the Muslim policeman. I respond strongly and decisively to those who were killed and wounded as people, with voices and rights and subjectivity. But I respond to the magazine and the cartoons with ambivalence – because even though I tend to agree with the politics, the aesthetics are beyond me.
Probably for that reason, my reactions are not substantially mitigated by actually understanding the satire, although it helps. The logic of Charlie Hebdo’s satire is certainly much clearer to me now that so many people have spoken patiently and eloquently to clarify it. In particular, the cover depicting the sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens appears much smarter and more complex when interpreted as “why do you care so much about these threatened and disadvantaged girls, but not about the threatened and disadvantaged girls right on your doorstep?” I am convinced that much of the work is indeed more complicated — and certainly contextually rich – than appears at first glance to readers who do not inhabit the immediate cultural context. These are political cartoons, and politics is always contextual.
But I don’t think there’s any amount of context that will make me find that cartoon less viscerally off-putting. It’s just so ugly to represent those girls that way. The explanation makes sense, but it doesn’t change my aesthetic reaction. It doesn’t feel ok to use their horrifying experiences, even for some noble cause. The complicated reading makes my reactions more complicated too, but it doesn’t make the negative reaction go away.
And even if the explanation did actually make me like that one, not all the cartoons yield to complicated readings. Some of the work really does seem to be simply calling a stupid fig a stupid fig, nothing more than making a wrongheaded idea look sickly and unappealing by shining a puce limelight on it. Basically an intensified form of caricature, It’s a tactic embraced by a lot of contemporary satire. It’s popular – a lot of people really do like it. But I’m not one of them. I’m not sure that type of satire, whether it occurs relatively gently on the Daily Show or with poison incisors at Charlie Hebdo, is anything more than vulgar mockery – even if it’s not racist, sexist, imperialist or otherwise. I’m not convinced it’s a meaningful way to deal with stupidity and wrongheadedness – at least, it doesn’t really seem to be trying to change the wrongheadedness so much as it seems like gallows humor for people who see no possibility of change. It doesn’t recast the stupid thing in a way that raises questions and doubts among the community that believes it or even tolerates it; it doesn’t get inside the heads of the people who think the wrongheaded thing and challenge their motivation or logic; it just puts people on the defensive. The target doesn’t feel outsmarted; they just feel disrespected.
In what way does that serve a positive end or increase our overall intelligence? Doesn’t satire need to be effective at challenging and destabilizing stupid beliefs if it is intended to have political power? If it only reaches people who don’t hold the belief, isn’t it just mockery? Mockery just ends up creating a group identity among the people who collectively believe the stupid thing is stupid. I think that may be why people react so negatively to this kind of imagery – even if it doesn’t actually qualify as racist (and I will refrain from an opinion on that in this particular context that is not my context), it does alienate and separate, working against solidarity rather than increasing it.
So faced with the difficulty of feeling intense compassion and so much horror at Wednesday’s events, yet not quite feeling the identification with Charlie Hebdo that the “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag implies, I am left with an intellectual’s inward-looking response, trying to explain to myself why it just doesn’t feel quite honest to use the tag. I know I am not Charlie Hebdo’s target audience. I struggle to appreciate satire even when it’s really obviously well done. I am stopped by the tone and the feel of the work. I cannot spend enough time with it to understand. But that means the nuances of my emotional and aesthetic responses to this kind of work are largely inaccessible to me – I can intellectually see why much of this work is satire, but I can’t experience it as anything other than raw and ugly and mean and sad.
Again, I am indebted to conversations that catch me up in ways I can’t do myself. In response to the original version of this comment on Facebook, a friend made a comment that struck me as important – “who are outsiders to presume to ‘cast doubt’ on someone else’s beliefs?” Outsiders don’t speak from a place of profound understanding. An outsider’s satire doesn’t know; it just knows better. And when I tried to think of satire that I like better than most, I noticed that Stephen Colbert and Jonathan Swift both rely very heavily on the first person, which is a way of “inhabiting” the person and ideas being satirized. I think the first person is a little sop to people like me, who are put off by how much emotional and critical separation is necessary to make satire work.
This is, perhaps, what makes Charlie Hebdo’s Boko Haram “welfare queen” cartoon so particularly hard for me. What am I supposed to do with the empathy and sadness I feel for the kidnapped girls? Just transfer it over to the welfare moms – as if empathy is generic and disconnected from each group of women’s real stories? The pregnant bodies in the cartoon are named as the “sex slaves of Boko Haram,” the cartoon asserts that they are speaking. But it’s not their voice and their story and their point of view – it’s the voice of the “welfare queens.” The reality of those girls being forced into sexual slavery is alluded to through the pregnancy, but it’s sidestepped and displaced into the significantly different resonance that pregnancy carries in discussions of welfare and indigence. Any identification with anybody here is uncomfortable and unsatisfying – to “get the joke”, to see how smart it is, everybody must be kept at emotional arms’ length.
Clearly I’m just not supposed to react to it this way. Is it even possible to simultaneously satirize and empathize? I don’t know that it is – it is certainly easier to avoid satire altogether than to find the hypothetical example that succeeds at this. And first-person does get very complicated very fast when the subject being satirized is “other” from the satirist in some palpable way – like race or ethnicity or religion. You bang quickly up against issues of authenticity.
And yet – I’m not typically much for authenticity so I’m not entirely comfortable with that, either. Surely it cannot be impossible to satirize someone different from you. That’s why I initially went with the “getting inside someone’s head” – surely the greatest satirists understand their subjects in some profoundly incisive way, not just knowing that they are wrong, but comprehending why they believe they are right.
Perhaps in all of this, I am just missing human nature. It is not human nature to inhabit the minds of people whose beliefs are anathema to us. And surely satire cannot be truly politically effective if it discounts human nature. So all this has brought me back to again concluding that I just don’t like satire, or appreciate it, or enjoy it.
I suppose it has to be said, in all of this, that the use of violence against speech is never anything other than brutal totalitarianism, regardless of the speech and regardless of the violence. But I think about mockery and judgment and how destructive and alienating they are. And I want to be able to understand what distinguishes, on one end of a spectrum, the great artistic and political tradition of satire from, on the other end, plain old bullies mocking people and ideas they don’t like because it makes them feel superior. Understanding is not as easy, I think, as I would like. Satire traffics in mockery and judgment, and the world already has too much of those things and too little connection and justice. I cannot be Charlie, because I am an outsider, and I do not understand. But perhaps I can be Charlie, since by their own logic, being an outsider is good enough.
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