Saturday, January 10, 2015

IN THE NEWS: THE "CHARLIE HEBDO" MAGAZINE, VOLTAIRE'S LEGACY, & THE PURPOSE OF SATIRE


Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. 
- Voltaire

I contemplated whether or not to comment on this tragedy, and how to tread carefully, because this is not the purpose of the blog. However, it's a place to express whatever I happen to want to express, significant or not, offensive or otherwise, and in the context of being a writer and an author, it feels dismissive not to speak up. It's difficult to stave off reactionary responses about the woes of organized religion in general, much less the extreme ideologies some twist their religions into, never mind the talk about failures of assimilation and the dark side of strained multiculturalism. But, I will try.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was thinly veiled in the "Muslim outrage" of the magazine's ongoing, audacious caricaturing of the prophet Mohammed. Yet, it was, first and foremost, an attack on the values the Western world holds dear and has fought (semi)hard to maintain. New York and the twin towers were a symbol of free market economy, prosperity, worth, profit, and couldn't have been a better target for people wanting to denounce all of the above. Paris and the offices of Charlie Hebdo were a symbol, a cornerstone of a unique brand of freedom of expression that is exclusive to and is the basis of French nationalism, history, and pride. It dates back not just to the revolution, but also to the age of enlightenment.

At the helm of this tradition of wit, humor, and defiance was none other than Voltaire himself. He was a staunch critic of all religions, questioning Christianity in texts such as La Bible Enfin Expliquée, Islam in Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophète, and everything else under the sun in Traité sur la Tolérance and the comprehesive Dictionnaire Philosophique. He was concerned with how personal beliefs moulded collective morality, class structure, as well as social, judicial, and political institutions. For his musings, he was thrown in the Bastille, later exiled, his works at once printed and systematically banned. He was a pain in the arse, a troublemaker in an era of stringent censorship. He remained unfazed. He continued to write. Call him the thrice-great grandfather of Charlie Hebdo. In that sense, Voltaire is the face of France, a France that should not be expected to change every fiber of its being to appease an ever growing handful of radical impostors.

As for the purpose of satire, the best and most skillful satire is extremely provocative and engages debate. It is, without a doubt, always offensive, the only variant is to what degree. The satirist's job is to provoke. Specifically, to provoke thought, not senseless, cowardly violence. There is no such thing as inoffensive satire. I'd go as far as to say there is no inoffensive humor, because the premise of a joke is to undermine something or someone. There cannot be any social, political, cultural, or religious taboo, otherwise, the very definition of satire ceases to exist. A joke is simply a hyperbolic variation of the truth. We laugh, because we know it's true. We cry, get angry, because we know, even if subconsciously, that it is true. This is also precisely why satire, and humor in general, are the first things to go in totalitarian states. From Hitler to Stalin to Chavez to Kim Jong-un, the first liberty they banished was the freedom of the people to mock those in charge, those who adorn themselves with divine status, a status that goes "poof!" as soon as someone points to it and laughs. Satire makes these figures human again, and that is terrifying, because it gives the power back to the people. We are not afraid of those we can laugh at. Charlie Hebdo remains unafraid.

We must remember, today it's the prophet, tomorrow the Pope, next day the government, then something so trivial as the color of my shirt. Untreated, the ideology of restriction will snowball. If one is in the mood to be offended, anything and everything will eventually serve as a trigger. Anybody, who is this threatened by humor, a pen, and some paper is incredibly insecure in his beliefs and is, in fact, threatened by nothing more than truth.

Adieu, Wolinski, Tignous, Cabu, et Charb, mais n'arrêtez jamais de dessiner.

No comments:

Post a Comment