Satire as Vehicle for Social Change: Should Journalists Self-Regulate?

Elizabeth Vollmer

Given the recent murders of the cartoonists and journalists at the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” issues of censorship and self-regulation regarding offensive satire have come to the forefront of news organizations worldwide. I have come to the conclusion that, despite the fact that satire is a form of free speech, that does not excuse organizations from self-regulating when it comes to issues of downright racist and xenophobic propaganda.

When I first saw past covers of the magazine, I was surprised that I had never heard of the organization, considering that it left no stone unturned when it came to criticizing religion, gender, class, or race/ethnicity. The most common of these covers show grotesquely sexualized images of religious and political leaders, but “Charlie Hebdo” targeted the Muslim community more than any other community through its depictions of the prophet Muhammad.

Now here I make a distinction: I have a deep respect for smart satire. Carefully crafted, intelligent satire can be poignant, and say much more in a few lines and drawings than many other kinds of media. Satire is intended to call out hypocrisy and laugh at irony, and even create social change. And “Charlie Hebdo” has run covers with smart satire. Many of them challenge the militarism evident in religious groups that claim a God of peace. One such cover depicts a Muslim man holding up the Koran against a barrage of bullets as he claims that the holy book is useless if it can’t stop gunfire. This offers a fascinating commentary on the violence of supposedly peace-seeking religious groups, and honestly, I think one could easily substitute a Christian and the Bible into that picture, and it would have the same message.

But I could only find a few instances of respectable, smart satire among the “Charlie Hebdo” archives. The rest is satirical propaganda, clearly not meant to create a platform to talk about serious social issues, but rather to ostracize and perpetuate hate. I think few could argue that drawing Mohammad in graphic and sexually compromising ways is going to promote any kind of conversation.

I do not propose banning certain depictions or setting up laws that curb free speech. “Charlie Hebdo” and other organizations have the right to publish cartoons that express their opinions. However, I think it is prudent of journalists and cartoonists to self-regulate, and not take free speech as a “get out of jail freecard” to publish distorted representations, whose only intent is to offend.
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John Kpakama

Salman Rushdie, who received death threats from Al Qaeda over his novel “The Satanic Verses,” recently expressed his support for the use of satire by French magazine “Charlie Hebdo.” He stated, “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…religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.”

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English editor and executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr attacked the decisions of “Charlie Hebdo,” saying, “Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile.”

The question remains: is there a limit to satire? Should journalists self-regulate?

The corrective purpose of satire is to blend criticism with humor and wit in an attempt to expose vice and corruption in human institutions. I don’t believe that satire ever strives to harm or damage through ridicule, except perhaps to damage the structures that perpetuate injustice.

The practice of pungent satire, a form of literary endeavor that “Charlie Hebdo” magazine has been engaged in for decades, has often proven to be an effective tool in confronting blind and bigoted powers. It’s absolutely preposterous to assume that because a person or group has been caricatured and feels offended, journalists should self-regulate in their presentation of satire.

In addition to the entertainment value attached to satire, it’s also very effective in creating awareness on burning issues that are relevant to people. Its method of joggling the perspectives of people can sometimes prompt them to evaluate their beliefs and worldview, thus enabling them to take appropriate actions to remedy corruption in the state.

While the use of satire to inform, entertain, and challenge our way of thinking may look seemingly amiss, its method of seeking to create a shock of recognition, and make vice appear repulsive, cannot be underestimated. I’m of the conviction that satire, even when it seems to deconstruct, is implicitly constructive, as it is an overt attempt to expunge vice in humans and in the larger society.

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