Racism and Charlie Hebdo

You would think that a bunch of writers would be able to define a term clearly, but some of our prominent literati seem confused over what exactly is meant by the phrase “hate speech.”


Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau must understand how satire works, but in a recent speech had this to say about Charlie Hebdo: “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.”

Et tu, Garry? Doonesbury itself has been criticized for being “mean-spirited,” “blasphemous,” and—the unkindest cut of all—simply not funny. Trudeau should know better than to micturate in his own trough.

But he’s not alone. The literary human rights organization PEN held a gala last week to honor Charlie Hebdo, but six of its illustrious members declined to participate for the same reasons. In a letter to PEN, one of them, novelist Teju Cole, writes:

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized . . . and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

“Must be seen”? Says who? I know that I should be respectful of this bologna, but suggesting that Charlie Hebdo is akin to European racism against Muslims is horribly wrong. European racism against European Muslims is indeed frightening; and scarier still, it’s sometimes found in sheep’s clothing among a flock of faux liberal sentiments. Oh we simply adore Obama yes and oh we’re so happy Bush and Blair are out and now we’ve dumped Sarkozy too and yes isn’t it horrible what’s happening in Syria yes and by the way (voice dropping to a whisper) have you noticed (eyes glancing about) the “Silent Invasion”?

But to associate Charlie Hebdo and the intent of its satire with this kind of Hate-that-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name seriously mistakes how Satire operates.

First of all, let’s get this “punching downward” business out of the way. Charlie Hebdo doesn’t go after the powerless, and it does not “intend” to “cause further humiliation and suffering” to a victimized population.

Charlie’s cartoons of Mohammed ridicule the religious extremism that seeks power in violence. Such extremists had firebombed the Charlie offices in 2011 and continued to threaten the staff, which is why the Paris police had stationed a guard at the Charlie offices—a policeman who was also killed in the attack. How much more upward can you punch than by ridiculing fanatics with guns? Violent men with weapons are not powerless, and they are not victims.

But aside from this seemingly obvious fact that Trudeau et al. seem to miss, they also seem oblivious to the nature of satire.

Satire works subconsciously. It portrays people like us acting badly, so it makes us say to ourselves, yes, we’re like those people satirized but no, we don’t behave as badly. And afterwards we try, perhaps even unconsciously, to make sure that we don’t behave that way.

Imagine a cartoon satirizing professors who talk down to their students. (I know it sounds far-fetched, but let’s just pretend.) If I’m a professor, the satire relies on my recognizing my kind and seeing how ridiculous we look when we talk down to students. But self-respect won’t let me admit that I am one of THOSE professors, whether I am or not, and seeing how stupid it looks makes me try a little harder to not be that way. Satire is a kind of reality check.

If the satire’s target is professors, it is necessarily aimed at all professors; if at Catholics, all Catholics; if at Muslims, all Muslims—even though not all professors are pompous jerks, not all Catholics homophobic misogynists, and not all Muslims murderous fanatics.

I’m Catholic, but seeing Catholic prejudices against women and gays satirized gives me great hope. I don’t consider it a tenet of my faith that women are less capable of being priests than men or that love and sex are any less sacramental between gay people than between straight people. (Maybe that means I’m not really a Catholic, and if that’s the case, Pope Francis needs to tell me so.)

But I think these prejudices against women and gays are just human errors, like so many other irreligious ideas floating around religions these days. In Catholicism, they are mistakes of history that theology has somehow gotten mixed in with an otherwise beautiful conception of three realities: love, human behavior, and the mystery of creation. Like belief in a geocentric universe, these prejudices are mistakes of history that only history can resolve—with the help of voices like Charlie Hebdo.

What seems to me more disturbing than either Charlie’s satires or the criticism of Charlie by Trudeau and others is the low-level but insidious prejudice in some of the support voiced for Charlie Hebdo. Pope Francis expressed his support for the magazine and for freedom of the press, and the bells of Notre Dame rang in homage to the victims. The surviving staff responded with a gob of their typical satirical spit calling attention to the Pope’s hypocrisy as head of a church whose teachings continue to foster prejudice:

What made us laugh the most is that the bells of Notre Dame rang in our honour. We would like to send a message to Pope Francis, who, too, was ‘Charlie’ this week: we only accept the bells of Notre Dame ringing in our honour when it is Femen who make them tinkle.

(The feminist activists Femen had staged a topless demonstration at Notre Dame to celebrate Pope Benedict’s resignation. Personally, I don’t understand all the hubbub. Gothic architecture; a new Pope with a truly pastoral spirit; and a group of wicked smart, half-naked women: what’s not to love?)

Even here in Juneau, we saw some dubious support for Charlie. The Empire jumped on the Je Suis Charlie bandwagon by reprinting one of the magazine’s cartoons of Mohammed alongside an editorial titled “We Are All Charlie.”

That’s a cheap shot. We have so few Muslims here in town that printing a cartoon of Mohammed was unlikely to cost the Empire much of its circulation. It’s a safe bet that the editors of the Empire would not have dared to run one of Charlie’s cartoons of Christ or of Catholics (whom Charlie satirizes more than Muslims) and thus run the risk of offending local Christians. That might have cost them.

But if you feel free to offend a minority simply because they are one and have no economic or political power, that’s racism. That’s punching down. I’m sure the editors of the Empire didn’t see it that way consciously, but that’s what makes it so much more insidious. Like the European racism that masquerades as liberalism, it seems so progressive on its face.

And that’s not Charlie. That’s not even a close relative. That’s Charlie’s enemy, only with good intentions and without guns.

• Jim Hale can be reached through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com.


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