Print Edition: January 14, 2015
What’s the deal with those shootings in Paris last week? I can’t completely get into the head of a religious fundamentalist or a murderer, but I think I have an understanding of how satirists think. I know they expect backlash from the get-go. I know they don’t accept hurt feelings as a reason to stop their work. Most of all, I know that killing them won’t solve a thing.
Satire is intrinsically critical. In other words, making fun of something requires putting it under a microscope and illuminating everything one finds wrong with it. Sometimes humourists are misinformed or misguided; Charlie Hebdo has in fact published quite a few utterly hateful cartoons. These cartoons may be rightfully criticized as such, but killing the artists / critics does not remove the thinking their humour perpetuates; their deaths, as we have seen, turn their work into a symbol of “freedom of speech” in general, which makes feelings against the cause behind the killings even stronger. If the public perceives Islam as the essential cause behind the killings, for example, then the misguided anti-Islamic sentiments that angered and likely oppressed the killers in the first place only become stronger in the culture. Violence, in this case, makes the problem even worse.
In a film called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, philosopher Slavoj Žižek says that “every violent acting out is a sign that there is something you are not able to put into words. Even the most brutal violence is the enacting of a certain symbolic deadlock.” Accepting this, the violence in Paris points to the perpetrators’ inability to counter the criticism that Charlie Hebdo presents (however shoddy) with their own. This inability may point to the killers’ lack of intelligence, or to something more systemic like a sense that they do not have the cultural capital to express their ideas.
Whatever the reason, the violence will prove fruitless for the killers’ cause because satirists are necessarily fearless. That is to say they take on the role in the first place to fight against what threatens them, so threatening them further fuels their dedication to their art. Satirists also don’t mourn like other people; where the average person might cry and leave it at that, satirists satirize. If the idea behind shooting the folks at Charlie Hebdo was to send a discouraging message to others who might crack offensive jokes, the killers have another think coming.
In the wake of all this, it’s important to remember that we don’t need to get swept up in easily absorbed binary thinking. As Arthur Asseraf points out in an article for Jadaliyya, the recent acts of violence around the world apparently for Islam’s sake are not matters of Western ideals versus Eastern ideals or anything like that, but an indication of something more difficult to conceptualize all at once without taking sides, something a little more woven into the way our world works. I don’t know how to begin making things better, but violence and hate will probably only contribute to the cycle of violence and hate. In the meantime, satirists will continue their work, no matter how problematic, and the killers will have accomplished nothing but increased animosity towards so many people who don’t deserve it.