Charlie Hebdo, satire and malicious misreading

The Paris killings have been discussed so widely and relentlessly that I didn’t intend to add my voice with yet another blogpost but I’ve found myself so busy on multiple Facebook threads that I thought I should pull my thoughts together here.

I’ve been genuinely alarmed by some of the responses to the killings. Not the Islamophobic ones which demanded that ordinary muslims prove themselves by condemning the murders. As a white man who is never, ever asked to stand up and condemn crimes by white men, I think they’re insulting, intimidating and absurd, but I expected those.

My disappointment is with a number of voices on the left who, in the days after the massacre, raced to talk about everything except the fact that people had been murdered by religious fanatics because of cartoons. It’s not irrelevant that the gunmen had been radicalised by crimes such as the Iraq war and Abu Ghraib, or that Islamophobia is a growing problem, or that the world leaders who marched in Paris were all, to varying degrees, hypocrites when it comes to protecting freedom of speech. (In fact, I think that this is an important opportunity to examine and address those hypocrisies.) But I did get itchy reading articles that wanted to talk about everything except the main event, as if to condemn the gunmen without qualification was somehow to play into the hands of Islamophobes and sabre-rattlers.

I like the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” because it suggests simple solidarity with victims of an appalling crime. Friends who reject it, and the numerous columnists who have said “Je ne suis pas Charlie”, believe that it means more than that — unreserved endorsement of Charlie Hebdo’s content — although, given that the magazine has been running since 1970, with countless staff members and contributors over the years, I find this assumption bizarre. I don’t need to rubber-stamp every page before I can voice my solidarity. Every publication that I read or write for has published some material I vigorously disagree with but I would stand by every single one in a case as extreme as this. Still, each to their own interpretation. Nobody should feel bullied into supporting a slogan.

What I found really hard to swallow was the number of people who, after the obligatory “Of course this is a shocking crime but…” opener, confidently described Charlie Hebdo as racist, including Richard Seymour (“a racist institution”), Jacob Canfield (“incredibly racist”) and Gawker’s Maria Bustillos (“trafficked in hateful images and ideas that often tracked uncomfortably closely with the ultragarbage peddled by the fascistoid National Front”). I’ll take it as read that nobody thinks even the most vile drawings deserve to be punished with gunfire but branding them racists so quickly, with so little evidence, is no small matter. No wonder that the French left, to which Charlie Hebdo belonged, has been shocked by some of its anglophone comrades throwing the magazine under the bus.

These claims were backed up by examples of Charlie Hebdo’s work, presented as if they were self-explanatory. Cartoons aimed at a small audience intimate with minor episodes in French politics were being wrenched out of context and held up as racist by people outside France who had no way of understanding what the cartoons were referring to. Charlie Hebdo’s provocative, impacted, in-crowd style makes it very easy to misread if you weigh in before taking time to check the facts.

When I first saw the Boko Haram panel that cartoonist Tom Humberstone cites as a straightforward example of “punching down”, I thought it was inexplicably offensive so I wanted to find out what the hell it was trying to say. It is in fact pointing out the hypocrisy of French conservatives condemning Boko Haram’s mistreatment of kidnapped girls while trying to remove welfare benefits from refugees seeking asylum in France. The pro-welfare magazine is lampooning the myth that vulnerable migrants are “welfare queens”, not cosigning it. (Vox’s Max Fisher explains it well here, comparing it to the New Yorker’s controversial 2008 Obamas cover, which also appears racist if you don’t know the background. Worth noting that Ricochet’s Leigh Phillips has yet another reading: “a clunky ‘first-world problems’ commentary on complaints over the French government restricting child benefits for top earners, suggesting that rich French people really have nothing to complain about compared to people’s travails in northeast Nigeria.”)

Likewise, the cartoon depicting Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey horrified me until I learned that it was an attack on the National Front politician who made that comparison, the National Front being Charlie Hebdo’s favourite target.

Now you could argue, and I would, that using racist caricatures in the service of an anti-racist message is self-defeating and offensive, and that the magazine should have thought a lot harder about it depicted muslims and black people. (The closest comparison in music would be the Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia. Satirising the mindset of privileged white college students, Jello Biafra included the line, “Bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold.” He soon decided that the ugliness of that word undermined the song and changed the line in all subsequent performances.) But you owe it to the dead cartoonists to understand their intent before crying racist.

On one level, this is just bad reading. Rule one of satire is that if something looks extremely objectionable at first glance then there’s a fair chance that it’s critiquing those objectionable attitudes. Jello Biafra didn’t really want to kill the poor and Randy Newman didn’t truly despise short people. Worse than that, it betrays a willingness to assume the worst and believe that Charlie Hebdo was the kind of magazine that mocked kidnapped Nigerians or compared black people to monkeys. When we’re talking about murder victims, such bad faith is deeply insulting and is a travesty of left-wing values.

As Leigh Phillips’ writes: “These otherwise well-meaning but non-French-speaking knights-in-social-media-armour have embarrassed themselves by spouting off about things they know not quite enough about. This is not clear-headed thinking. This is not leftist or anti-racist thinking.”

You don’t have to like these cartoons. I find many of them, like 90% of political cartoons to be frank, neither funny nor revealing. And as a fairly laidback British atheist, I struggle to understand the ferocity of French anti-clericalism. But even the ones depicting Mohammed (vastly outnumbered by those attacking the National Front and the French establishment) have a range of tones and targets that make a simple “punching up versus punching down” binary impossible. If you attack muslims en masse, you are punching down. If you attack extremists, some of whom run countries, you are punching up. In a single-panel cartoon, the difference is not always clear.

What the academic Danah Boyd calls “context collapse” is the root of a thousand Twitterstorms. When comments or jokes intended for one audience are read by another the misreadings can be dramatic. Sarcasm and ambiguity don’t travel well. This is a hazard of our age but when the people whose work we’re analysing have been gunned down, surely the least we can do is to take the time to understand what they were trying to say.


  1. Spot on.

  2. thank you Dorian, spot on! I had battles with “friends” for days, they just dont get it, or dont want to? I have been reading Charlie since 1993 and the response has been baffling.. My general theory is that many people do not feel comfortable with standing side by side with world leaders, including Hollande, Cameron and others like Netanyahu for example, and as a reaction against the hypocrisy and the blatant appropriation, and its far simpler, then threw them all in the same bag. nice one! M

    Date: Fri, 16 Jan 2015 14:01:46 +0000 To:

  3. Really good piece.

  4. Thanks for writing this.

    My friend who grew up in Paris and used to read Charlie Hebdo as a teenager posted a CH cartoon about animal rights on her Facebook page as a tribute (according to her the editor of CH was a big animal rights activist). Someone else assumed it was about Muslims (thinking that the cartoon butcher was an imam) and accused her of islamophobia. The offended person didn’t speak French and knew very little about Charlie Hebdo before the attack.

    It all got very nasty very quickly.

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