With Apologies to Evelyn Beatrice Hall or #JeSuisCharlie
by Umapagan Ampikaipakan and Ezra Zaid
On Wednesday, thugs with guns attempted to coerce us into silence. Driven by outrage, by ideology, by a complete absence of culture and civilisation, they killed with the kind of conviction that can only be described as religious.
In its aftermath came the usual paeans to freedom of expression. Because in times of great tragedy, it is of the utmost importance to state — and restate — the obvious. That it is fundamental. That from it stems all human achievement. That to defend it requires both courage and unswerving commitment.
We have, for far too long, been taught to tread with the utmost care, to watch everything we do, or say, or write, or draw. That we should beware as even the most innocuous utterance can be interpreted as offensive, the most benign drawing, the most harmless turn of phrase. We have been sanitised by political correctness and we have been castrated by fear of persecution. We take pride in a misplaced sense of moderation that has thus far failed to speak to who we are or what we want as a society.
And even as we call out Voltaire’s name, we do so in vain. “I defend your right despite my disagreements. I defend your right despite your apparent crimes. I defend your right, but…, I defend your right only because murder trumps insult.”
There remains a disingenuousness to our hesitant and conditional support towards freedom of expression.
To put the blame of what happened in Paris on the cartoonists and their cartoons is to blame the rape victim for what she’s wearing. Claims that the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo are xenophobic and racist is to distract from the discourse that satire shouldn’t just be protected, it should be defended. Claims that the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo are xenophobic and racist stems from a serious lack of understanding as to the function and form of satire.
If freedom of expression is indeed fundamental, then satire is it’s highest calling. Great satire is a mirror. It possesses both an intimate knowledge of its subject and a deep understanding of its motivations. Satire, more so than any other form of expression, lies in accordance with fact, with reality. Only stretched to an illogical extreme. It is overstated, overblown, and overdone. And that is precisely what makes it such a powerful and persuasive force. It is part of a necessary and healthy process of reconciling things that would have once be held as taboo.
And what if you’re on the receiving end of it? Beyond that sense of sharp discomfort — usually offendedness and insecurity — there lies a cathartic process that allows us to meaningfully overcome and address those fears.
Satire is meant to cause discomfort. It is mean to provoke. It is meant to offend. It is meant to push the envelope. To take gospel and question it. To censure our behaviour, to highlight our individual iniquities, follies, abuses, and shortcomings. It is the responsibility of satire to remind us that nothing is sacred. To question our every belief, to shine a spotlight on our frailties, on our prejudices, on our deepest, darkest, thoughts and desires. To bring them out into the open in the most aggressive fashion and force us to face them. Not just to make us laugh, but make us think.
If freedom of expression is indeed fundamental, then satire is its highest calling. Of late, we have seen it manifest through cartoon strips as well as in a major Hollywood film. Not all satire is elegant. There is plenty of satirical work out there that isn’t written with the wry wit and intelligence the form deserves. And to that, you may criticise, you may carp at, you may censure. But your critique should stop at calls to censor. Because even if these cartoons fall short of those ideals, and however much we disapprove of it, satire must be preserved. Because, at the end of the day, words and images are not immoral. Because free speech is not murder, and murder is not a valid critique.