Charlie Hebdo and The Wonder of Retrospect: One Week On

Jan 14 2015 BY Wolf McFarlane

After seven days of febrile moral tennis between journalists, bloggers and almost every Twitter user, the muggy online air is beginning to dissipate. Last Wednesday morning, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked in Paris, ultimately leaving over a dozen dead between then and Friday, when the episode reached its conclusion at a Kosher supermarket across the city, which itself claimed four hostages alongside the captors. The world reacted and counter-reacted for the following week. Sometimes it was encouraging, with all corners of social media steaming into the debate with understandable rage, engaging with all the nuances and implications of the sociopolitical fallout. However, it all too suddenly became an ugly affair of misinterpretation, side-taking and frank discussion was relegated to cyber-camps hurling condescension and sixth-form morality checks at one another. So what now?

Manual Valls, the French Prime Minister, described the attacks as betraying ‘clear flaws in intelligence’ – ostensibly quite a delicate analysis for a terrorist act of such gravity and domestic trauma. He was of course referring to ‘intelligence’ in the sense of national defence and security, but as Stephen Fry remarked with his idiosyncratically delightful turn of phrase, the attacks were indeed ‘imponderably, bowel-shatteringly dumb’ if taken as a means to any substantial end for what, at the time of writing, appears to be a Jihadist cause. Before the murders, Charlie Hebdo printed less than a hundred thousand copies per week. Now, the publication is circulating to an enormous degree, and will triumph statistically, blowing raspberries across the world with presumably the same gauche defiance as before. If you wanted to grab this week’s post tempestatem copy of Charlie Hebdo, you’d have had to wait around for five hours in the stiff Parisian chill.  Surely, the most insensible thing to do as a Jihadi terrorist with a vendetta driven by a deeply distorted interpretation of Islam would be to create more than a dozen secular martyrs that are now globally exalted. As far as I and most others in the West had been informed, martyrdom was the terrorist’s vogue, not the target’s. Can Wednesday morning’s murders really be reduced to rank idiocy and mindless bloodlust, rather than a violently stringent adherence to Islamic practice?

Most ran with this notion, or at least the notion that the attackers were not representative of Islam as a faith, and it is easy to see why – a sensible, progressive, highly defensible opinion that refuses to accuse anyone in society – by religious affiliation – other than the perpretators. Quite right too. But, in true Hegelian fashion, this very reasonable assertion – one that I remain a keen proponent of – developed quite quickly into a popular volley against the West, for overemphasising the supposed threat to free speech and expression as a means of facilitating heightened Islamophobia. The logical conclusion of this idea is presumably that the fresh atmosphere of jingoism and anti-everywhere-else would both send civilisation into a social regress and give greater cause for ‘the West’ to ramp up domestic surveillance tactics. Even though most higher-profile journalists were cautious to state this explicitly, it now looks a little like this is precisely what is happening; this week, David Cameron spoke rather sinisterly of the need for private communications to be accessible to the government and authorities ‘in extremis’ – what that constitutes was, unsurprisingly, not divulged. Before this revelation, however, some genuinely felt that Islam itself was ultimately to blame, most notably Rupert Murdoch, the omniscient wedge of human rubble that controls the truths of the world. He remarked that until the ‘Jihadist cancer’ is expunged from the faith, every Muslim must be held accountable, which I assume is similar to calling for the immediate arrest of every ocean organism on the planet because a stingray killed Steve Irwin. Murdoch was roundly condemned, and at the time of writing, the prevalent opinion is indeed that nobody but those pulling the triggers is to blame.

So what ought to become of satire? It began as the keynote issue following the massacre; immediately, the intellectual and political fight converged on freedom of expression.

Annoyingly, the political defence of free speech undermined meaningful support of satire, as the instinctive politicisation of things invariably does, and opened up the concept to jeers about hypocrisy and thinly-veiled racial ignorance. What began as a widely accepted ‘siege on free speech’ became disregarded as an excuse to deride an entire faith, an excuse to deride those who deride an entire faith, an excuse to deride those who deride those who- you get the point. The annoying thing about online media is that debates are seldom resolved because nobody runs out of paper.

This was then looped round, away from wider free speech and instead stapled firmly onto the common conception of satire. With a rich history not only in France (See the short-lived La Calotte, a publication among several others which was born of fervent anticlericalism in 1906) but across a world of establishment-centric dissent, satire is not something to be curtailed because of its tendency to brazenly snap the boundaries of decency in half. The #jesuischarlie message was always going to unintentionally excavate the magazine’s more wince-inducing illustrations, particularly those involving inelegant portrayals of Islam, Judaism and entire races throughout its history. This provocative batch of drawings naturally wrought a para-Charlie campaign, which condemned the killings as everybody did, but with it condemned what many misconstrued as Charlie Hebdo’s xenophobic, malicious nature. Admittedly, it is one of the cruder satirical publications available today, and it makes Britain’s fabulous Private Eye look like the Beano, but satire has taken much unwarranted flak for Charlie Hebdo’s chequered past, with a staggering portion of digital society referring to the magazine and ‘satire’ with depressing synonymity. Incidentally, most people seem content to suggest that all satire ought to be accountable and self-regulating to stop instances of bullying, majoritarian ridicule without so much as an atom of irony in their tone.

Satire was, is and shall remain vital. Charlie Hebdo is not a microcosm of the very essence of parody. Satire is not a single throbbing orb of malice, tearing into everything that enters its field of vision like a claymore mine. Actually, it has an almost endless number of branches, forms and demographics, and much of it is completely necessary. While I roundly disagree with the brutality and needless vitriol in some of Charlie Hebdo’s illustrations, it is so important to search beyond the selective evidence people can dredge up for the sake of antagonism (most of the magazine’s artillery has been spent on Marine Le Pen and the openly racist Front National party, who all but actually daub their party slogan with swastikas).

Generalisation tends to leave any debate on foundations trembling with intransigence and personal insults before it can find real meaning. Espousing free speech is not necessarily gratefully throwing a disguise over latent Islamophobia or racism, in the same sense that mindless terrorists with awful foresight do not bear the flag for a faith built more sturdily on peace and tolerance than several branches of Christianity. Basically, before you answer the question ‘retweet to your followers?’ ask a few more pertinent ones yourself.