Satire may be employed to prick at a society’s conscience and even perhaps challenge the powerful in society – but is that possible in a world where we do not agree on the basis of right and wrong, good and evil? Is it possible to inject satire in a society where we cannot collectively differentiate between the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful?
And then there is hate speech – discourse directed to hurt or cause harm. Hate speech can also be employed to challenge a society, good or bad, and even poke at the oppressed in that society.
Can hate speech also be employed as satire?
In which case, where do we draw the line between satire and hate speech that masquerades as satire?
Let us take the US, for example. In the US Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to its Constitution expresses the notion that freedom of speech is absolute. But that couldn’t be any further from reality. In other words, the US media—whether for commercial or for political reasons—practice self-censorship as much as any media outlet in the world.
The US media will not publish any satire poking laughter at the holocaust, for instance. Perhaps for good reason. But that only shows that there is a limit to free speech. A case in point is France, wherein a satirist by the name of Dieudonné freely speaks, in satire of course, about the holocaust.
However, the mayors of three French cities banned Dieudonné from performing, insisting that he had repeatedly violated French laws against inciting racial and religious hatred and denial of the holocaust.
With such decisions, the verdict put forth in France declared that not all satire is equal – there is bad satire and good satire. But quite ambiguously those contradistinctions are not carried out when the US President Barack Hussein Obama is ridiculed for being a suicide bomber in the popular American press.
Mr. Obama was lampooned amid the April 2008 controversy over his remarks about “bitter” voters. The state of South Carolina ran a cartoon portraying Obama as a suicide bomber, obviously mocking Mr. Obama’s Arabic first and middle names, Barack and Hussein.
More recent, the Boston Herald peddled racial stereotypes with an October 1, 2014 cartoon depicting a shocked President Obama brushing his teeth, as an intruder in the white house bathes behind him, and asks Mr. Obama if he’s “tried the new watermelon flavored toothpaste.”
Watermelons have been used largely in the US to insult the integrity of African Americans, depicting them as slaves – tired from hard work, thirsty from hours of toiling under the sweltering sun without so much as a water break, and munching on watermelons—to African American slaves, a source of nourishment and a welcome relief from hunger and thirst, but to white slave drivers the fruit held only an opportunity to ridicule with vitriol.
Though the Herald apologized for the cartoon, albeit the satirist was not fired, these examples represent a tiny fraction of the racist cartoons about Black people that run in the US media daily. It becomes clear that the US media and the majority of its public have chosen to define racist cartoons directed at Blacks and Muslims as free speech.
Those types of cartoons are not banned. They are labeled in the American consciousness as good satire, while cartoons about Jews are not just satire, they are bad—if not malevolent—and categorized as hate speech at the very least.
In France, it is not only Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, the son of a Cameroonian and a white French woman, who has been convicted for inciting racial hate and banned for his satire.
The French-American basketball player, Tony Parker, was forced to apologize when he claimed he had inadvertently offended Jews by posing with Dieudonné while making a gesture called the “quenelle.”
Maurice Sinet is another prominent satirist who comes to mind. Otherwise known to the world as Siné, he was a political cartoonist with Charlie Hebdo for 20 years, but was fired in 2009 for cartoons mocking the relationship of former French President Sarkozy’s son with a wealthy Jewish woman.
“L’affaire Sine” followed the engagement of Jean Sarkozy to Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of a major consumer electronics company, the Darty Group.
Claude Askolovitch, a high-profile Jewish political journalist in France, was the first to accuse Siné of anti-Semitism. Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Philippe Val, who re-published Jyllands-Posten’s controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in the name of ‘freedom of the press’ in 2006, agreed that Siné’s piece was offensive and asked him to apologize. Siné refused, saying, “I’d rather cut my balls off.”
He was fired.
In Europe and America the lines between what is considered ‘good satire’ or simply satire, versus what is considered ‘bad satire’ or hate speech, are evidently drawn by race and religious affiliation.
Charlie Hebdo’s definition of satire is unmistakably based on these definitions – satire against Black people and Muslims is considered free speech whereas satire about Jews, for example, is hate speech.
So, though many westerners may argue that Charlie Hebdo was a singular example of a newspaper that embraced free speech, shunning what others might consider the decorum of the limits of speech, free or otherwise, the realities of the French publication’s unwholesome cartoons about those living in the West but who find themselves on the margins of western society, remain problematic.
For instance, the following cartoons by Charlie Hebdo invoke a racist stereotype of Black people as monkeys and label girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria with the racially charged symbolism of African American women in the US, who are madly and wrongly maligned as Welfare Queens.
