This past week, when terrible, almost unimaginable events have taken place in Paris, and millions of people around the world congregated to show solidarity with those who were murdered for no other reason than they took up a pencil, or happened to be born into a particular faith, my eyes have been opened to the ignorance and intolerance emanating from my own personal circles.
My background: I’m both Jewish, and a satirist. I’ve been one of those things for 30 years, the other for a sight longer. My experience of the latter has given me a varied CV in theatre and television, in print and in radio, where I was responsible for producing BBC Radio 4’s Week Ending during the first Gulf War, the only satirical show to be aired anywhere in the country during the conflict; broadcasters and networks usually panic at such times, generally preferring to replace anything potentially contentious with re-runs of Friends, so the series drew much interest from the media, and was acclaimed by both the public and the industry alike. Thus, I like to imagine I have something of an idea of what political satire is and what it’s meant to convey. Not to mention its importance in a democratic society.
My being Jewish, on the other hand, has afforded me lifelong membership of an exclusive group I never applied to join, closed to most people unless their names were put down before birth. A society from which it is impossible to resign, the tearing up of my Gold Star of David membership card and cancellation of my subscription are impossible to effect, and I’m on a hiding to nothing when it comes to resisting a strong urge to play the violin.
My politics? They’re my own, and totally unconnected with my being Jewish. In fact, largely, they’re the very opposite of what any common or garden anti-Semite would expect them to be. But hey, what does that matter? Accident of birth is enough to foment depraved hatred. Apparently.
Naturally, I wasn’t slow in declaring ‘Je Suis Charlie’, in company with millions of others, on social media; quite apart from anything else, I lived in Paris a few decades ago. But interesting accusations soon ensued…was I aware that satire “mocked people for the sake of mocking them”? That satirists “went out of their way to make people mad”? That, as one person put it, although she believed in “everyone’s right to free speech”, she didn’t agree with “how everyone *uses* that right, and [she doesn’t] support Charlie’s goals or modus operandi.”
Hmm. Tricky one. Since Charlie Hebdo’s goals and modus operandi are to exercise freedom of speech by publishing a satirical magazine, I’m not entirely sure how these things would come to pass without publishing a satirical magazine to exercise freedom of speech.
A lot more satire-bashing followed, much of it from those who were ‘whole-heartedly behind freedom of expression’, but who also somehow believe that Charlie Hebdo brought this bloody rampage upon itself. Would I, as a fellow satirist, have published some of the material that appears between its covers? No, I wouldn’t. But that’s a difference in style, in sensibility, in choosing to use a hammer to crack a nut, or otherwise. Though we all write about nuts.
And then, from another left field entirely, probably to the left of the last left field, one of my esteemed Twitter followers (I only have esteemed Twitter followers) chastised me for posting a very short line on the breaking news that a kosher supermarket was under attack. When I say ‘posting a very short line’, I mean purely a line of information; no humour or jokes or satire involved at all. So why the rap over the knuckles? My reporting of this terrorist atrocity was supposedly ‘helping the terrorists’.
Shall we get something straight, here? The non-reporting of a major atrocity is muzzling the press and diminishing democracy, and is bowing down to those terrorists who seek to abolish freedom of speech, even in countries where freedom of speech is enshrined in law. And I’d very much like to know how much the violent hatred of others by vicious madmen intent on inflicting the whole world with their repressive, medieval dogma would dissipate by a lack of reporting of breaking news and ongoing incidents. To the nearest 0%. (That should be a clue).
And isn’t it their right for citizens to be able to monitor the activities of the police, the military, the security services for which they pay, and which are supposed to keep them safe? Would it be right to sweep under the carpet the failures of the almost-simultaneous – almost by some 15 minutes – raids on the kosher store and the printing press, which were supposed to be simultaneously simultaneous? Do we trust governments WITH unrestricted reporting of the news, let alone without?
