Satire, Terrorism, and Why We Need to Understand ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in All Its Complexity

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When something awful happens, our immediate reaction is generally to wring our hands and look at the sky and ask, “Why?” It’s often far less clear, however, whether we want a genuine answer to that question. The question of how we can understand the actions of those who seem bent on destruction is a thorny one: it’s easy to conflate explanation with justification, and it’s far easier to just speak of people being “bad” or “evil” or “stupid” or whatever else. So bear with me here.

It’s ultimately a question of ethics: to what extent are we obliged to try to understand the feelings and motivations of those who wish us harm? This is one area where liberals and conservatives diverge dramatically; liberalism’s bleeding-heart reputation is largely born out of the idea that it’s worth trying to make an attempt to understand those who see us as foes, while conservatives view this as wasted effort and a slippery slope to Quislingism.

Both of these points of view have merit, to an extent. Clearly, seeing the world as us vs. them, good guys vs. bad guys, is simplistic and opens the door to dehumanization of the “enemy” and the justification of just about anything. Equally, if you try hard enough, you can find a way to rationalize anything, but that doesn’t mean your rationalization is, y’know, rational. And in any case, if you’re trying to rationalize inherently irrational actions, you’re missing the point: the point of attempting to explain why something terrible happened is a step along the road to the prevention of it happening again, not an endorsement of the rationale of those who perpetrated it.

So, to Charlie Hebdo. The situation here is both simple and complicated. It’s simple in that the murder of 12 people in cold blood for publishing a magazine (or, in two cases, for coming to the defense of those who do) should be condemned unilaterally and unreservedly. It’s complicated in that it raises questions about what satire is, and what it should or shouldn’t do, and what role it plays in a civilized society.

Humor has always had a singular power to confront. The whole “laugh at the devil and he will run from thee” idea didn’t evolve by accident — by taking the bloviating and chest-beating of the powerful (or the wannabe powerful) seriously, even if only to condemn it, you make it potent. By ridiculing it, you diminish it and deny it any power at all. The one thing that unites Al Qaeda and politicians around the world is that they both want to be taken seriously; by refusing to do so, you deny them agency. And it drives them crazy.

The Internet being the Internet, the responses to the tragedy thus far have been polarized and simplistic, either OMG FREE SPEECH FUCK THESE MUSLIM SAVAGES or OMG THOSE CARTOONS WERE HATE SPEECH. I’m not exaggerating, by the way — there is a a depressing flood of responses of the former variety (I’m sure BuzzFeed will mine them for pageviews at some point), and there have been people on the left who’ve already flat-out called Charlie Hebdo “hate speech.”

Was it? Can satire ever be described as such? There’s no doubt that the magazine’s work generally pushed the boundaries of taste, and that some of its covers went out of their way to be as offensive to Islam as possible. This, of course, is exactly what they were designed to do, and you might argue that the job of satire is to do exactly this: to push boundaries, to direct mockery without fear or discrimination.

Equally, there must be a way of ridiculing the demagogue and the fundamentalist, who absolutely deserve it, without also shitting on a whole lot of underprivileged Muslims from former French colonies who are already shat on plenty by French society. A lot of people have made the point over the last 48 hours that Charlie Hebdo also lampooned Christians, Jews, and pretty much everyone else, although it’s also worth noting that the two aren’t necessarily equivalent: given that a lot of French Muslims hail from former French colonies in North Africa, a white-run magazine mocking Islam comes with all sorts of connotations of oppressors mocking the oppressed. As with, say, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, it’s as much a matter of race and history as it is of religion. And in any case, the “We offend everyone!” defense is more juvenile than anything else: as The Daily Beast‘s Arthur Chu argued this morning, “There’s no particular merit to being an ‘equal-opportunity offender’—indeed, it’s lazy and cheap, a way to avoid being held accountable for anything you say because none of it is part of a moral worldview or to be taken seriously.”

It’s difficult to express discomfort with, or analyze the content of, a magazine that has just lost 10 staff to cold-blooded murder. But I think the best way to approach Charlie Hebdo is to echo Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous sentiment that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Some of the best pieces on the topic (like this one by Will Self and this one in today’s New York Times) have said exactly this: that expressing horror at the brutal silencing of Charlie Hebdo doesn’t necessarily equate to endorsing its content, and equally, that questioning its content doesn’t equate to endorsing the murderous people who attacked it.

Most importantly of all, though, it’s important to realize that either way, Charlie Hebdo‘s content isn’t to blame for what’s happened. The only people to blame are the men with the guns, and anyone who wants to argue otherwise is only buying into the sort of reductive, absolutist logic that is the preserve of people like the Kouachi brothers. Unless you’re devoid of empathy, you can probably see why the average French Muslim who sees Charlie Hebdo on the newsstand with something like this on the cover might feel like the white establishment was going out of its way to spit in his or her face. But there are many people who felt this way and didn’t use it as a pretext for violence. Quite the opposite, actually.

The best comment on the tragedy I’ve read has come from the Guardian‘s Hari Kunzru, whose op-ed is a rejection of the sort of absolutist, binary logic that extremists of any stripe are so fond of using:

If I have anything hopeful or uplifting to contribute, this is it – that anyone who tries to fit the world into binaries is necessarily fragile. The slightest hint of complexity, and their brittle self-identity may shatter. To refuse the jihadi’s logic of escalation without becoming mired in grubby pleading, we have to say – and keep on saying, keep on writing with our pens that are supposedly so much mightier than their swords – that life is not so simple, that our many problems do not have single, total solutions, that utopia is a dead place, without life or change, without air.

It’s impossible to know, obviously, what might have become of the Kouachi brothers in a different world. Perhaps they would have become killers anyway. Perhaps not. It’s also impossible to know what might have happened had Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons been different. And trying to imagine that is a fool’s game. But that doesn’t mean we should see this as an event that occurred in isolation, without some kind of global political context. Trying to understand this godawful situation is not the same as accepting its insane, absolutist logic. As Kunzru said, understanding is the least we owe the dead. And I hope the French police extricate the Kouachis from their siege alive, so we can form a circle and LAUGH AT THEM.