Satire along the lines of French cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo’s pointed scoffing has always been associated with lethality. In fact, the very purpose of satire is to slay sacred cows, i.e., authoritarian ideologies that often bring life and liberty into grave peril. We ridiculed communism, we ridiculed fascism and we continue to ridicule religious fanaticism in all of its forms. And that is justly so, because in a free society, one is not bound by the strictures of others’ gods.
But aside from the universal agreement on freedom of expression, the tradition of satire in the United States greatly differs from the type of satire found on the pages of Charlie Hebdo. In fact, to the American sensibility, some of the images depicted on the pages of Charlie Hebdo appear boorish, obscene and, quite frankly, disrespectful. Many of them seem like outright insults and, without a punch line, not funny at all. I would argue that is because Americans differ in their historical and philosophical orientation toward religion. Our country was in large part founded upon Calvinism, a Protestant tradition that, aside from its particular cultural influence on American life, was most notable for its repudiation of centralized religious authority. America, unlike Europe, has never had a tradition of state-sponsored religion. In fact, religion has been so thoroughly cleansed from the facade of public life in America that a future society combing through the remnants of American civilization might proclaim us a faithless culture.
We’ll leave that debate for another day, but the point is that Americans, unlike Europeans, do not have an inherent fear of religious authority. We do not have a history of centuries of religious persecution carried out by the organs of the state. And even more importantly, America, unlike Europe, does not have a history of state-sponsored religious corruption. And that is where the significance of the Charlie Hebdo caricatures really hits home among fanatical Islamists. In fact, an al-Qaeda–sponsored group claiming ultimate responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack posted a video message on YouTube shortly afterward which read, in part, paraphrasing the Quran, “truly we [have] sufficed you against the scoffers.”
One of the major features of satire, particularly caricature-based satire, is to paint a picture of ideological hypocrisy. Depicting the prophet or the pope or a rabbi in a sexually explicit pose certainly rankles the sensibilities of the average person. After all, the rules of civility often dictate that we tread respectfully upon ground that others hold sacred. But when religion is used as an excuse to abuse, oppress, rape, torture and kill en masse, it has become corrupted and should be exposed and ridiculed for its hypocrisy.
Of course, Islamic extremists are likely to wince in pain when a French magazine mercilessly pierces the soft underbelly of rape, torture and murder that belies the hard exterior of ideological purity that these groups like to spout. It is one thing to have a society in which alcohol is outlawed and violators of strict laws against adultery are regularly subjected to public humiliation. But the purity falls apart when women are raped with impunity and sold into slavery as spoils of war. Certainly, Islam is not the only religion with a vulnerable underbelly of vice and corruption, far from it, but radical Islamists seem particularly humorless and impervious to self-reflection in this regard.
When ideological purity is forced at the point of the sword, there is little or no wiggle room for dissent. Any idea that conflicts with the party line is met with instant recrimination. When the alternatives are obey or die, any difference of opinion becomes a de facto act of violence.
The editors at Charlie Hebdo understood that the pen becomes a bullet. Their goal was to provoke a reaction, and they were not naive about the implications. And that’s why they are true martyrs for freedom. And so, while we may not be willing to use their crude language in polite company, the writers at Charlie Hebdo have forced our hand as a society. We have no choice but to vociferously defend their right to speak freely, even if it angers and incenses violent extremists.
We will not coddle, we will not side-step, we will not walk on eggshells for fear of ruffling fundamentalist feathers. Doing so would create a dangerous precedent that would have monstrous implications for our society. Imagine a return to the ages of ignorance, when if a religious authority says it’s dark at noon, everyone fawningly agrees and starts stumbling into each other.
The precaution that we must take in this stance is to avoid becoming ideologues ourselves. Of course we must defend the right to speak freely, even the right to engage in speech designed to offend others. But we must never become a society that advocates hate, disrespect or slander. Furthermore, we must remain open as a society to dissent, to new ideas, to new discoveries. We must welcome and embrace cultural differences and find value in our fellow human beings, no matter what their race, religion, color or creed. These are the hallmarks of a free society, and we must not allow the extreme actions of a few to cause us to close ourselves off to the abundant fruits of enlightenment.
Williams is sole/owner manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American Currentsee magazine.