“Je Suis Charlie”: Reflections on the Recent Terrorist Attacks in France
By Ken K. Gourdin
Recent happenings in France (the land of some of my ancestors, if you recognize the derivation of my surname), in which purportedly (nominally) Islamic terrorists stormed the office of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and killed several of its staff members, has prompted the following reflections.
I doubt I would appreciate French satire. In truth, I’m not much of a fan of satire – regardless of where it comes from or what it satirizes. And from what I understand Charlie Hebdo, the publication, is an equal-opportunity satirist: it holds all religion (along with various other subjects) up to ridicule, which would mean, if Mormonism were enough of a factor in French life to attract the publication’s attention (which I doubt it is), Charlie Hebdo would ridicule Mormonism at least as much as it has ridiculed Islam.
Realizing that the admissions in the foregoing paragraph probably disqualify me from rendering any kind of an authoritative opinion on the subject, nonetheless, I think the most effective satire makes at least some kind of an effort (however small) to understand the subject being satirized as its devotees understand it. Without that effort, I think the laughs often come cheap and the jokes often seem forced. I said as much in commentary on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Broadway smash hit musical, The Book of Mormon (see here, this and all other links herein last accessed today):
On the subject of satire, I recently posted the following in another online discussion (this snippet is taken from my account at Disqus.com, and was posed to the discussion in which it appears in response to a story at the following address: http://www.sltrib.com/news/1988340-155/2-men-get-prison-in-mormon; the material in quotation marks quotes the poster to whom I was responding:
“The point is that mockery, sarcasm and satire jars people from their sheltered mental space and, yes, upsets them. Change doesn’t come about from people being satisfied and comfortable.”
You may well be right that change may not come about by dint of people being satisfied and comfortable, but if all people on any side of an issue do is throw verbal and rhetorical bombs, any needed change isn’t any more likely to come about. I think, in general, that people are more effective in countering propositions with which they disagree if they can imagine at least one universe (however unlikely its actual existence) in an infinite number of possible universes in which things might actually be as a rhetorical opponent posits that they are, rather than beginning from a standpoint that no reasonable person possibly could see the world as one’s rhetorical opponent does. And I think the best satire comes when its creator begins with an effort to see the world as the people or institutions he’s satirizing do. There’s a fine line between satire and pure mockery, and I think many people believe they’re engaging in the first when they’re actually engaging in the second.
If you feel you must satirize my religion (or even if you feel you must out-and-out mock it), as much as I feel your time and effort would be better spent in other pursuits, I can take it. If you happen to be a citizen of, or to reside in, the United States, U.S. law pretty much guarantees you the right to say what you want to say, about whatever subject; it does not, however, guarantee you a forum or a captive audience. Alas, there are only so many hours in a day, there are limits to human perception and cognition, and my interests and pursuits are many and varied, so I’m not apt to feel myself obligated to pay you much attention, if-and-when you do.
For a much more pointed disagreement regarding the worth of satire in general; about the worth of Charlie Hebdo’s commentary, in particular; and about the virtue of free speech regardless of what’s being said, about what, and how, see Arthur Chu’s commentary here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/09/trolls-and-martyrdom-je-ne-suis-pas-charlie.html. Chu writes in part:
Let’s be real about what Charlie Hebdo is. Calling it “journalism” isn’t quite right. Even the term “satirical newspaper” puts it on the same level as The Onion, which isn’t very fair to The Onion, which strives for at least some degree of cleverness and subtlety, most of the time.
As I have, Chu, too, mentions Parker and Stone, among others. I don’t go as far as Chu does in his condemnation of Charlie Hebdo, but that excerpt does articulate well some of the potential pitfalls I see in attempting successfully to walk the fine line between satire and pure mockery. I wonder how much of a role differences in culture play in one’s tolerance for satire (as well as in the type of satire one prefers). Perhaps the tastes of the French, and of Europeans in general, explain Chu’s (and, to a lesser extent, my) reservations, as compared to French and European tolerance.
All of this having been said, I realize that there is no direct analogue or equivalent in French law to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Still, what terrorists, in France and elsewhere, will never understand (but what I fervently believe, and what I believe most Americans do, as well as many others in other parts of the world) is that the “cure” for speech with which I disagree (or with which anyone else disagrees) is not bombs, gunfire, mayhem, and murder, but rather (ironic as it may seem) more speech.
As I have written elsewhere on the Blog (the whole post can be accessed here: https://greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/a-perhaps-incongruous-post-on-flag-burning-in-honor-of-flag-day/): “As a sometime journalist and somewhat-more-frequent Blogger, I’m a big fan of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. I like the freedom to expound on nearly whatever subject I choose, and to say almost whatever I want, about most anything I want, without undue government interference.”
If anyone ever threatens to kill me for something I have written (or for any other reason) and orders me to kneel before executing me, I like what Charlie Hebdo’s (now-deceased; he was among those killed yesterday) editor, Stephane Charbonnier (aka “Charb”), told the French press after the periodical’s offices were similarly attacked in 2012: “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”