Weapons Drawn! Perspectives on Charlie Hebdo

Questioning cartoons, satire, and the role of the media after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations.

Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, citizens, media, politicians, and other interested parties around the world have been voicing various opinions pertaining to the many issues surrounding this incident. The resulting debates, discussions, and (sometimes) diatribes have created a fog of perspectives, as opinions coalesce or collide with each other across ideological, racial, class, institutional, generational, vocational, and geographical lines. From the mi(d)st of this most publicized attack on freedom of speech in the recent history of western journalism has emerged a number of talking points, each providing as many questions as answers, and each signifying the complications that inhabit the internal and international culture wars of our times.

What are the purposes and effects of satire?

Like terrorism, satire is a technique with intended consequences; it is not an end in itself.

Satire is a peculiar form of humor in that its purpose is to ridicule, provoke, and upset, rather than to merely elicit laughter. By calling attention to absurdity, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement, satirists also hope to bring enlightenment and ultimately change of conduct. Satire seeks out our blind spots and ideally helps us to see more clearly. Jason Frye comments that because satire forces us to interpret and contemplate, it serves as “a robust precursor of personal and social growth.” (“Religion, Violence, and Satire: A Humanist Response to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre“, The Humanist.com) David Brooks speaks to its social value, stating that satire can point out in public that which we collectively often leave unsaid. Consequently, it can bind us in unity against those incapable of—or resistant to—self-scrutiny and flexibility; as such, the satirist’s targets are often fundamentalists and uncompromising literalists, particularly of the religious kind.

Furthermore, the fact that humorists are so often the targets of religious extremists suggests that satire wields a particular ability to affect absent from other discourse. Cartoonist Martin Rowson reminds us that critical humorists were high on the hit-list of the Nazis, as they have been for all despots, past and present. The (alleged) retaliatory computer hacking of Sony Pictures by the North Korean dictatorship, because of slights made about it in the Hollywood comedy, The Interview, provides ample recent illustration of this. Laughter quells fear, maintains Rowson, thus, his prescription for dealing with terrorists is that “we must not stop laughing at these murderous clowns.” (“Charlie Hebdo: We must not stop laughing at these murderous clowns“, The Guardian, 8 January 2015)

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins similarly recognizes that satire holds unique powers as “It reaches parts of the political and personal psyche that reason cannot touch” (“Charlie Hebdo: Now is the time to uphold freedoms and not give in to fear“, 7 January 2015) Like terrorism, satire is a technique with intended consequences; it is not an end in itself. And for their daring, its practitioners sometimes pay the ultimate price.

Why cartoons?

Few forms embrace and express satire more than the editorial or political cartoon. Whereas written satire can sometimes come across as preachy and demonizing, the cartoon, by virtue of its use of caricature, never loses its humor component. As such, it can both incite and quell anger in its viewers, while still chastising its targets with succinct and visceral put-downs. Critics of Charlie Hebdo claim that its cartoons are deliberately provocative and insulting to many people’s revered principles. To that, cartoonists would no doubt reply “Of course!” If you omit the incitement, you kill the form. Furthermore, where is the art (form) if it only portrays that which we all want and expect to see, read, and hear? Like all critical humor, political cartoons exist in the conflict zone, invariably using incongruity humor to highlight the implicit collision of values at play.

Features of the form collectively contribute to its rhetorical effects. Most cartoons are drawn with (apparent) speed, simplicity, and imprecision, indicating an urgency in capturing a fleeting cultural moment. This style also bespeaks irreverence, even disrespect, for iconic subjects (such as Mohammad), who are reduced to everyman figures by the hasty sketching. Moreover, the caricature component exaggerates selective body features to symbolize notable character traits, or more often, to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Both are evident in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, the latter whenever Mohammad is drawn with a long hooked nose (which is always), and the former when he is given an expression of lost confusion to signify his (ironic) impotence in controlling the terrorism activated in his name.

The symbolic use of the pencil in many cartoons and subsequent freedom of speech demonstrations are also revealing, as it implies a light-hearted approach, incongruous to the earnest seriousness and studied technique we often associate with visual arts such as oil paintings. Regarded formally, the cartoon might thus be recognized as an anti-“Art” form as much as it is anti- the powers-that-be it ridicules. It was notable after the Charlie Hebdo shootings how many cartoons surfaced using the pencil as a motif to represent the value of free expression and (cartooning) art itself. An underdog utensil, even within the art world, the pencil in these cartoons is pitted against the Kalashnikovs used by the terrorists, metaphorically idealizing expression as mightier than the sword.

Ruben L. Oppenheimer’s cartoon envisages two pencils as the twin towers with a plane ominously approaching; Jean Jullien’s depicts a hand placing a pencil into the barrel of a gun, no doubt alluding to iconic photographs from the ’60s that showed hippies doing likewise with a flower. Like “flower power”, pencil power may be impotent against machines of weaponry, but it elicits sympathy and moral strength in juxtaposition. Like the flower, too, the pencil symbolizes peaceful protest and non-violent expression as practices worth fighting for, even, or especially, when up against violence and intolerance. Perhaps the most touching—yet still humorous—cartoon since January 7th came from David Pope, who portrayed a masked terrorist with a smoking gun next to a blood-spattered body; the tag reads “He drew first“. A variant on this came from Rafael Montesso, who replaced the dead body with a broken pencil.

Cartoonist Martin Rowson argues that the cartoon form has particular rhetorical power, not only because of its immediacy and irreverence, but also by virtue of the way its targets are reframed through the eyes and mind of the satirist. Here, caricature assassinates “without the blood”. He adds, “A cartoon floods the eyes and gets swallowed whole—and often makes the recipient choke.” (“Charlie Hebdo: We must not stop laughing at these murderous clowns”, ibid) Author Donald Dewey speaks to the particular resonance of cartooning when he recalls how, in the 1870s, the corrupt Tammany Hall leader, William “Boss” Tweed, ordered his henchmen to stop the stream of less-than-flattering editorial cartoons about him that were emanating from the newspapers of the day. “I don’t care so much what the papers write about me”, he supposedly uttered. “My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures” (The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartooning. New York: New York University Press, 2007. p.22).

Should other media outlets reprint the cartoons?

Just as moderate Muslims have been singled out for assigned roles of responsibility since the attacks, so, too, have the media; indeed, an internal blame game has arisen as newspapers, magazines, and TV channels point fingers at each other over whether or not to reprint the controversial cartoon images. Reprinting has been regarded by some as an act of reckless incitement and endangerment, while not reprinting has led to some news outlets being called “cowards”. In the UK, the BBC has been judged in the latter camp, while The Guardian has been somewhat “guarded”, showing some of the offending images but with accompanying warning statements. As journalists and critics, each face an unavoidable and difficult question: how does one cover the story, or debate and explicate the relevant materials, without actually showing the evidence?

“Since when do we give in to bullies so easily?” asks Matt Taibi from Rolling Stone. But when standing up to those bullies puts a publication’s staff in potential danger, one can sympathize with a safety-first inclination from the deciding and responsible chief editors. With so many journalists murdered and threatened around the world in recent years, the profession is already on a constant state of red alert. Some have wondered why the recent Boko Harem massacres in Nigeria have received such little coverage, but part of the reason is the omnipresent dangers on-the-ground reporters face everyday in this tumultuous region.

The media’s dilemma is further complicated when one considers who is offended by either printing or not printing the cartoons. The New York Times editors have stated that they will not show the images because they do not want to upset Muslim readers. But can such a stance not be perceived as offensive in itself, as it presumes that all Muslims are offended by the cartoons, and that they are uniquely incapable of dealing with expressions of satire? Both of these assumptions might be regarded as condescending, if not stereotypical.

Are Charlie Hebdo and others guilty of double standards?

Debates over media self-censorship in the West sometimes run counter-parallel with those concerning double standards. Certain Muslim critics have expressed resentment at how their faith and identity are so often singled out for mockery, while others’ are deemed off-limits or are protected by “hate speech” laws or rules. Such a complaint arose in the wake of the 2006 Jyllands-Posten controversy when it was discovered that that publication’s editorial board, while willingly printing anti-Islam cartoons, had previously rejected cartoons satirizing Jesus Christ for fear of offending Christian viewers. Similarly, Charlie Hebdo fired one of its in-house cartoonists, Sine (Maurice Sinet) in 2009 for drawing holocaust-related cartoons that the editor-in-chief regarded as anti-Semitic. The “Je ne suis pas Charlie” camp are perplexed at how some cartoons qualify for free expression while others, apparently, do not.

Matt Taibbi also sees cases of double standards, arguing that the Associated Press may claim to show sensitivity when refusing to print materials that might be offensive to the religious, but it had no reservations in showing Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” painting, or in selling prints of it online. Rather than attempt to justify or rationalize, quips Taibbi, the AP should just admit that out of fear of repercussions, Islam will receive exclusive treatment, (

Cartoons Are Worth Fighting For“, by Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, 8 January 2015).

* * *

After 9/11 it was reported how New Yorkers were displaying a communal solidarity rarely witnessed in this city of brusque manners and go-getter individuality. Likewise, the cartoon community has come together recently for Charlie Hebdo, some offering working spaces, others supplies and services, to enable the paper to produce its next editions unabated. Thanks to this assistance, the publication and distribution of over seven million copies of the January 2015 edition has been one of the more stirring rebuttals we have seen to the terrorist adversaries.

The cover of the January issue is equally poignant, portraying the prophet Mohammad shedding a tear and holding up a sign reading “Je Suis Charlie” under the strapline “All is Forgiven”. The tone evoked is not dissimilar to the “love” cover Charlie Hebdo put out after its 2011 firebombing. Overseen by Zineb El Rhazoui, a survivor of the attacks, and drawn by in-house cartoonist Luz (who was fortunate to arrive late to that fateful 7 January staff meeting), the cover has since graced the front pages of many newspapers around the world. Yet, despite its tone of sadness and solidarity, even this cover is not without controversy or detractors.

Although displaying the kind of compassion and forgiveness religions often claim as their calling, the cartoon is still provocative in presenting the prophet front and center, defying what Timothy Garton Ash calls the “assassin’s veto” (“Did Charlie Hebdo’s cover get it right? Our writers’ verdict“, The Guardian). However, the cartoon’s overall restraint and, ironically, even respect for the prophet’s “true” faith almost dares other outlets not to publish it. Criticism, contrarily, has angled differently, and often in rhetorical question form: Why, some ask, is the prophet that Charlie Hebdo has so systematically ridiculed in the past shown here with such reverence—as the good guy? Why, too, does the image pander to racial stereotypes by presenting the Mohammad caricature with a long hooked nose—as always? Moreover, does the message of “Je Suis Charlie” suggest that moderate Muslims must support Charlie Hebdo-style satire in order to be “true” Muslims?

With this soon-to-be-legendary image (as with prior ones), the questions that surround it do not yield definitive answers, only more arguments, more outrage, more perspectives—and, again, more questions.

Splash image: Je Suis Charlie (I am Charlie) © Mattz90 from Shutterstock.com.