The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is once more at the center of a storm of controversy over the cover cartoon they posted in response to the recent Houston floods. Much of the anger and enmity the picture has caused is due to a misunderstanding of the nature of satire and, in particular, of the especially acerbic brand of political and religious satire in which the magazine specializes.
Many people have been reading the cover caption as a simple statement of editorial opinion. It’s not. That’s not how satire works. The caption is, in fact, deeply sarcastic, i.e. what it states at face value is the opposite of what its authors really believe. Most of us can detect this type of sarcasm easily in everyday situations. When someone rolls their eyes and says “yeah, right” in response to a remark we don’t take this to mean they wholeheartedly endorse what was said. Satire begins there. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Here’s some important background to this particular case. As reports of the Houston floodings came in, some commentators on social media expressed the opinion, politely, that there was a “dramatic irony” in Texas being struck by a natural disaster, given that the state voted for Trump, that it is a “red” state or that the Texan legislature refused to vote for additional relief funds after Hurricane Sandy. Some even hinted that perhaps the Houstonians “deserved” it. These opinions, expressed in mealy-mouthed ways, cautiously hedged about with disclaimers, might have sounded speciously correct to an incautious ear. But, in fact, the idea that innocent people “deserve” to suffer a natural disaster is no different, fundamentally, from the rantings of religious maniacs who claim that hurricanes or floods are caused by the legalization of gay marriage or by our “ungodly” liberal lifestyles. This kind of sickening victim-blaming usually comes from the loony religious fringe of the right. It was all the more dismaying to hear it from the mouths of liberals. But it’s the same faeces, lightly perfumed with a different scent. The Charlie Hebdo editors merely lifted the lid of the latrine and showed us how much it stank.
What Charlie Hebdo did was translate what these people were really saying into the starkest of statements, one which revealed their despicable hypocrisy. Satire often does this. As Shakespeare famously puts it, it “holds … the mirror up to nature, shows virtue her feature, scorn her own image and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” It reveals human nature in all its grotesquery, stripping away the veneer of civility, removing the fig leaves of euphemism, showing us reflected in all our grinning, naked ugliness. It reveals us to ourselves, at our worst.
The way this kind of satire does this is through a form of ventriloquism. This is something we find easy to spot when an actor is the one voicing the satire. No one mistakes the things said by Alec Baldwin as he portrays Trump on Saturday Night Live for Baldwin’s own opinions. In writing, this trick is a little harder to perceive. People are more inclined to take the written or printed word at face value. They find it harder to detect an ironic tone.
In 1729, satirist Jonathan Swift published a slender treatise called A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick. Swift impishly suggested that Irish families who were starving under English colonial rule should sell their children as a culinary delicacy for their rulers’ tables. Many people believed he was serious and were outraged at the cruelty of this. But Swift’s Proposal was, of course, never intended as a serious suggestion. The English occupation of Ireland was a dark period of history. Swift’s work parodies the many well-meaning and condescending suggestions as to how the Irish poor might better themselves which, in their hypocrisy, always failed to address the real problem: colonial exploitation. The Charlie Hebdo cover is satire of a similar kind.
This Swiftian form of satire is always liable to misunderstandings. That is a built-in side effect of its main characteristic: its proximity to real people’s genuine, earnest opinions. The comic Veedu Vidz provides another striking example of this form of satire. His video “5 Reasons why I Support Blasphemy Laws” is so close to what a conservative Islamic cleric might say and yet so subtly ludicrous that viewers accustomed to satire usually find it quite hilarious. The comments section, however, is almost as darkly funny as the video itself, though unintentionally so. Most commentators take Vidz literally. As a result, responses alternate between “Allah be praised, brother, you are a true believer!” and “you disgusting Muslim scum, go back to Pakistan” — from people who take his words at face value and are correspondingly pleased or disgusted by them. This tendency of political satire to skirt dangerously close to reality is both its weakness and its strength. Its susceptibility to misreadings is a side effect of its power. It lures the reader in with apparent reasonableness and, just as we are nodding along sagely, we realise we have been made fools of and our ideas are preposterous or morally bankrupt. Great satire therefore often teeters on the brink of, as Christopher Ricks puts it, “what it would have been if it hadn’t been satire.”
Satire is designed to shock us, to jolt us out of our smug complacency, to tease out our, the readers’, hypocrisies. This is not a comfortable experience. It’s not meant to be. Nor is it necessarily meant to be funny in the sense of provoking laughter. Satire is often a way of transmuting anger, disgust and horror into art. This type of satire tends to address the ugliest subjects: rape, murder, tragedy. That is the point of it. How can Veedu Vidz mock blasphemy laws when people are tortured, executed, beaten to death over blasphemy? That’s precisely why he should laugh at them. Hypocrites, fascists, murderers, rapists and thugs: they all deserve our harshest mockery. A cartoon of Catholic priests gleefully gang raping an altar boy may sicken you. But in fact what is really sickening is not the drawing, it’s what it represents: the Catholic Church’s shameful record of condoning child abuse.
We don’t usually feel grateful to satirists for exposing this kind of ugliness. In fact, throughout history, they have generally been hated and feared. There is often something heroic in their willingness to face the opprobrium and sometimes even threats of violence that may come. And few have shown more heroism in this regard than the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Faced with the likelihood of his violent death, Hebdo’s now deceased editor, Charb, refused to be silenced. In 2012, before the infamous Charlie Hebdo attacks which claimed his and 11 of his colleague’s lives in 2015, he said: “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”
When faced with satire that makes you feel angry and upset, acknowledge those feelings. But then send them in the proper channel. Direct them not at the satirists but at their targets and at the bankrupt morality and the corrupt, hypocritical society that allows evil to thrive.