Mind you, African Americans in the US have suffered a most monstrous brutality of a Slave Trade and a Slavery that lasted for more than three centuries at the hands of European Americans. African Americans have also endured Segregation, Jim Crow, and more recent, a mass incarceration of predominantly Black men. They have encountered no humane aftermaths following an American Civil war that good whites allegedly fought to end Slavery. The results of these systemic inhumane evils in America along with their impact on the African American community in the US cannot be overemphasized.
Yet daily racist cartoons against African Americans, sparing not even President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama, occur in the American media in the name of free speech.
Experts in Africa argue that it is dangerous to introduce the notion that free speech, or freedom of the press, is something that has to be defined outside of a requirement or a consideration for and to whom it is directed. Their worry centers on the making of the definition itself.
Who’s going to come up with the criteria to define free speech? What is off limits? Can we not draw a picture? Whose picture can we not draw?
Some of what Charlie Hebdo did was perhaps satire, but much of what it did in portraying Muslims and their Prophet Mohammed, and Black people everywhere, was in rather poor taste.
But are these reasons to kill journalists?
In the wake of the killings of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, we find ourselves painfully driven to reconsider the nature and purpose of satire in the world as a whole and not just in Europe or in America.
Is there a moral purpose for satire?
To attempt a deeply African explanation, we must consider the principles of Maat. This leads us to a new term – responsible satire. All satire is not equal. The meaning of satire can – and should be allowed to – change from one context to the next. What is acceptable in France does not necessarily become acceptable in Algeria and vice versa.
Disregarding this can be irresponsible.
Maat, as a pantheon of principles did not only hold Kemet society together, it underpinned our Ancestors belief in truth, order, justice and balance.
In responsible satire, Maat offers an ideal for journalists and satirists to lead professional lives in ethical ways. It might be true that Jews sent to the gas chamber by the Nazis during the holocaust were starved and emaciated, but drawing a cartoon of a naked and emaciated Jewish woman with a mask on should be considered unethical!
In the same way that perhaps, satire about watermelon-eating Black men should be labeled unethical! Under the brutal heat of American slavery, Black men may have desired a refreshing fruit, but the sight of white America, which oppressed and enslaved millions of African Americans for the better part of the last 400 years, enjoying satires depicting Black men, like President Obama, brushing his teeth with a watermelon flavored toothpaste, is strictly irresponsible if not outright callous!
The yardstick for whether or not something qualifies to be satire within a given context is measured by what constitutes good journalism and a responsible practice of Maat. As a general lemma, satire should not cause further discomfort for the already afflicted and should certainly not make the oppressor even more comfortable.
Satires that deepen the wounds of oppression and subjugation should be called what they are – irresponsible and egregious.
A cartoon, a piece of writing or a comic shtick, purporting to be satire should be interrogated along these lines: Who does it afflict, and who does it comfort? If in either case the work is targeted in afflicting the already afflicted, or comforting those already well-upholstered, it fails the lemmas of Maat and will need to be re-classified, usually as merely offensive, irresponsible or egregiously callous.
It can be objected that such a narrow classification of satire leaves little wiggle room for different modes of discourse, which by transgressing the boundaries of what’s acceptable draw our attention to the very contingent and culturally-specific character of much of what we deem to be ethical.
One person’s morality may be founded in what others might consider grotesque religiosity. Another’s morality may be rooted in outright bigotry. A third’s may rest on values that are quite incomprehensible to the majority of his fellow citizens.
In African societies, people have created their own religions at will and as necessary throughout historical time. In addition to those who have inherited widely divergent views about what constitutes the good life, no single kind of satire, no matter how prêt-a-porter, can fit all.
The West is becoming as matured as African civilization in this regard. To get there, the West needs to understand where it is now.
Western civilization in general has developed inside a borrowed and peculiarly old African tradition – the Judaeo-Christian ethical tradition wherein, granted some local idiosyncrasies, there has been general consensus about what is strictly right and what is strictly wrong.
African tradition, since Pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1352 – 1336 BC), experienced a metamorphosis away from this kind of one-convention-fits-all to a more inclusive tradition that recognizes all belief systems as sacred and to be respected. Voodoo is a case in point – a ‘polyrhythmic religion,’ so to speak that embraces the diverse religiosities of almost all African traditional persuasions.
Given such a context in Africa, it’s been relatively easy to apply the satire test and secure agreement about appropriate targets. Much of African misunderstandings and sources of conflicts in the modern era have rather stemmed from a colonial past, which through some bumbling mishap in history, European ways of thought and conviction have come to situate themselves at their center.
