Honor Charlie Hebdo victims with more satire, not less
Satire is, by its very definition, offensive. Satire makes fun of someone or something else. It doesn’t matter if it’s a religion, a political figure, a business magnate, or a celebrity. Somebody somewhere is going to get his or her knickers in a twist.
But after the killing of 12 people at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the right of journalists to publish satire — indeed, to publish any kind of free expression — is more important than ever.
Charlie Hebdo has been described as a cross between Mad Magazine, Playboy cartoons, and the Daily Show. Over its 45-year history, it has probably offended most of the world’s religions at one time or another. “Provocative,” “crude,” and “controversial” are the most common adjectives used to describe it. Its cartoons can be the kind that might make you think, “I can’t believe they had the nerve to publish that.” Except you might be laughing too hard — and you might wish you had thought of it first.
My French is not good enough to understand all of the words accompanying the cartoons. Yet the drawings themselves communicate their messages to even those of us who are second language-challenged.
In 1988, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of Hustler magazine — not a publication anyone would ever describe as being in the best taste — to publish parody without fear of reprisal. In 1983, it had published a parody piece about a fundamentalist preacher, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, having sex with his mother in an outhouse. (“Not in the best taste” is an understatement here, and I won’t go into the details. Look it up yourself if you want to. And yes, it’s pretty funny.) Falwell, as one might imagine, objected and sued for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The invasion of privacy claim was dismissed — Falwell was, after all, a public figure — and the case went to trial on the other two counts. A jury ruled in favor of Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt on the claim of libel, saying the parody could not “reasonably be understood as describing actual facts about [Falwell] or actual events in which [he] participated” but ruled in Falwell’s favor on the issue of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Falwell was awarded $150,000 by the jury, and an appellate court upheld the decision.
But the Supreme Court overturned that decision. “At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern,” the court said in its opinion. “The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty — and thus a good unto itself — but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.”
I can empathize with Muslims who feel offended when a cartoon is published suggesting an image of the prophet Mohammed. Islam teaches that there should never be any images of the prophet. But feeling offended can never, ever transfer into the right to kill anyone. It cannot be overstated: That is NOT what Islam teaches.
Charlie Hebdo Editor-in-chief and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier was no shrinking violet when it came to offending people. “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees” is a quote that has been repeated widely since the shooting. And he brought an irreverent yet accurate attitude toward fundamentalism in all faiths. If anyone is offended by his satirical depictions of Mohammed or of any religion, he said in one interview, “Your God is very, very small, and your prophet is a midget.”