By Joseph Orosco
This “heat map” shows the enormous use of the hashtag #jesuischarlie since Wednesday’s horrific attack by Al Qaeda in Yemen militants.
Clearly, the violence in Paris has shocked the conscience of many people and they have taken to social media to make their sympathy known.
And yet I’m hesitant to express my solidarity in this way. Its not that I don’t find the murders deplorable. I feel for the family and friends of the victims; but I have a hard time getting behind the work of this satirical journal, Charlie Hebdo.
In the past few days, some have been raising questions about the moral integrity of the journal’s work, arguing that their satire verges on racism, stereotypes of Muslims, and traffics in perpetuating Islamaphobia.
Defenders of Charlie argue that they are equal opportunities satirists– that they pick on everyone, including Christians, and not just on Muslims.
Others concede that the work of the journal tends to be disagreeable, but that Enlightenment liberal principles of free speech dictate that we must tolerate writings that are offensive. Indeed, as part of the expression of solidarity with the idea of free speech, newspapers around the world have been printing some of the cartoons that offended the militants.
Of course, offensive speech does not justify murder. But I think these two responses evade, rather than engage, the moral dimensions that surround satire.
The idea that a satirist deploying racist speech one group is acceptable as long they also deploy racist speech about other groups (or what I think of as the “South Park” response) seems misguided. An example of this kind of humor is found in the work of Lisa Lampanelli. (CW: use of racial slurs and racist stereotypes)
“Colorblind” or “equal opportunity” comedy ignores relationships of power and historical legacies of oppression. Using slurs against white people today that were used against Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, or Italians at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States does not have the same moral valence as using slurs against Latinos or African Americans. Those ethnic white groups have, using the terms of W.E.B. Du Bois, paid their “wages of whiteness” and transcended, for the most part, their racialized marginalization from dominant society. The tremendous uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement in the past few weeks is an indication of the fact that socially and materially speaking, African Americans are still not given equal regard in the US.
The second defense of absolute free speech (what I think of as the “Voltairean response”) also seems problematic. Simply, legal protections of non-interference from state power, those important principles of classical liberalism, do not shelter one from moral criticism. Its not a contradiction to say that Charlie Hebdon or Lisa Lampanelli should not be censored by the government, while also saying they are offensive, disgusting, and ought to be ignored, criticized, or subject to economic boycott by citizens, etc.
This Voltairean response really ignores some important lessons about rhetoric going back to Aristotle, namely, successful persuasive speech depends, in part, upon the speaker knowing well the audience and context of their speech. Meaning is more than just intention. Whether something is satire can depend on the communities interpreting the speech.
This reality is something that deeply troubled the comedian Dave Chappelle and apparently is part of the reason he left his popular television show in 2005. The Chappelle Show was known for outrageous comedy sketches that directly confronted racist stereotypes in ways that were funny, and often, unsettling. *As an aside, Anarres Project contributor Mark Naison was once featured on The Chappelle Show. Special kudos if you can tell us which sketch in the comments*. One of the skits that I think executes this brilliantly is “The Niggar Family“. (CW: ironic use of racial slurs against African Americans.)
Yet, Chappelle apparently became unsettled when it became unclear to him whether white people were laughing with him at the absurdity of the racist stereotypes, or they were laughing at him as he embodied the stereotypes of “coon” or “pimp” or “crackhead”. In other words, he wasn’t sure if he was challenging those stereotypes with his comedy, or reinforcing them, and the thought that he might be doing the latter was morally problematic enough for him that he walked away from a $50 million contract.
In the “The Niggar Family” skit, Chappelle’s character is able to cue the audience to the ironic use of the slur (at about 3:2o in the clip above) with the line: “This racism is killing me inside.” It is a line at the same time chilling and hilarious. Chappelle’s experience demonstrates how much hard work, and how morally complex, really good satire is in a way that is simply overlooked by the South Park and Voltairean responses. As Joe Sacco reminds us in his work about the attack, satire should not give us an easy way out of thinking about power and moral conscience.