How critics of Charlie Hebdo and provocative satire miss the mark

je suis charlie

By John Irwin

When Stephen Colbert mocked Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder on his show in March, it didn’t go over well in certain corners of the comedian’s left-leaning audience.

The joke Colbert told was simple: Snyder, in his never-ending quest to convince critics that the racial epithet his football team uses as a nickname isn’t actually a racial epithet, established a charity dedicated to providing aid to Native American communities nationwide. The problem? Snyder uses the racist term in the charity’s name — the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.

Colbert, in character as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” who claims to not see race, voiced his support for Snyder and showed solidarity with him by announcing the formation of the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” a charity bearing the name of the racist Asian caricature Colbert’s ignorant character occasionally portrayed. Colbert’s “charity” was a fictionalized, fun-house version of Snyder’s equally oblivious charity name and his increasingly twisted logic.

After the joke was tweeted, out of context, by The Colbert Report‘s Twitter handle the next day, however, a controversy ensued. A “#CancelColbert” mini-movement, spearheaded by activist Suey Park, took the social media site by storm, leading to Colbert deleting the show’s official Twitter account and addressing the controversy on his show in character.

The movement quickly faded away, and The Colbert Report was not canceled (although Park and others got their wish when Colbert ended his show last month to take over for David Letterman later this year).

And while it might have failed in its goals, the Cancel Colbert crowd succeeded in highlighting how many Western liberals who say they would unconditionally defend the ideal of free speech simultaneously seek to often shut down any speech that they find remotely offensive.

It’s that cognitive dissonance that is again on display in the wake of the horrific attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Twelve people, including three of the newspaper’s cartoonists, were killed in an attack carried out by Muslim extremists apparently seeking revenge for the newspaper running cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

The killings were universally condemned, but as was the case when Hebdo was firebombed in 2012, some have assigned at least part of the blame for the attacks on the newspaper itself, for having the gall to run provocative cartoons.

Take, for instance, a column by Tony Barber of the Financial Times:

Charlie Hebdo is a bastion of the French tradition of hard-hitting satire. It has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling Muslims. Two years ago the magazine published a 65-page strip cartoon book portraying the Prophet’s life. And this week it gave special coverage to Soumission (“Submission”), a new novel by Michel Houellebecq, the idiosyncratic author, which depicts France in the grip of an Islamic regime led by a Muslim president.

This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.

In other words, religious extremists should not murder people by whom they are offended. But we should make sure nobody offends them anyway.

Leaving aside questions about whether Hebdo is indeed a racist publication (I have never read it, but from what I understand, it seems to attack, often crudely, dogmatic thinking of any persuasion, be it religious, political or otherwise, and has often ridiculed the Islamophobia becoming more prevalent in Europe), liberals — and anyone else who says they support the ideals of freedom of speech and expression — should be defending its ability to exist as it already does.

The idea that one can defend the ideal of freedom of expression without defending it in practice is self-defeating.

Free expression exists, above all else fails, to protect offensive and provocative speech, and urging Hebdo, Colbert and other satirists and comedians to avoid topics or jokes that are potentially offensive to others serves to undermine that ideal.

Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.


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