A cartoon is a precise, beautiful thing. Most often a single panel with minimal text, it is the most sublime, elegant way to encode a thought. Sometimes the panel is slight, but often it trembles with the sheer power of the idea it holds. The cartoon is among the finest distillations of the creative thought-process. This column is the opposite of that; this is a “think piece”, the open-ended, non-committal pond scum of the creative universe. But, today, it’s all I’ve got.
A man holds up a copy of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo reading ‘Love stronger than hate’ in tribute, after gunmen attacked the weekly publication’s Paris office and killed 12 people. Pic/AFP
On Wednesday, gunmen raided the Paris office of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. Aside from the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the dead include two police officers, a janitor, and a visitor. Charlie Hebdo’s satire is disdainful of religion, and has often gone hard after the Prophet Mohammed. And yet, the idea that people could die for making a joke, no matter how provocative, is breaking my brain.
As a comedian, this is personal. I do for a living what the people at Charlie Hebdo do for a living. Before I’m accused of lofty comparisons, let me assure you that I mean this in the same way that Uday Chopra technically does for a living what Daniel Day-Lewis does for a living. A comedian’s worldview is often glib, or smug even. We trade on speaking in certainties, definitive statements and pointed questions. Today, I don’t have any of that. Today is the opposite.
Today I’m adrift. I’m trying to place what happened at the Charlie Hebdo office within my own (no doubt narrow) worldview and within the larger global conversation between freedom and tyranny. It’s a bit like an orangutan trying to do neurosurgery with a rusty screwdriver. I have so many questions, arguments and counter-arguments sloshing around in my brain that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to rationalise this into a single, consistent point of view. And the questions start off with deceptive simplicity; Aren’t they just cartoons?
BUT they’re deeply offensive cartoons.
BUT isn’t the giving and taking of offense your fundamental right in a society that values freedom of expression? Why not use your words against your offender’s words? Words are engines of creation, and even the most hateful of them can result in positive arguments and even consensus. Guns only result in death.
BUT this isn’t the first time Islamic extremists have reacted with violence to depictions of the Prophet, so didn’t Charlie Hebdo ask for it?
BUT isn’t that victim-blaming? It’s hardly Charlie Hebdo’s fault. Isn’t it Islam’s responsibility to rein extremist thought in, given how far and wide the problem has gotten?
BUT isn’t it dangerous to equate Islam with terrorism? Heck, is it even fair to ask Islam (or any religion), as a whole, to take responsibility for the actions of lone extremists? As a friend explained, “It’s not like we have an international HR head of Islam who can just call for a policy statement.” Besides, aren’t faith and religion personal matters, left to the discretion of the individuals practising them?
BUT are faith and religion really personal when all religions have, at different points in history, drummed up very public collectives to oppress and hurt large groups of people perceived to be “others”?
BUT is this entire train of thought moot? How do you even have a conversation about religion when your spectrum ranges from people who’d use this incident to fuel their own bigoted ideas on one end, to people who won’t say a word about any religion for fear of being painted as a bigot even though they have rational concerns, on the other?
BUT is this even about religion at all? Are we barking up the wrong tree? Or is it about how a lack of opportunities allows more sinister forces to focus someone’s frustration into violence? And isn’t it weird how most acts of violence, across the board, are seen as acts of righteous entitlement by the people who commit them? (“He hurt my prophet, so he must die” isn’t that different from “She talked back to me, so she must be taught a lesson.”)
BUT where does all of this leave us? Do we accept that satire must cede to the threat of violence? Or do we resolve that satire must stand firm in the face of any, and all, tyranny, while also accepting that like all forms of scepticism, satire must make peace with the fact that it is now a dangerous way of life?
BUT I have no answers. I don’t even know if I’m asking the right questions anymore. Ugh.
Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi