On the frigid morning of January 7th, still stirring in bed, I grudgingly responded to the beep from my cell phone. The New York Times was reporting a shooting in Paris. Over coffee I started absorbing the details of the incident – gunmen had mowed down satirists in Paris. Satirists? I’d been thinking about them a lot over the past few weeks as I prepared for my spring course on television satire. My syllabus thus far did not include an entry on assassination of satirists. Would I now have to issue disclaimers to aspiring students: “If you choose to go down this path, it will be entirely your call and I cannot be held responsible”? Indeed, what would Jonathan Swift say?
On that Wednesday morning, French satirists were sacrificed at the grisly altar of global terrorism. Up until recent times, satirists had simply been writers, humorists, filmmakers, journalists, television hosts, and online columnists. There were satirists in ancient civilizations, in the literature of the renaissance, and with the birth of modern mass and electronic media, in newspapers, film, radio, and television. In my lectures I was going to discuss the political function of satire in the contemporary work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and South Park, among others. Harmless stuff, right? A safety-valving, conscience-keeping mirror that allowed viewers to feel that they could see through the shenanigans of the powers-that-be.
Certainly satirists have been persecuted in the past – they have been banned, blacklisted, threatened, had fatwas issued against them, accused of having gone too far. More recently, the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed have caused violence, street demonstrations, death threats, and political tensions. Satirists like to stir things up, to provoke and make us wince, to reject simplistic answers to complex issues. The risk of offending someone is embraced, nay, whoopingly celebrated. But the debate over what constitutes offensive content is no longer a debate when a gun is placed on the table.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, many will try to explain things in simple terms.
Charlie Hebdo will be held up as a beacon of free speech, and the attacks portrayed as a threat to “our way of life.” These words are reminiscent of the post-9/11 rhetoric. And we’ve seen that movie before – the celebration of free speech morphs into the suppression of civil liberties. It is a time for satirists to be ever vigilant of simplicity, ever sharper in their pointed reminders of the hypocrisy of our “way of life.” The French cannot play into the hands of anti-immigrant politics that is all-too-willing to join the vigils and quietly poison the grieving process with reactionary agendas.
I couldn’t use the Paris incident as a cautionary tale for my students. Here’s what I will say to them instead: The world needs more satirists – those who have the courage to poke holes in empty rhetoric about free speech, those who are unafraid to take unpopular positions at a time when it seems safer to do otherwise, those who can remind us that the only way to keep free speech and criticism alive is to never let them dim.
Aashish Kumar is an associate professor in the Department of Radio, Television, Film at the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University.