OPINION: Satire or bigotry... have you met Charlie?
Last week's assault on the offices of "satirical" magazine Charlie Hebdo shook the entire world. Twelve people killed and 12 injured, all for the sake of using their right to freedom of expression. Twelve dead for having made cartoons and written about a prophet.
The world mourns the 12 dead and sends compassionate thoughts to those who were injured and wish them a healthy recovery. The world has been united to protect freedom of expression. One world united behind the banner "Je suis Charlie." A testament to civilisation's ability to come together for a worthy cause.
I anticipate a lot of people not getting the point of this piece so I should probably repeat the sentiment below before each new paragraph. But I won't so, if you miss it now there's no point responding to the piece.
Human life is sacred and there's no justification for murder. I am very much against capital punishment, which should highlight the sanctity I place on human life.
I am not Charlie. I never was Charlie and many of those grabbing onto this trend with both hands never were, are not and never will be Charlie.
When we take into serious consideration just how much bigotry the Charlie Hebdo cartoons have carried, one has to wonder how far some of the people who have come out in support of the publications are willing to support the cartoons in the name of freedom of expression. In the wake of the cartoonists' deaths, should Charlie Hebdo no longer be held accountable for the harm it has caused? More often than not their cartoons were filled with racist, sexist and homophobic innuendos, but because of freedom of speech and expression, people are willing to give this a pass, without critically engaging.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the go-to phrases in defence of the cartoonists have been 'their work is satire' and they were 'equal opportunity offenders'. Wow! Okay, a couple of things...
If you have to explain satire, chances are that it has failed. Often people think that simply because people take offense to something, they have not understood the joke. Nah, more often than not people understand the joke, they just don't like constantly being the butt of it without regard. Especially those who face daily and institutionalised humiliation for simply having been born. As a political tool, satire is intended to target those in power and not further marginalise those without any real form of socio-political power. Simply put, the Hebdo cartoons were not really satire, rather they were stereotypical tropes endorsed by sectors of society that already echoed hateful sentiments, most notably in this regard Islamophobia.
Perhaps the best example is the story of the publication's current formation. The publication that started as Hara-Kiri was shut down after the government banned its sales for a joke title that referred to the death of former France president Charles de Gaulle, who died in the same month in which a fire killed 146 people. The French establishment thought that the magazine had downplayed the significance of the deceased French president and continued to use their power to ensure the publication's demise. Is this then not an example of satire versus the crass illustrations the magazine has opted for in recent years?
Equal opportunity offenders, well what is that when it's just a bunch of mostly white dudes who sit in a room and decide to knowingly use offensive symbolism against whomever they like with limited views of the world? Did they not understand that by publishing offensive cartoons, they were furthering their entitlement towards any and everything? Or did the insidious veil of political privilege cloud them from seeing that they were safe from most of the dangers faced by the people they belittled? The message is clear in my view - if they did not believe in something or were protected against social ills for the most part, that meant they were able to egregiously mock it without regard to those whose lives were intertwined with a belief system or impacted by societal organisation.
While France adheres to a secularist state model, it has a significant number of deeply religious communities, yet most of its anti-religious sentiment seems to be targeted at its Muslim population. The Hijab controversy is a clear example of this. Does anyone ever ask why it was that though they had indeed made fun of other gods or deities, it seemed that Charlie Hebdo's main target was the Islamic faith? It was a barrage of what often seemed to me to be unnecessary insults, most of them very apparent in their lack of substance or social commentary.
This incident has definitely received a disproportionate amount of worldwide attention in comparison to other world conflicts. The reason is rather unsurprising, I think. In Judith Butler's book Frames of War, she discusses two concepts that facilitate global hegemony and further entrench Islamophobia... The precarious versus the grievable life. Lives to be protected and mourned, and lives that are completely without grievable value.
When we think about the response to Hebdo versus, for example, the unknown number of lives lost in the Middle East at the hands of the west, we start to get an idea of what Butler is discussing and putting forth for us to take in.
One of the most baffling parts about the media coverage of the culmination of the grocery hostage drama was how CNN kept referring to hostage taker Amedy Coulibaly as a man of "North African descent", which left me questioning the need to identify him as such. Was he not a French citizen? Of what relevance was his ancestry? Most importantly, did he not have a name?
In conclusion, let me reiterate that I don't find any of the killings in the past few days justifiable in any manner. The sanctity for human life can never be questioned. Do all human lives have equal value? I am yet to believe that the answer is "Yes". I am definitely not Charlie.
Phumlani Pikoli is an online producer at _ Eyewitness News _ based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter __ @scoutgumbee