After the deadly attack on the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo,”
one of the regular columnists for Handelsblatt Global Edition explores the limits of respect and satire in Western society.
Am I Charlie? “Yes!” is the spontaneous and passionate answer. The attack on a satire magazine leaving 12 people dead is a barbarous act of murder. It is an attack on one of the most important and hard-fought achievements of humanity. It’s dangerous to despots and not tolerated in many places around the world.
Freedom of speech, the ability to write and draw what we want, isn’t everything, but without it, everything else is nothing.
Of course, we welcome the outpouring of solidarity. The 4 million people who took part in commemorations along the Champs-Elysées and around the world – that was appropriate. People learn from catastrophe. Enemies can offer each other their hands, but often only over open graves.
The response from the Charlie Hebdo survivors was: “Now more than ever!” It was encouraging to be part of a culture that responds to violence with the pen and to religious fanaticism with spirit.
We are Charlie when pure violence attacks a magazine. We are Charlie when freedom is in jeopardy. However, we should not lose our ability to criticize. It would be a victory for the murderers when we gave the caricaturists and satirists from Charlie Hebdo a free pass out of mourning.
Satire is not an end in itself. That’s why it makes dictators and their lackeys so nervous. It drives self-proclaimed jihadists mad. It wants to provoke – not so much to let off steam, but to get people steaming.
Disrespectful parody is a time-honored tradition at Cologne’s annual Carnival parade. A float with a crucifix labeled with the name of a local puppet theatre character once caused an uproar.
A legal ruling made clear that even bad taste was protected by freedom of speech. But lost in the legal wrangling was the chance to ask a vital question: Do we want to live in a society that thoughtlessly tramples upon what other people consider important or even holy?
You don’t have to see the crucifix as a religious symbol, but it shows a person tortured to death. To escalate the point: Would we tolerate a picture of a victim of the Berlin Wall, bleeding to death in barbed wire, at beery Carnival celebrations?
Satire can do anything, but it doesn’t have to do everything. It plays an important role in pointing out abuse of power. It crosses lines that we only recognize after they’ve been crossed. Done well, it is an intellectual pleasure.
But one issue of Charlie Hebdo had a caricature of a crucifix surrounded by sunbathing beauties. Jesus says: “Could someone turn me over, otherwise I’ll get sunburn!” What is the caricaturist trying to say here?
Is he trying to provoke people annoyed by belittling their god with such disrespect? Or is he trying to hurt their religious identity to cynically feel justified when they turn their back on modern society?
Isn’t there a fuzzy middle ground of respect and politeness between us all that ensures a peaceful and harmonious coexistence?
That’s up for debate and it’s easier when you’re not “Charlie.” A magazine is not a holy object. It cannot deny readers the essentials: Critique, argument and dialogue.