I am probably not Charlie Hebdo. I have never been sued by the Grand Mosque of Paris for depicting Muhammad with a bomb tucked underneath his turban. My writing has never included grotesque portrayals of an Islamic prophet that profit from violence. But I am a human being who needs laughter—who craves a type of comedy that envelopes irrationality in a cocoon and spits out normalizing color. That’s the funny thing about satire: It is a risk so embedded in unspoken anxieties that when a gamble is lost, all we have is laughter to heal the brokenness.
But if trauma, sadness, violence and terrorism can produce comedic genius, satirists also risk isolating individuals who exist outside the perfectly painted corner of their incredulous subjects. Mockery has the ability to marginalize denominations just as much as it normalizes them, and Charlie Hebdo brings forth both concern and optimism for the future of satirical journalism. This is not to say that the attacks signaled a botched joke. The massacre instead thrusted upon the magazine the moral imperative to discern poignant commentary from disrespect.
Charlie Hebdo has an extensive history of attracting controversy, particularly for its crude references to Islam and its commentary on extremist groups. Consider the magazine’s lawsuit from 2007, Mosque of Paris v. Val. Not only did Charlie Hebdo produce illustrations of an insurgent Muhammad, but Muhammad was also drawn weeping and holding a sign that read, “It’s hard to be loved by jerks.” The courts ruled in favor of Philippe Val, the founder and editor of Charlie Hebdo at the time, on the grounds that illustrators were criticizing Islamic fundamentalists, rather than the religion itself or its beliefs. This ruling gave Charlie Hebdo license to blatantly offend a religion on the grounds of artistic merit and social commentary.
While the artist’s intention was to portray Al-Qaeda’s distorted perception of religious fundamentals, two things must be kept in consideration. The first aspect revolves around what satire is, and what it represents. Satire is often serious commentary disguised as humorous and outlandish ridicule, pushing logical extremes to expose select members of society for the twisted morals that they hold. But satire is also creative expression that derives so much of its power from its lawlessness, its risk, its bite.
It is in Charlie Hebdo’s post-massacre satire, and the protection that risks poignant laughter at the expense of disparaging offensiveness, that comedy’s lawlessness reaches a moral checkpoint. Although the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan coated the streets of Paris and commandeered Twitter after the attack, free speech has fatal limits. Charlie Hebdo’s blunt, stylish portrayals of a major religion have their artistic merits, but the direct, literal translation of its artwork should be taken as seriously as its comedy.
For instance, in another lawsuit against the magazine in 2008, veteran cartoonist Maurice Sinet, or Siné, poked fun at then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son’s decision to convert to Judaism, which led to claims of anti-Semitism on the part of the magazine. Editor Val ordered Siné to write a letter of apology for the incident, but the cartoonist instead replied with, “I’d rather cut my own balls off.”
This stubbornness and political disregard flies in the face of productive commentary. America’s premier satirical “news” source, The Onion, often tackles serious contemporary concerns such as domestic violence in the National Football League, global warming, income inequality and, yes, Islamic fundamentalists. Even The Onion rescinded a tweet from the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony that called the nine-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis an offensive name.
Ordinary critiques regarding bluntness or a lack of regard for offensive portrayals speak to the overall weaknesses in Charlie Hebdo’s work. Its editors may feel noble painting an influential religious figure in the nude or kissing a man, but this fails to give solace to individuals in countries most implicated by its subject. Many countries with oppressive social standards do not have the luxury of a satirical news source. France, meanwhile, is in a privileged position to alleviate anxieties in countries with fewer liberties and more discriminant religious practices.
Satirists may be protected because their field is risk-based, but that does not preclude them from expressing humanity when a joke is taken too far, or unforeseen criticism halts a conversation about respectful social commentary. Instead, valuable concerns from comedy’s casualties fade from a platform with the most reverberating echo.
Henry Dickmeyer is a senior economics major. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @HDickmeyer.