Have a look at Will Self’s stance on satire in the context of the events at Charlie Hebdo and join me on a thought experiment:
The paradox is this: if satire aims at the moral reform of a given society it can only be effective within that particular society; and furthermore only if there’s a commonly accepted ethical hierarchy to begin with. A satire that demands of the entire world that it observe the same secularist values as the French state is a form of imperialism like any other.
The same claim could be extended to what happened in Copenhagen just this past weekend by simply replacing “French” with “Danish” or “Swedish.”
If Will Self’s stance immediately reads like a leap of faith, you can listen to the full but short radio broadcast here and make up your own mind before continuing. There are far worse ways to spend 10 minutes of your life … and I am curious to hear what you think about Will Self’s claims. Differences in opinion are welcome, absolute truths (and bullets) are best left at the coat check.
If you haven’t read any of Will Self’s writings or listened to any of his public appearances, Will Self is both brilliant and, by his own admission, full of it. He is the man who likes to toss firecrackers into the faces of barbarians and who is the uninvited satirist gadfly himself. The self-styled psychogeographer who likes to walk for days on end. It’s entirely in character for Will Self to dust off terms commonly thought of as derogatory and to pin them to the bottoms of unsuspecting parties on the walk-by, justification attached. Even if you don’t care for the man, his work makes for an interesting read or listen.
Will Self’s broadcast condensed a certain sense of unease over the mass adoption of Je suis Charlie for me. What follows are my reasons, my thought experiment, for why I did not repost Je suis Charlie in solidarity with those whose lives were affected by the cowardly acts in Paris or Copenhagen. And lest there be any doubt, I do not condone what happened nor do I sympathize in the least with those who committed these acts.
To Will Self, satire as a means to reform runs afoul when it tries to effect change beyond the boundaries of what is morally acceptable, where what is morally acceptable is taken to mean the contingent or cultural character of what we deem right or wrong in a homogeneous group of people. In other words, my satire might work in my culture, but an attempt to scale up my satire to work for the whole world might very well yield something that does not work in your culture. When my satire does not work in your culture, it’s at best ineffective and at worst offensive, without being funny to make up for the offense.
Under this view, if you will accept my interpretation of what Self is saying, the satire of Charlie Hebdo is a form of militant irony that tries to overreach its cultural domain and … fails. It fails because, being predicated on a particular view of what is right and wrong, the attempt to scale up my satire to work for the whole world is attached, in some form, to a greater tradition that culminates in nation building. In other words, efforts that see one sovereign country invade another under the banner of some greater agenda of hegemony to replace one kind of regime with another. Or, as is the case here, it is an effort of one particular culture to bring about change in another, based on a particular secular set of moral values. (You won’t see this reference to nation building in the Will Self quote above, but it is in the radio broadcast. Listen to it yourself and make up your own mind.)
Let’s run with this thought about nation building and leave Will Self behind. You might argue that attempting to form a hegemonic sphere of influence shares an uncanny family resemblance with the kind of activity that might have motivated the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries and–if you squint hard enough–the invasion of two sovereign and predominantly Islamic nations in this century. The modern day crusade of the west against the terrorist of the east, in other words.
The answer from Charlie Hebdo, of course, has been to embrace the good humour of Saint Lawrence and to shout “Turn me over – I am done on this side.” All is forgiven. If you don’t know him for anything other than a street address or a waterway in Canada, Saint Lawrence suffered an altogether unpleasant, torturous death on a grid iron in the year 258. His request to be turned over halfway through his ordeal on the fire sometimes makes him the patron saints of comedians, with that funny but unfunny kind of laughter that gets stuck in the back of your throat. His death is strongly reminiscent of a very similar event of utterly inhumane torture recently broadcast with glee online by those who think they are in the right to mete out this kind of punishment in 2015. 1757 years–one thousand seven hundred and fifty-seven years–later, and we’re still at it. Martyrdom. All is forgiven, and the magazine continues its publication.
My interpretation of this wild maelstrom of imagery and human screams is that Will Self is right, to some extent. Support for Je suis Charlie spread like wildfire in the days after the shootings and continues to be a significant trend of current internet activity. But in the haste of everyone to declare that I, too, am Charlie, we have lost sight of an important point: There is a limit to free speech to effect change, satirically or otherwise. This is not a limit that you hide behind because it is a law, either freedom of speech or blasphemy laws restricting the same. Cultural hegemony, whether its a crusade or the casual sticking of needles into the side of your conversation partner, makes for poor dialogue. If you want a dialogue, talk to your opponent; if you think there is no dialogue to be had, bomb ’em to oblivion or send a gunman? To what effect?
It is interesting that in the days after the attack at Charlie Hebdo, copies of Voltaire’s treatise on religious tolerance started flying off the shelves again. At face value, this looks like a beacon of hope, a nod towards tolerance, but the phenomenon might be reactive rather than reconciliatory. Voltaire was no friend of major organized religion, Christianity and Islam included, and he strongly embraced secular values. For Voltaire to enjoy a renaissance among adult readers in France really might just mean the reaffirmation of certain familiar, secular values to the exclusion of others. A comforting, collective pat on your own back within your own culture is hardly tolerance.
Satire, when it tries to reach across incommensurate cultural boundaries, is a reaffirmation of division and divisiveness, not an effort towards dialogue, reconciliation, and change. It might be a fool’s errand on the slow boat to
China Ar-Raqqah to think otherwise. Among the chorus of the many voices in support of Je suis Charlie, there were also always those that condoned or even applauded the attacks, neatly divided along cultural identities. To ignore or dismiss this applause out of hand is to turn a blind eye to the other side, which is exactly the kind of habitual reaction that prevents reconciliation. As far as change goes, cartoonists will continue to pay, the public will continue to be appalled, and nothing will get resolved, as celebrations of the status quo are disguised under the banner of free speech.