Satire Allowed: why I will always be Charlie

by Paolo Cardullo

Satire must be free to push the margin of good taste or even to be offensive. This is what Satire is about, it cannot be anything else. Satire digs into personal feelings, blatant stereotypes and the hidden racism of us all.

First published: 10 February, 2015 | Category: Culture, Racism

I grew up in a Catholic-Communist family in Italy - a hybrid, laughable combination typical of a country that used to have the largest Communist Party in the West and, notoriously, hosting the Vatican. I could have gone either way: my mum daily watched the Pope on telly, while dad used to immerse himself in his daily newspaper, L'Unita, founded by Antonio Gramsci. You would need to have a strong sense of irony to survive this: sometimes, you could feel the cold-war climate within the very walls of our flat! I survived it thanks to the cartoonists that brightened up my childhood, portraying - among others - irreverent images of the Pope, Cardinals and politicians (including Communist ones, of course).

After the horrible facts of Charlie Hebdo killings and the mourning for the losses, increasingly there are voices which distance themselves from the production of the murdered cartoonists. Fair enough. Their drawings are not easy to digest, nor were they meant to be.[1] Moreover, an increasing number of commentaries suggest that Charlie Hebdo was Islamophobic and Orientalist, for example by portraying Muslims with long beards, big noses and turbans. More voices are now heard about Satire in general being offensive, sexist and racist and therefore in need of some form of control.

It must be possible for Satire to be free, to push the margin of good taste or even to be offensive. This is what Satire is about. It cannot be anything else. Satire digs into the personal feelings, blatant stereotypes and hidden racism of us all. It cannot be politically correct; that would not work.

Imagine - as the puritan circles of the moderate middle-class left increasingly do - a non-offensive cartoon or comedians' joke: no racism, no sexism etc. Lovely. Great. But do not call it Satire, please. It will be the end of this form of expression. Imagine the Edinburgh festival showcasing only politically correct comedians. It won't work. A world with regulated Satire is a boring moderate place where middle fingers cannot be stuck up to power. Pax. Pacification by cappuccino, latte or Belgian lager. No swearing, no utterance, no conflict.

One of the first ever examples of Satire we have on records happened over 2,000 years ago. “The Babylonians” by Aristophanes 'caused embarrassment for the Athenian authorities since it depicted the cities of the Athenian League as slaves grinding at a mill'. Please note: Athens was the Paris of the time if the comparison ever stands and Aristophanes has somehow gone into history as a 'conservative author'.

Some argue that Satire is the instrument of Power on the weakest. William Hoggarth's infamous drawings in support of the Gin Act in 1751 are a great example. The English working-classes are depicted as dissolute and ugly people with lots of flaws. Notably, the drunk mother dropping the baby is in the foreground (this ideological framing might sound familiar to many today). I would rather call these visual narratives 'propaganda'. They solely express author’s ideology within a hegemonic project. That is, the author presents only their own idea. Propaganda uses a well-oiled machine of media power and the message is usually direct and affirmative: for instance, limitation on gin consumption, or going to war with, etc.

Satire instead works from inside-out. It does not endorse an explicit policy; it rather subsumes power to its own contradictions. I want to remember the Russian cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and the vitriolic energy he puts on the literary form of the Carnivalesque, which he obviously draws from Carnival itself. This was possibly the utmost form of irreverence of the voiceless, of humour and chaos at the same time. For instance, the medieval Feast of Fools targeted the height of Power of the times, the clergy of, ironically, Northern France. Apparently, Parisian New Year's Day was the crudest (or funniest) Carnival by far: often a pregnant woman was running the procession or a boy-bishop would sit on the church throne and conduct the mass. This might give us clues of how sensitive an issue sexuality was, even then, with respect to Catholic predicaments and how the poor felt on themselves the infantalising gaze of the clergy. Crucially, this carnivalesque inversion created for Bakhtin, who was prosecuted under Stalin's purges, the very conditions on which a dialogue becomes possible. 'Dialogism fails to produce a “whole”. It is a consciousness lived constantly on the borders of other consciousnesses'.

