The war on laughter: What the Charlie Hebdo attacks reveal about our thorny relationship with satire

Churches, states and now aggrieved groups have tried to silence the world's satirists. Here's why it fails

Published January 8, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

Charb, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Sept. 19, 2012.                 (AP/Michel Euler)
Charb, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Sept. 19, 2012. (AP/Michel Euler)

Satire is the celebrated guest everyone thinks they want at their dinner party until he shows up, stinking drunk and dropping off-color remarks, then grabs the hostess's ass. Earlier today, two masked men tried to murder him in a Paris office building, then evaporated into the city's streets, no doubt thinking they'd done God's work by erasing an outrage from the face of the earth. Four cartoonists and eight other staff members of the gleefully offensive newspaper Charlie Hebdo were assassinated for their work.

The media, social and the other kind, have overflowed with fellow journalists and cartoonists proclaiming "Je Suis Charlie" in solidarity with their fallen colleagues. And for once, the commonality rings true, because who knows better the power of words and images to provoke unreasoning rage, even if most of the time that rage isn't homicidal? If you happen to believe, as I do, that a writer's foremost duty is to tell the truth, the photos of Parisians rallying to celebrate the slain by raising pens in the air is the most heartbreaking and beautiful thing you've seen in a long time.

But -- and this is no knock on Charlie Hebdo, whose speech rights I support and whose courage I admire -- you have to wonder how long and deep this commitment to liberty of expression really is. It's easy to champion a satirist's freedom to offend somebody else. One man's blasphemy is another woman's rape joke is yet another person's tasteless racism parody is still another's unpatriotic slur. Since the whole point of satire -- if we're talking about the blistering political mockery that goes back to Juvenal and Jonathan Swift -- is to abrade, needle and slash, it's not working if someone doesn't get hurt, however figuratively.

For that reason, most satirists worth their salt get in trouble with the authorities. Voltaire, the most satirical of Frenchmen, was repeatedly imprisoned and exiled for his witty criticisms of the government and the Catholic Church. France has a long, rich history of anti-Catholic satire to go with its long ambivalent relationship to that institution. Satirical cartoons, most of them scabrous, flourished all over Europe during the 18th and 19th century. You could call satire the voice of the Enlightenment, a way of talking about the world that questioned everything, including -- make that specializing in -- sacred cows.

Governments and religious leaders, however, have rarely executed anyone for committing satire. The dubious honor of the ultimate penalty is almost always reserved for heretics, dissidents and revolutionaries: the more earnest breed of rebel. To kill someone for making fun of you is a tacit confession of your own impotence, a demonstration of the fragility of your self-respect and legitimacy.

The truly powerful prefer simply to lock up jesters who go too far, or to dismantle their presses and mire them in legal proceedings. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, purveyor of cartoons that surpass Charlie Hebdos' in rude irreverence, was forever defending himself against libel and obscenity raps and once appeared at trial wearing an American flag as a diaper. He was promptly charged with desecration. Yet even Flynt eventually became the hero of an Oscar-nominated Hollywood film.

While on his way to court one day in 1978, Flynt, too, was shot, sustaining injuries that left him paralyzed from the waist down and in constant pain. His attacker almost certainly was a white supremacist serial killer who objected to Hustler's depictions of interracial sex, a fact of American life that the magazine kept asserting, satirically and lubriciously, despite our long tradition of denial. So much of satire -- such as a Charlie Hebdo cover that featured a cartoon of a frolicking nude woman with a burqua peeping out from between her butt cheeks -- has to do with sex and body, which keep insisting on realities we'd prefer to cover up with something more high-minded and decorous.

But neither Flynt's attacker nor the militarized masked men who perpetrated the slaughter in Paris constitute either church or state, even if they claim to champion American and Islamic values. They resort to guns because they can't summon the sort of institutional power that closed down Charlie Hebdo's earlier incarnation, a magazine called Hara-Kiri, after it published a spoof of a nightclub disaster and the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle. One of the few equivocal responses to the Paris killings I encountered online earlier today came from a Muslim who argued that, while the violence was wrong, it would never have occurred if the French government hadn't failed to "punish" Charlie Hebdo for its "hate speech."

Institutional censorship by the powerful still occurs, of course, all over the world, but this is a different beast. The claim that some things, particularly humorously insulting things, shouldn't be said because they injure a disadvantaged group has become common. Most such groups -- some of whom aren't even really disadvantaged, like the War on Christmas brigade -- would never resort to violence. But they don't hesitate to apply some form of legal, economic or P.R. pressure, from persuading advertisers to boycotting a publication that dares to mock "gamers" to calling for the cancellation of a satirical TV show when its satire misfires.

No, I'm not equating GamerGate with mass murder, just pointing out that a new kind of moral authority is being invoked in the never-ending campaign to make satirists shut up. Instead of ruling classes demanding to be spoken of only with respect, there's much more mileage in arguing that others should be stopped from criticizing us because we are the underdogs, unfairly targeted, stereotyped and abused. Militant Islamists justify their violence by insisting that they are the ones under perpetual attack, and that they are only defending their faith from humiliation, oppression and even obliteration -- by any means necessary.

To the free speech absolutist, the only legitimate response to bad speech is more, better speech, but it's not always clear where "more speech" leaves off and something like force begins. Most Muslims agree that today's murders clearly land grotesquely beyond that line, but the idea that it all might have been prevented--if only the French government had fulfilled its responsibility to stifle Charlie Hebdo's coarse and deliberately provocative satire--is still out there.

Satirists aim to offend, and the staff of Charlie Hebdo, like the Danish cartoonists who deliberately set off an international firestorm by contributing drawings of Muhammad to Jyllands-Posten in 2005, succeeded. The irony, too bitter to savor on the day of their terrible martyrdom, is that their murderers succeeded in turning the satirists themselves into victims. People all over the world who wouldn't ordinarily admire Charlie Hebdo's brand of humor are holding them up as heroes and gathering in the streets to mourn their loss, taking them seriously, perhaps, for the first time. In the long run, when you declare war on laughter, you are doomed to lose.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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