Charlie Hebdo: In praise of outrage

The kind of humour practiced by Charlie Hebdo has no equivalent in the English-speaking world. They did not care if its satire offended governments, the pope, the clergy, Islam, the police or the army. While it has received international attention for its satire of Islam and religious extremism, nobody has been spared by its vitriolic humour. People who have read reports about it in the English-speaking press may have perceived it as a xenophobic outlet, but it wasn’t. The Front National and the rants of Michel Houellebecq were as likely to be their target as the taliban. What it fought for was the right to criticize and ridicule anybody in a position of power or authority, a stance with a long tradition in France, as well explained by Art Goldhammer here. That’s basically why its forerunner, Hara Kiri, was closed down (or rather banned from sales to minors and publicity) by the French government when it dared make fun of the death of Charles de Gaulle (“Bal tragique à Collombey. Un mort”). Some of it was tasteless, but it took a great deal of courage to face the government and fundamentalists in such an upfront way. It fought for the right for any institution, religion or country to be criticised and ridiculed equally. Some say that they were going too far, but sometimes you need people who are ready to go far to test the limits of democracy and prevent it from shrinking. There is no real equivalent in Britain or in America because many media outlets are obsessed by the fear of offending anyone or anything, for fear of retaliation, accusations of racism or lawsuits for libel. It is quite telling that no British newspaper has dared publish any of the front covers of Charlie Hebdo, even those that did not concern Islam.

In general, those that criticise political correctness and the “PR brigade” usually do so as an excuse to utter xenophobic or misogynistic opinions whose ultimate goal is to censor those that are different from theirs. For instance, Nigel Farage claims the right to say the most outrageous things about immigrants, but then criticises their right to speak their own language on trains. However, very few people or outlets actually assume the egalitarian stance that Charlie Hebdo adopted (and hopefully will continue to adopt in the future), that is, to say “screw you” to everyone and dare to say anything about anybody. They adhered to what Max Weber called the “ethics of conviction” (do what you believe in notwithstanding the consequences”) rather than the “ethics of responsibility” (consider the consequences even if it means betraying your ideals). Many people in Britain adhere to the second. This is because in Britain in particular, any little insignificant word or stance will be taken as a potential offense against one or the other group. Tottenham fans were to be denied the right to called *themselves* yids; the scientist who landed that device on a comet had to apologise because of his allegedly misogynistic shirt; Tintin comics are banned from the shelves because of their racist undertones that were common in the 1930s. Boris Johnson even said that the super-rich are an oppressed minority that shouldn’t be stugmatised. Everything has now become beyond the limits of what is acceptable to say.

However, this only concerns words, and not behaviours. Politically correct language has become a cover for the most abject policies in the areas of immigration and welfare, very often in the neutral, technical, inoffensive language of efficiency and fairness. Adolf Eichmann mostly described his work not in vivid ideological arguments, but in cold, technical words like quantities, solutions, efficiency. The fear of offensive words potentially leads to absurd situations, for instance when Jesse Jackson, a leading figure of the civil rights movement, is forced to apologise for using the word “nigger”. This creates a climate where the wrong people are stigmatised and the real issues are neglected (see Ferguson and white privilege) but also where the control over what we say (or draw) is exerted by those with the most extreme views, or those that want to impose their views on others. I am also a strong believer in the idea that self-censorship in words and images actually leads to the most deviant behaviours: what doesn’t come out often rots in the inside. For instance, I have always been amazed by US puritanism about swearwords and nudity not to offend children and family values, contrasting with gun violence and teenage pregnancy rates seen nowhere else in the advanced world. By respecting the moral authority of no-one, Charlie ensured the freedom of everyone. This was surely worth dying for.

2 responses to “Charlie Hebdo: In praise of outrage”

  1. Assertion  The kind of humour practiced by Charlie Hebdo has no equivalent in the English-speaking world.

    It’s a pleasure to acquaint you with Terminal Lance, and with Doctrine Man, and with their big brother The Duffel Blog.

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