July 2016 Pulse
In 2011, Charlie Hebdo (CH) published a cover cartoon featuring three rolls of toilet paper, each labelled ‘Bible’, ‘Koran’ and ‘Torah’. In case the message is missed, the cartoon is accompanied by the headline ‘In the toilet, all the religions’ (French: ‘Auchiottes toutes les religions’).
In another cartoon, published in November 2012, the three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are depicted as sodomising each other. Mocking Cardinal Vingt-Trois, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, the headlines read: ‘Cardinal Vingt-Trois has three fathers’ (French: ‘Mgr Vingt-Trois a trios papas’).
CH repeatedly justifies its offensive cartoons in the name of ‘freedom of speech’, a prized ‘virtue’ in Western liberal democracies. In addition, CH seeks to escape blame by choosing a genre that it thinks will automatically accord it with unbounded liberties, namely, satire.
Although satire has been used to good effect by journalists, history has shown that its relationship with journalism is beset by problems and difficulties.
This is not because the goals of satire are irreconcilably at odds with those of journalism (in fact, their goals can be strikingly similar). Rather, it is because the use of satire can – and many times have – degenerate into sophomoric mockery that betrays its nobler purposes.
But what exactly is satire suppose to achieve? Satire draws attention to contemporary events and circumstances in a comic way in order to amplify their absurdity. It is a form of burlesque, but with a noble end in mind: to expose evil and to bring shame to people who have acted irresponsibly, offensively or ignorantly.
The purpose of satire is therefore to bring about positive social change. As Tim Parks, Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan, explains: ‘Its raison d’être over the long term is to bring about change through ridicule; or if change is too grand an aspiration, we might say that it seeks to give us a fresh perspective on the absurdities and evils we live among, such that we are eager for change’.
This means that a piece of satirical work has failed if it does not bring about positive change, encourage people to think in a more enlightened way or behave more responsibly.
Used wrongly or irresponsibly, satire can cause untold damage to society with the distortions and innuendos it suggests. As Parks put it: ‘The worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizes prejudices, and provokes the very behaviour it condemns.’
These are precisely the transgressions that CH has committed in the name of satire by publishing the irresponsible and offensive cartoons.
The scatological depiction of the sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam is not only disrespectful. It is demeaning and downright detestable. The same can be said for CH’s depiction of the Trinity. These satirical cartoons have failed to achieve the goals of satire because it is impossible to see how they can effect positive social change.
Instead, in publishing these cartoons, the fiercely secular and atheistic CH has revealed the ugly face of liberal intolerance and bigotry. To the millions of people around the world who have embraced the very religions that CH has reviled, these cartoons are surely hurtful, even hateful.
CH has certainly raised the question of the ethical responsibility of journalism vis-à-vis freedom of speech.
Responsible journalism must ensure that its reports and statements – regardless the genre in which they are presented – must always be at the service of truth. This, in part at least, means that distorting and damaging stereotyping must be scrupulously avoided. The journalists’ or the publication’s own biases and prejudices that might inspire such stereotyping must be checked.
In addition, ethically responsible journalism must try its best to minimize harm. This means manifesting sensitivity in its coverage by taking cognisant of social and cultural differences. But it also means treating people of faith and their religions respectfully, regardless of the personal convictions of journalists or the corporate philosophical and ideological commitments of the publication.
CH’s failure to abide by these fundamental principles is blindingly obvious.
But it should also be obvious that even in liberal democracies like France, freedom of expression is never and can never ever be absolute. No nation can survive for long if ‘freedom of speech’ is a principle so sacrosanct that any restrictions imposed on it is anathema and regarded as its unlawful violation.
Thus, in Italy and Germany, images that depict or even are suggestive of Fascism or Nazism are illegal. And, in CH’s France, denial of the Holocaust is a crime.
Freedom of speech, therefore, cannot be used by CH to defend their impunity. Neither can its cleverly coined self-description as Journal irresponsable (English: ‘irresponsible newspaper’) immunise it from criticisms about its ethics and practices.
In our increasing conflicted world, where factions and tensions continue to spread and fracture relationships resulting in civilizational clashes, the media can do much to inform and even to enlighten – that is, to offer fresh perspectives that expose our stubborn prejudices and challenge our biases.
Artful satire can be used to good effect to bring to light sinister pretensions and sordid and manipulative uses of power that often mar social and political life. It can help us to achieve a clearer and truer vision of our world and our collective responsibilities in it.
Satire can and should only be used in the service of truth.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of the Methodist Message.