The recent Charlie Hebdo massacre needs no prefacing. We know the details: Charlie Hebdo is a satirical French magazine targeting primarily right wing politics and religious extremism, and on 7 January 2015, twelve individuals at their offices were killed in an act of terror. Much of the discourse surrounding Charlie Hebdo in the last several days has focused on the magazine’s relationship with Islam, and on the religious extremism that apparently precipitated the attack. I’m not interested in discussing that — there are many more qualified than I who have already done a fantastic job unpacking the complex religious and political agendas at the center of this event. Rather, I would like to take a moment to address the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s comedy and satire, to see what we can learn from this event.
Equal Opportunity Offenders?
I’ve previously discussed in this blog the significance of ambivalence in comedy — in other words, how comedy often demands that we hold to conflicting responses in our minds at the same time. Failure to fully embrace ambivalence can be detrimental to comedy’s success. Think how often we laugh at a joke that we understand to be problematic, offensive, or unsettling. To fail to understand the joke’s humor, even if it does not align with our own sense of humor, leaves room only for offense or disgust. On the other hand, however, failing to recognize seditious or offensive qualities and only embracing the comic valence leaves one’s laughter cold, heartless, and perhaps, cruel. Even the simplest jokes require ambivalence: an understanding of what is expected coupled with a recognition of the unexpected (i.e.: the punch line).
I bring up ambivalence here because I think it is essential to the understanding of the current discussion surrounding Charlie Hebdo. Jordan Weissmann wrote a fantastic piece for Slate, entitled “Charlie Hebdo Is Heroic and Racist,” with the tag, “We should embrace and condemn it.” I couldn’t agree more. He writes, “Charlie Hebdo‘s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t,” arguing that there seems to be a binary in the responses to the massacre: you can either celebrate free speech and the importance of “equal-opportunity offenders” in comedy, or you think it’s unacceptable to intentionally and repeatedly aim to offend groups of individuals based on a system of beliefs and traditions. He adds, “But it’s wrong to approach this issue as an either-or question, to blaspheme or not to blaspheme. Free speech allows us to say hateful, idiotic things without being punished by the government. But embracing that right means that we need to acknowledge when work is hateful or idiotic, and can’t be defended on its own terms.”
We live in a strange time, comedically speaking. We celebrate free speech and those so-called “equal-opportunity offenders,” such as South Park. Liberal viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — myself included — are quick to defend the biases of those programs by saying things such as, “But they make fun of the Obama administration and Liberal politics just as much as they do Fox News” (pro tip: they don’t). We marvel at figures like Louis C.K., who seems to have an inhuman superpower to say words like faggot, cunt, and nigger, repeatedly and seemingly without reprisal, despite being a straight white male. At the same time, however, we seem to be on heightened awareness for anything that might be deemed offensive to any groups of individuals, based on race, religion, sexuality, gender, politics, et cetera. How the hell can we do both of these things at once? The same people who laud the importance of equal-opportunity humor are so often the same people who get their knickers in a twist when comedy gets too offensive. And yes, I’m one of those people. But what does this mean? It means that ambivalence is more important than ever. We must recognize multiple truths at once if we are to make sense of this situation.
This is the risk assumed by the equal-opportunity-offender view of comedy: when nothing is sacred, and everything can be made the subject of the joke, we have no matrix for measuring humor. We lose subtlety. We lose subtext and nuance. When all things, individuals, or beliefs are deemed valid targets for satire, satire itself loses its edge and transforms into blind ridicule.
Here’s the (perhaps) unsettling truth. Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons are often racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, antisemitic, et cetera. Many have relied on offensive and misinformed generalizations regarding groups of individuals. They conflate extremists with the general populace, while rarely subjecting their own beliefs or identities to the same satiric scrutiny. Their humor Others groups and individuals in problematic and dangerous ways. It would be easy to dismiss these aspects of Charlie Hebdo as symptomatic of their “equal-opportunity” approach, as I have seen done in social media. But here’s the problem:
Charlie Hebdo isn’t an equal-opportunity offender.
They have a specific group of repeated targets, and in doing so, their satire can become cruel; it becomes, in many ways, a reflection of superiority and power. In what will no doubt prove to be a feather-ruffling op-ed, Jacob Canfield astutely observes:
White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and it needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.
So, yes, you could say that Charlie Hebdo is racist. But the “offensive” quality of much of Charlie‘s imagery and humor belies a more complex satirical construct. Much of the satire found in Charlie has a double meaning. It’s somewhat tricky to unpack, but it’s much like The Colbert Report: Colbert is a comic representation of a self-important extreme right-wing pundit. If his humor is offensive, it is so to satirize a specific group of people, behaviors, and ideologies. Charlie is often engaging in the same sort of multi-layered satire (for a great article on this subject, see Max Fisher’s article on Vox. However, that is not to say that they are free from criticism. There is racism there. There is xenophobia. There is stereotyping. Again, we have this ambivalence.
And there has been racism, xenophobia, and stereotyping in the responses to the attack. It pervades the entire discussion regarding this event. We’ve all heard how the brave [white] Westerners are defending free speech against the evil [brown] Muslims who would hope to silence them. There has been so much of this blanketing in the last several days on major networks and social media. And this view is fundamentally, simply, wrong.