There are many examples that come to my mind, but I will stick to one I know well. Vauro, ex cartoonist of the Italian communist newspaper 'Il Manifesto', always represents migrants as child-like black people with big lips and bellies sticking out. The ex-Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi is sometimes depicted like Mussolini, sitting on a throne with a colonial helmet. Another illustration by the same cartoonist, maybe more poignant for the scope of this article, shows Pope Benedict XVI on his first trip abroad in 2009. Ratzinger controversially advocated a return to fundamental Christian values to counter the increased secularisation of many Western countries. He chose Cameroon to declare that condoms would not stop the spread of AIDS. In this vignette he appears (note, always much taller than the child-like African) angry about the child-like guy using a condom. The child-like guy clumsy replies: 'So sorry, I thought it was a chewing gum!'

These vignettes draw upon a very close reading of fascist iconography of Italian colonial adventure. Is that a politically correct way of building an argument? Obviously not. Is it racist? Obviously yes. However, while it has become ever too easy to declare ourselves "I am not racist, but...", these vignettes tease out the racist imaginary that a lot of Italians still have of their, fortunately brief, colonial encounter with East Africa. That is what Satire is good at. It extracts the most hidden fears, the often unspeakable and unspoken racist and sexist imaginaries, and it shows how ridiculous they are. At least, this is what I hope.

Satire can be offensive and irreverent, and usually it is. But the possibility to respond to it is what makes the difference: that is, a right to dissent to Satire and to contest it. Obviously this is dependent on the media capital one has and the ability to mobilise dissent, for instance in the form of petitions.[2] Usually Power has plenty of such a crucial form of capital. What about normal citizens? Do they have the same ability to respond? Probably not, despite social media. As I have argued, Satire targets Power: actually, I suspect the stronger the form of Power it addresses, the more irreverent and malicious Satire becomes. That is its raison d'être.

What is more ludicrous and challenging than sticking your finger up to the most archaic, regressive and fascist form of power we currently know, the coming together of religion and political tyranny that make up forms of fundamentalism? Returning to Charlie's vignettes, I struggle to find a blatantly racist one. The offence is usually, if not always, towards religious authority, and towards fundamentalism in the form of the Prophet, the Pope or the apparatus of militancy, rather than a generic attack on Muslims. I risk being very unpopular here but I would argue that irreverence to religious power is not the same as racism. Moreover, it increasingly appears that these terrorists were not more religiously motivated than I am, meaning that they are very much part of a political movement masked by religion: the Salafist Jihadism linked to Al-Qaida in Yemen. Slavoj Zizeck calls such formations 'Islamo-Fascism'. In the sense that they describe exactly this double movement of both religious fundamentalism and Liberal Leftists' impoverished critical analysis of it.

To answer Joe Sacco's rhetoric question: '...Satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bones? And what exactly is the target? And why?', we then need to ask another question: 'What would the world be without bones?' And also, how do you practically organise this? Are you going to put primary school teachers in charge of an ethical committee for Satire? Will you publish vignettes with the censorship mark: PG, 15+ and so on? Or are you going to ask permission to publish of any faction leader (not only Muslim, of course) of the religious world? Do we celebrate self-censorship, against the right to be offended, but then who is really benefiting from it? The list is endless and the answers, I am afraid, are rather scarce.

Paolo Cardullo is an Associate Lecturer in Sociology (Goldsmiths) and a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR). He currently teaches ‘Talking Practice’ on the MA Photography and Urban Culture.


[1] We must not forget that these vignettes were addressing a specific niche audience - 50,000 people at the most (and I certainly was not one of them). After the cartoons have been 'leaked' onto social media, the magazine sold over 3 millions copies.

[2] The Vatican's petition against the Charlie Hebdo 'Christianofobic vignette' has been recently removed, probably after the polemic that followed Pope Francis' non evangelic invite to punch your offender.

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