On Satire

The recent terrorist events in Paris have unfolded in a most horrific way. So many killed in what can only be described as a mission to drive home the chilling message, yet again, that the sword, in fact, is mightier than the pen.

Satire has a longstanding tradition, with some scholars tracing it back to at least the 2nd century B.C. in various ancient Egyptian writings. And, over the centuries, satire has been used for humor or simply as a device for social/political criticism — whether in the form of irony, sarcasm, parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, or double entendre. It has also taken various forms: literature, plays, commentary, television shows, song lyrics, graphical art, etc.

Charlie Hebdo has made satire a socio-political art form, ridiculing the vices. follies and shortcomings of pretty much anyone in the news. They do this, often, with a deeper meaning than a passing glance at their cartoons and captions might suggest. And, particularly when they are lampooning French individuals, the heavy socio-cultural contexts and subtexts often leave the non-French readers flummoxed.

Regardless of whether everyone find satire of this kind funny or not (and humor is not always the aim as much as using wit to draw attention to the subject to hand), and regardless of whether the actual artwork is of the highest quality, the hotly-debated questions in the aftermath of the Paris attacks have been around whether such satire is necessary or whether it is entertaining or whether it achieves any kind of improvement in the things being lampooned. And, of course, the mother of all questions: how far can we allow freedom of speech if it offends certain norms of propriety to evoke such violent reactions? While these are difficult questions with no unequivocal answers, it is important to note that no rational person, in the many post-attack analyses, debates, discussions, soundbites, has condoned the mass killings as an appropriate response.

India, too, has had challenges with censorship and freedom of speech since independence. Strict censorship laws mean that even words like “bra” are bleeped out in American TV shows like ‘Friends’ when they’re shown here. And, though some Indian movies now show kissing, such scenes are cut out quite artlessly during TV screenings, rendering choppy, disjointed narratives that make even less sense than the un-censored versions, if you can conceive of such a thing with typical Bollywood fare.

Most of us are still trying to wrap our heads around what has happened in Paris. Better minds than mine have provided more thought-provoking analyses in various respected periodicals. So, I will not attempt to do that here. What I will say is that I believe that censorship, if considered necessary, should always be contextual. When dealing with broadcast media which reaches impressionable minds, it is worth practicing some caution (though, bleeping words like “bra” and then showing violent hero-villain shootouts or horrific rapes doesn’t tally — not that I am suggesting we should ban the latter entirely). But, when dealing with media that allows the audience the choice to turn away, such as the news magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’, surely it is up to us to decide whether we choose to pay attention or be offended. As Salman Rushdie rightly stated:

Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

Many may disagree with Rushdie’s definition of religion as a “medieval form of unreason”. But, it is hard to argue with his point that the unconditional ‘respect for religion’ means, for certain extremists and fundamentalists, that we need to fear their wrath as well. And, that moment when we start to fear something is also when we start to lose the ability to think objectively about it.

We may never understand what makes fanatics, in the name of religion, indulge in the indiscriminate murder of civilians. Or, why they are unable to retaliate with any other means (for example, with reciprocating wit, sarcasm or satire in this case). Still, regardless of what we, as individuals or as a collective society, accept as the rights of others to speak out against or make fun of that which we hold most sacred (or not, as the case may be), under no circumstances are we justified in violently taking the lives of others as retaliation. As Kofi Annan has famously said (though he was talking about the death penalty, it does apply here too):

The forfeiture of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.

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