(I know I said I wouldn’t discuss the religious aspect, but let me just put in my two cents really quick)
I’ve heard it argued that part of the problem with Islam is that when religion becomes political — when it becomes a governing body — humor is the first thing to go. Again, this is wrong. The Charlie Hebdo attack isn’t a matter of religion — it’s a matter of extremism and zealotry. Here’s the thing with extremism and religious zealotry: it seems to be categorized, from religion to religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, you name it), by a distinct lack of a sense of humor. When you lose the ability to laugh at your own existence, you lose humanity. And when you lose humanity, all sorts of dangerous opportunities become available to you. So let’s stop referring to this as a conflict of religious ideologies and acknowledge it for what it is: a small band of extremists who responded violently to another group of extremists.
Je suis fumiste
To understand the sort of humor Charlie Hebdo perpetuated — and it is most certainly a specifically French brand of humor (which is part of my umbrage with the whole Je suis Charlie thing, but more on that shortly) — we have to look to the origins of French humor. Here’s where I bust out my “Doctor Smarty-Pants” card, but bear with me.
Charlie is indebted to the fumistes, a group of artists, writers, performers, and thinkers who were part of a greater subversive artistic movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s, centered mainly in Paris. Bernard Sarrazin described them as “l’audace […] d’oser rire de ce qui n’est pas drôle” [“bold… to dare laugh at what is not funny.” (Daniel Grojnowski and Bernard Sarrazin, L’Esprit fumiste et les rires fin de siècle, 38]. The fumiste is characterized by a “denial of the established order and of official hierarchies. […] everything has the same value, everything is one and the same thing” (Grojnowski, “Hydropathes and Company”) — does that sound familiar? It’s the old “equal-opportunity offender” card. The fumistes undermined artistic creations, social mores, political and religious hierarchies, and the like through a cold, calculated, often malicious comic sensibility that was meant to provoke, confuse, and disturb its audiences. “Laughter at any price” was the credo of the fumistes.
Charlie Hebdo, as a forum for contemporary fumistes, has retained the fumiste spirit of “laughter at any price,” but its satire is hit or miss. True satire presents us with truths in comedic ways, so that we may recognize the ridiculous within those truths. Charlie Hebdo often presents us with stereotypes and beliefs, not truths; hence, satire falls by the wayside. This is a dangerous game, for to cry “satire” when what you’re really perpetuating is extremism or racial comedy is to dangerously conflate politics and comedy. And when millions of people rally behind your comedy without a true recognition of what that comedy is — as opposed to what it stands for (i.e.: free speech) — nuance is lost.
The problem with ‘Je suis Charlie’
Here’s what it comes down to, for me — the problem I see with many of the responses to Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t practice the same sort of fumisme found in the pages of Charlie. We don’t regularly aim to offend and provoke other cultures and religions with mordant satire. And to be fair, if you or I were to make many of the same “jokes” seen in Charlie, we would quickly be labeled as racist or xenophobic. I venture to say the majority of the people proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” have never read an issue of Charlie Hebdo, or perhaps, had never heard of the magazine until a week ago.
I am not Charlie. You are not Charlie. Charlie Hebdo stands on the fringe of accepted social commentary, which is what makes it so provocative. When we all start proclaiming that we too are part of this fringe group, the work they have done loses meaning, loses significance. And their martyrdom — as that is the term that has been bandied about — becomes commonplace and loses its own significance. In other words, when everyone is Charlie, no one is.
These satirists died because they were willing to provoke, to challenge limits of taste and the efficacy of taboos, to take a risk that had already proven to be dangerous. Most of us do not have the courage to do that. Most of us avoid confrontation, provocation, antagonism. Was their satire always intelligent? No. Was the satire always informative? No. Did it allow us a greater understanding of some social ills, the way great satire should? Not always. But that does not mean that the work of Charlie Hebdo and publications like it is not important to the greater cultural and social fabric of society. We need comedy on the fringe. This may sound callous, but humorists like Charlie Hebdo are the sacrificial anodes that allow comedy to thrive in today’s society. Their extremism draws the attention of other extremists and allows other, less provocative comedy to flourish. For everything I’ve said about the problematic aspects of Charlie, they are essential. Though their work often lacks subtlety or nuance, their presence texturizes and enriches the comic landscape. They add diversity, they add layers of subtlety, they add nuance and variety. These individuals paid the ultimate price for their work, and for critics and supporters of Charlie Hebdo alike, this ambivalence may be difficult to comprehend.
Yes, I have been harsh on Charlie here. But it should be known: I respect their willingness to provoke, to continue the fumiste spirit, to challenge us to think about comedy and how it functions in our lives, and ultimately, for the role Charlie Hebdo has played — and will continue to play — in contemporary satire. And while this attack is a horrific display of the deadly power of extremism, I think we can also see it as an example of the dangers of losing one’s sense of humor. They challenge the limits of “Laughter at any price.”
I am appalled and saddened by this atrocity. I am grateful for Charlie Hebdo‘s celebration of free speech and the comic spirit. I am critical of the content of their satire. I am all these things, but there is one thing I am not.
I am not Charlie. And that’s OK.