On January 7th, I stayed home sick from work, napping in fitful sore-throated bursts. When I opened Facebook, I saw an NPR headline that said something like: SHOTS FIRED AT FRENCH NEWSPAPER OFFICE. I remember this because I am not usually home sick and I have sad fascinations with both tragedy and journalism. I had never heard of the newspaper. Throughout the day, the profile pics of my writer friends merged into a mysterious phrase “JE SUIS CHARLIE”. I understood that the staff of Charlie Hebdo had died for their words and ideas because someone else was not OK with them, and that was not OK with me. I clicked a button and a JE SUIS CHARLIE post appeared on my wall.
Within 24 hours, that message was negated. I AM NOT CHARLIE, the feeds of my writer friends proclaimed, the same friends who live-tweeted the live-tweets of Ferguson and Baltimore. And now I was intrigued enough to read the piece in Paper Bird. OK, there was more than intrigue on my part. I was worried that I might have committed some terrible social justice faux pas, because the majority of my friends are liberal, and sometimes my worldview is myopic and sometimes I don’t get that my experiences are not the only valid ones. I am not someone who gets incensed often by issues of social justice. I wish things could be different and occasionally I say so, but that is often the extent of my participation.
Scott Long nicely placed Charlie Hebdo in a cultural context of generation of anti-Islamist thought and general French xenophobia. When I finished reading, I felt partially educated, yet unmoved to agree. In fact, I felt two things: that the article’s interpretation of JE SUIS CHARLIE was deliberately literal and that there were still twelve people lying dead in their office. And that this turnaround time on ignoring the second fact was far too soon (and that the phrase “then the terrorists win” is obnoxious in any context).
To me, the arbiters of socially conscious were capitalizing on the Charlie Hebdo deaths to point out the obvious: these men drew Islamophobic, racist cartoons. I understood the cartoons were likely insulting and offensive. I judged no news outlet for declining reprints, knowing they feared not only a backlash against the work’s insensitivity, but potentially violence against themselves.
But if you wanted to make your point,I thought, you should have said all this when they were alive. Louder. To me, the whole social justice universe had proved itself morally bankrupt and devoid of empathy. And now satire itself, the form that Charlie Hebdo’s art took—a form of writing dear to my absurd contrarian little heart—was being deemed by its very nature problematic.
I hate the word problematic. I know why it exists; not everything is wholly bad or good. Well-intentioned yet ill-informed statements litter the world. Unknowingly saying something problematic is akin to wearing your favorite jacket and feeling sexy while forgetting there’s a giant rip in the arm. But saying something is problematic—the word feels slithering, unctuous. People who see the rip seem to be gloating about it rather than pointing it out calmly or offering you their jacket instead.
I think some satire is bad. I think the Onion using a misogynistic slur to joke about an eight-year-old Black actress is so off it doesn’t deserve the term satire, and I think South Park is more offensive than funny. And I think that maybe my standards for satire might be a little wonky and high-minded and maybe Charlie Hebdo isn’t included in them either, but I think satire can be employed thoughtfully and effectively.
So I sat feeling deeply infuriated but conflicted. I knew why I was angry but I felt wrong for being angry and now, four months later, one of the world’s preeminent writing organizations has created a firestorm because they focused on the tragedy and not the controversy. PEN made a decision to honor the Charlie Hebdo victims at their annual gala.
And here’s where things get even murkier for me: despite being angry with the world’s response to Charlie Hebdo’s content rather than the slaughter of its staff, I’m not angry at Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, and the other writers for declining to participate in an event honoring them. But I’m very, very confused as to why other people are angry. Presumably, the six writers who didn’t want to honor the publication felt that way from the instant the deaths were confirmed. They did not want to celebrate those whose work they felt “valoriz[ed] selectively offensive material”. But suddenly, that objection is no longer valid currency. Suddenly the Hebdo men are heroes once again, like we forgot that we were angry, that we had our moment of waving our hands wildly over what they did wrong, that we remembered finally that no matter what they did wrong they did not deserve to die instead of paying that lip service in the first paragraphs of blog posts.
To be fair, no one may be sure of how many voices spoke on either side at any point. And knowledge gives us power to change our minds. But I want to know why my anger over Charlie Hebdo feels so inappropriate and simmers in contradictory splotches, and all I can really think about is how the situation was made for some sort of satire, that someone needed to point out its incongruence or else we would never learn from it. And how satire is not a tool for one group of people to attack another, but a tool to illustrate hypocrisy and interrogate beliefs, whether for an individual or a group. And that need will never, ever go away.
Liz Baudler writes for Newcity and the Windy City Times, and co-hosts Sappho's Salon at Women and Children First Bookstore. She spends far too much time reading things on the internet and not enough time doing dishes. Find more of her work at www.lizbaudler.virb.com.