Hence, within the western context, naturally, as long as right and wrong are understood to be strictly divine attributions, and rulers’ powers are conceived as a divine franchise, afflicting the comforts of potentates and prelates alike is a risky, life-or-death business.
It has been so for many generations in the West.
The onset of the new wave of secularism in Europe and America initially offered some leeway towards receptivity amongst competing ideologies, but alas, it has now elided the ethical entirely with the political. In deliberate fashion, the concept of secularism was hijacked and reappropriated to symbolize the ‘gateway drug’ for the irrational trip that is atheism.
Certainly such conditions foment a violent revolution because they are also by necessity products of a violent satire – one that may well aim at the moral fabric of both the individual and society as a whole, but which, rather than firing a gradualist’s bullets organically, lets fall the cleansing canons the Europeans have come to call “our national pride.”
Since the revolution of 1789, the French state has been seized by this paroxysm of regime change on several subsequent occasions. Arguably, each sweeping away of constitutional authority was accompanied by a satiric outburst that aimed at a re-evaluation of all values, not just some. No institution could be regarded as beyond censure, no individual above the most extreme criticism. With the foundational myth of the French First Republic inextricably bound up with violent revolution, each subsequent bouleversement required, of necessity, its own satiric bombshell.
With our closely-knit subsistence system in Africa still intact – if only moth-eaten and vermiculated by our colonial experiences with Europe – African societies exhibit small but crucial differences in their satiric temperament. Cleaving to Maat, we believe more in an organic gradualism, whereby things – no matter how bad they are now – can only get incrementally better.
Certainly, political and religious leaders in Africa, the rich and powerful—who in western societies would be violently uprooted from society—in the African context, are only mercilessly teased at the most. This is surely the mot juste, because the disjunction between these effigies and the characteristics of the people they represent is understood by all as separate entities.
The hints of violence in traditional African satire are actually rather innocuous.
It’s a disjunction that is richly enshrined in Maat – a commitment to saying what you mean in a responsible and gauged manner, and further, only directing satire to those who are in the know. Embracing responsible satire indicates how deep our collective perception is of the difference between appearance and reality, between the word and the deed.
The West might like to think of Charlie Hebdo, and in fact all satirists, as still speaking truth fearlessly unto power within a social realm bounded by commonly understood norms that allow them to make effective distinctions between speech, acts and physical gestures. But from an African context, such a view is largely delusory.
In fact, it’s the managed anomie of western society today, in which competing ethical codes are viewed as alternate lifestyle choices rather than stairways to heaven and hell, that allow for a satire to be at once savage and toothless.
In Britain, the rich and powerful get more comfortable, the poor are increasingly afflicted, and the satiric volleys are fired with greater and greater frequency and have less and less effect.
In a western society in which there is little true agreement about the fundamentals of morality, how can even the best satire prick people’s consciences sufficiently to make them think about right and wrong at all?
Even how can a multicultural satire pass the test of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable if the kinds of comfort – if it is at all comfort – that westerners experience in states of ethical complacency, differ so very widely?
If we consider the scatter-gun nature of the seeming satire that Charlie Hebdo dispensed, we can see quite clearly that it fails to pass the test of Maat. Charlie Hebdo’s satires have been largely irresponsible if not outright egregious.
Who really is afflicted by the depictions of the Prophet Mohammed? Well, almost all believing Muslims. And who’s comforted by these depictions? Who finds their earthly burden lifted by contemplating such heavenly insults? Well, most white non-believers.
No doubt there are those whose sense of alienation from society, whose paranoia and powerlessness having been pushed away to the fringes of western society, are eased by identifying with others who, frankly perhaps, don’t give a damn. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for a constructive dialogue about how to make society more equal, fairer, or more just.
The paradox is clear: if satire aims at the moral reform of a given society it can only be effective within that particular society, and furthermore, only if there’s a commonly accepted ethical hierarchy to begin with.
A satire that demands of the entire world that it observe the same secularist values as the French state is a form of imperialism like any other. Satire can be employed as a tactical weapon, aimed at a particular group in society in relation to a given objectionable practice – but like all tactical weapons it must be very well targeted indeed.
Even a satire that aims to afflict the comfortable in other societies requires the same sort of commitment to nation-building as does an invasion of another country that’s predicated upon replacing one detestable regime with an ostensibly more acceptable one.
The problem for satire is thus that while we live in a globalized world so far as media is concerned, we don’t when it comes to morality.
Nor will we ever. So, let us turn to our Ancestors and embrace Maat.