August 20, 2019

Did Charlie Hebdo fail as satire?

Of the many things I've read about satire in the weeks since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, this point, from Tim Parks writing in the New York Review of Books strikes me as the most thoughtful and most true:

What does satire do? What should we expect of it? Recent events in Paris inevitably prompt these questions. In particular, is the kind of satire that Charlie Hebdo has made its trademark—explicit, sometimes obscene images of religious figures (God the father, Son, and Holy Spirit sodomizing each other; Muhammad with a yellow star in his ass)—essentially different from mainstream satire? Is it crucial to Western culture that we be free to produce such images? Do they actually work as satire?

Neither straight journalism nor disengaged art, satire alludes to recognizable contemporary circumstances in a skewed and comic way so as to draw attention to their absurdity. There is mockery but with a noble motive: the desire to bring shame on some person or party behaving wrongly or ignorantly. Its raison d’ȇtre over the long term is to bring about change through ridicule; or if change is too grand an aspiration, we might say that it seeks to give us a fresh perspective on the absurdities and evils we live among, such that we are eager for change.

Since satire has this practical and pragmatic purpose, the criteria for assessing it are fairly simple: if it doesn’t point toward positive change, or encourage people to think in a more enlightened way, it has failed. That doesn’t mean it’s not amusing and well-observed, or even, for some, hilarious, in the way, say, witty mockery of a political enemy can be hilarious and gratifying and can intensify our sense of being morally superior. But as satire it has failed. The worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizes prejudices, and provokes the very behavior it condemns. This appears to be what happened with Charlie Hebdo’s images of Muhammad.

None of this, however, should or could ever mean or suggest that any satirist — effective or not — deserves to die for his art. But as to whether Hebdo was “successful” at satire, whether it achieved the aim of satire, or simply, as Parks wrote, provoked some of the hatred it condemned, is a worthwhile question. The answer to that question, though, still could not negate their right to express it.