The terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has resulted in widespread condemnation of the violent suppression of free speech, as well as general support for the concept of satire. But while it is right that our disapproval of violence be unconditional, perhaps Charlie Hebdo’s particular brand of satire should be examined before we all change our profile pictures to say “Je suis Charlie.”
It should go without saying that nobody should feel or be threatened for exercising their right to free expression, regardless of what they believe, but let’s say it anyway. Despite our fondness for mocking the French and eating too many Freedom fries, America and France were born of similar ideals and helped each other through the revolutions that created us. So freedom of speech and the press is an Enlightenment ideal our nations share. As the quote famously misattributed to Voltaire goes, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And finally, the desire of Charlie Hebdo’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier to “die standing [rather] than live on my knees,” expressed after the publication was firebombed in 2011, is a noble one.
There. We’ve said it. Terrorists bad. Charlie Hebdo good. Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes tous Charlie.
But are we really? Charlie Hebdo is a weekly paper containing cartoons and reports that is known for being very irreverent and extremely antireligious. It publishes a kind of satire, but what kind? Is it real satire, or is it pseudo-satire? And therein lies an important distinction.
Real satire has all kinds of benefits, helping maintain a functioning democracy by encouraging critical thinking and reasoned political and social engagement. Especially in the United States, satire has advanced our political dialogue to a great degree and educated our electorate. In recent years, viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were found to be among the best informed members of the public, far ahead of viewers of cable and network news and particularly Fox News viewers, who ranked last.
In America, the creation of The Colbert Report in 2005 was a game changer, because Stephen Colbert’s satirical persona gave him a layer of protection that allowed him to be even bolder. Colbert was able to stand just inches from President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and criticize the administration during the height of the war on terror. More recently, Colbert’s creation and coverage of super PACs won a Peabody Award. The Daily Show, too, has become a bigger part of the political process, to the point where Jon Stewart influenced the congressional decision to pledge federal funds for the health care of Sept. 11 responders and was reportedly offered the hosting job on Meet the Press. And when the eminently unqualified Sarah Palin became John McCain’s running mate, Saturday Night Live so effectively satirized her debate performance that Fox News mistook a still image of the variety show for a real picture of the vice presidential candidate.
But not all self-proclaimed satire is created equal.
American satire is a spectrum, and on the other end of shows like The Daily Show are shows like South Park and Family Guy. They are often funny and use the ironic style of true satire like The Daily Show, but they lack the focused intent. They are pure entertainment, and always at the expense of whoever is being mocked. For example, while Colbert (a devout Catholic) mocks the misuse of religious authority, South Park just mocks the religious, or the concept of religion.
And that’s what Charlie Hebdo typically does. Often, the target of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons—the people being caricatured and ridiculed—are simply the religious. Other times, the target is unclear—the last tweet before the attack was a cartoon of the head of the Islamic State offering politically correct holiday wishes. Muslims already face discrimination in Europe as in America, and mocking them is not courageous or beneficial. The paper’s cartoons have depicted all religions, but the paper’s stance as an equal-opportunity offender is also part of what makes it a generator of pseudo-satire. There’s just nothing brave about secular white men mocking everybody else. You can’t satirize intolerance by being intolerant.
True satire, which should be healthy and beneficial, must be distinguished from what Russell Peterson terms the simple mockery of pseudo-satire. True satire never punches down—the target must always be someone in a position above the satirist, not someone less privileged. So while it might be funny, pseudo-satire lacks the social benefits of true satire, which include increased political awareness and engagement among viewers. Instead, pseudo-satire fosters cynicism, apathy, and intolerance—the very things true satire combats.
Part of what made The Colbert Report so notable was its ability to create public engagement through satire, often using social media. For example, Colbert encouraged viewers to join him in tweeting in the style of Senator Chuck Grassley using #IGotTheTweetsLikeGrassley to highlight the relative ineffectiveness of Republicans at engaging with voters through social media. But we don’t always need to be prompted by a professional. During the U.S. government shutdown, the public took to Twitter to post #ShutdownPickupLines that highlighted both the ridiculousness of the situation and the ways in which it would affect average citizens, with the added bonus of being funny.
Charlie Hebdo is famous for, among other things, publishing a series of Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the Virgin Mary with a pig’s nose and a dog having sex with French President Francois Hollande. Pseudo-satire uses irony and humor much like true satire does, but with crucial differences that drastically alter the effect of consuming it. Most of the unfounded fears people have about satire, and the fact that young people seem to prefer it to mainstream, traditional methods of consuming news, are actually fears of pseudo-satire and the cynicism and intolerance it breeds. That’s what Charlie Hebdo, frankly, often does.
Remy M. Maisel is a blogger and co-author, with Sophia A. McClennen, of Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics (Palgrave 2014).