On the morning of January 7, 2015 Islamic terrorists forced their way into the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Armed with assault rifles, they shot and killed 12 people, effectively wiping out the magazine’s editorial team.
Four days later, an estimated 1.6 million people marched through Paris in solidarity with the victims. Placards bearing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”), which would become synonymous with freedom of speech, featured prominently in the media.
Within a mere seven days of the shooting, the surviving members of Charlie Hebdo regrouped and, with a little help from their friends, scraped together what was dubbed the “survivors’ issue.” On the cover, a drawing of Muhammad holding a sign reading “Je suis Charlie,” under the headline “Tout est pardonné” (French for “All is Forgiven”).
In an article for the Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones called the cover “a life-affirming work of art,” further writing: “Funny people were killed for being funny. This new cover is the only possible response – a response that makes you laugh.”
In an article for the Independent, John Lichfield correctly predicted that the magazine’s new fans “may find the proper Charlie tougher to swallow than the martyred Charlie” while conceding that the survivors had “pulled off something strange and courageous…a millefueille of mockery and defiance.”
Despite some of the best reviews in its 45-year history, a small number of critics were unswayed by Charlie Hebdo and the “Je suis Charlie” movement. Some went so far as to argue that newspapers covering the story shouldn’t republish the offending cartoons, lest they create further offence. For the way to combat terrorism is to abide sensitivities.
Concerned citizenry soon turned to righteous indignation. In April, a letter protesting PEN’s decision to bestow its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo claimed over 200 signatures, including those of several prominent writers.
In August, media pundits were quick to complain when a cartoon depicting severed arms clutching a pair of breasts made light of the search for Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 (the caption reads: “We’ve found a bit of the pilot and the air hostess”).
Two new cartoons, aimed at the twin pillars of western civilization – capitalism and Christianity – have reopened the floor to charges of insensitivity and “hate speech.”
The source of offence is Hebdo cartoonist Laurent Sourisseau’s reimagining of Nilufer Demir’s widely-shared photo of Aylan al-Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler who became a symbol for the refugee and migration crisis.
The cartoon, as in the photo, depicts a child face down on a beach. In the background, a promotional billboard for McDonald’s advertising “2 children’s meals for the price of one” (the caption reads: “So close to making it…”).
A second cartoon depicts Jesus walking on water beside the drowning child (the caption reads: “Christians walk on water. Muslim children sink” – proof, the headline tells us, that Europe is Christian).
In an article for the Morocco World News, Aziz Allilou accused Charlie Hebdo of “hiding behind freedom of speech,” suggesting that the magazine has invoked the right to freedom of speech in its defence. It hasn’t.
In an article for Scoop Whoop, Manimanjari Sengupta retracted her support for the magazine: “This isn’t the Charlie Hebdo we identified and stood in solidarity with earlier this year. Je ne suis pas Charlie (I’m not Charlie).”
On Twitter, D. Peter Herbert of the Society of Black Lawyers* barely managed to keep within 140 characters: “Charlie Hebdo is a purely racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication that represents the moral decay of France.”
A second tweet announced his intention to complain to authorities: “The Society of Black Lawyers will consider reporting this incitement to hate crime and persecution before the International Criminal Court.”
Oh the horrors of free speech!
As the sting of January 7 fades from our collective memory, the media backlash against Charlie Hebdo draws near to a disavowal. Once defenders of free speech, we now act as arbiters of moral decency. Somehow we’ve lost all sense of proportion, unable to distinguish a pencil scratch from a bullet wound.
Blame our tendency to idealise the dead. In death, Charlie Hebdo sat on a pedestal beyond reproach, martyrs shrouded in myth. Now the veil has dropped from our eyes, it’s clear that the magazine’s continued publication has become an inconvenience to those who prefer the ideal. Who could have predicted that the survivors would bravely rise from the dust, then so spectacularly fail to meet our expectations?
Under threat of violence and facing censure, the magazine won’t stay dead, nor is it willing to suppress its appetite for the profane. Instead, it continues to do what it has always done: slay sacred cows, puncture pieties, highlight hypocrisy left and right, picking wounds most would rather go unpicked.
Critics who accuse the magazine of being culturally insensitive, as if satire ought to pander to sensitivities, want it both ways. They want satire, but to be spared the twist of the knife. They seek truth, but can’t bear to look when someone holds a mirror to the world. They support freedom of speech, but within limits.
The best satire serves to focus our moral judgment. It directs our indignation inwards, forcing us to confront our worst prejudices. Sometimes it cuts too close for comfort, eliciting not a laugh but a groan. Very rarely, a satirist’s aim is so good, people won’t be aware of the arrow hitting the bullseye.
When Jonathan Swift’s essay, A Modest Proposal, was published in 1729, there was outrage at Swift’s suggestion that impoverished Irish families might alleviate their financial burdens by selling their children as food to “persons of quality and fortune.” People were less concerned about the reality of poverty than they were about Swift’s modest proposal.
Charlie Hebdo might not be Jonathan Swift, but our reaction is telling. We are less concerned about our failure to protect a three-year-old child than we are about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon critique.
*Last seen badgering British police over some very offensive article he could just as easily chosen to ignore.