I was once at a talk given by Margaret Thatcher’s chief press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham, in which he pronounced satire as being “one of five things which has brought the UK to its knees”. I can’t quite remember what the other four were, such was the steam emanating from my ears, fogging up my brain, but when it was time for questions from the audience, I firstly thanked Sir Bernard for his contribution to my income for the past couple of decades (not sure he got the joke) and then offered to purchase a one-way ticket for him to fly to China or North Korea, where the trade in satire is non-existent, for some reason.
Much of the criticism of satirical material comes, of course, from those who are incapable of understanding it, be it for reasons of their aiming to be first off the mark to be offended by something, or simply their inability to discern irony. But this does not mean satire should be prohibited, just because there are those who don’t appreciate or get it. Do the easy-appeasers of groups who threaten violence against those who dare disagree with them actually care that they are according them the upper hand? Aren’t they a little too acquiescent, carrying out extremists bidding by passively tossing their pencil sharpeners into the bin? Or is it the done thing these days to agree with the people carrying the largest weapons? If so, best acquire an accurate tape measure the next time you venture outside. If we’ve learned anything during these past horrible days, isn’t it that in the end, la plume est plus puissante que le Kalashnikov? (And if you don’t believe me, count how many people took to the streets in peaceful protest yesterday).
It’s not enough to live in a society which merely declares it champions freedom of speech, if freedom of speech is not exercised on a regular basis – it’s crucial to the healthy functioning of a democracy. And if you don’t publish something because someone, somewhere, will be offended, you won’t be publishing anything, because jihadists, Neo-Nazis, ayatollahs, Kim Jong-Un, Princes Charles and Andrew, redheads, left-handed people, Leeds supporters, will all feel hard done by at some point. But that’s tough. Somebody asked me if we have the right to offend people. I’d rather say we have the right to freedom of expression, and that everyone has the right to be offended.
If you still don’t get it, here’s what not to be in 2015 so you don’t upset anyone:-
Jewish, a satirist, a Muslim, a non-Muslim, a Zionist, a non-Zionist…
As for satirists and journalists, I’ve compiled a list of the topics it seems we’re currently permitted to write about:-
Charlie Hebdo, for those who’d never heard of the paper prior to last week, but who are somehow experts on it now, has no time for religion of any flavour. They lambast all religions with equal fervour. They are appalled by incitement to hatred and violence, especially by those intent on imposing their own extremely narrow, idiosyncratically intolerant ideas on the rest of the world. Every religious group is lambasted with the same disdain, but they sacked a cartoonist in 2009 for being anti-Semitic. They speak out freely against anyone endeavouring to restrict or abolish the rights of those who reside in a free nation. They campaign on injustice, on poverty, on stupidity.
Pencils are not lethal weapons, and do not inflict mortal wounds. At least, not in any of the primary schools I attended. However, I don’t remember many Kalashnikovs being handed out in assembly.
The political framework of France is based on politics outranking religion; religion, of course, is tolerated, but only in a private capacity. French citizens have the right to follow whatever religion they like, but not expect the state to be swayed by the particular beliefs of a faith, especially if they go against the democratic rights prescribed in law for the population at large.
Those unwilling to think about satire, to consider ITS rights, or understand what it is or stands for, are missing the point that satirists are usually the most right-on members of society there are. They’re commenting on inequality, on the oppressed, the violated, the forgotten. Charlie Hebdo, with the plainly powerful weapon of satire, are on the side of the dispossessed, the marginalised, the abandoned dwellers of the banlieues. They’re standing up for equality, freedom from racism and bigotry. “They are the solution, not the problem”. (See link below). Yet they are the ones – and not the vile, Right Wing bigots, of which there are more than a few in France – who have paid a price for their socially-inclusive dreams of justice and morality.
Those who are quick off the draw to castigate them (see what I did there?), and what they do, may not realise the irony, but they’re having a laugh.
RIP all who died. If nothing else, let’s hope your death educates those who are all-too-willing to give up rights they don’t quite understand. *
* This article will give you an idea of what life becomes without freedom of speech. Read it while Raif Badawi weeps.
And here’s a link to a brilliant piece which contextualises the vile atrocities at Charlie Hebdo along with the other awful events of last week in Paris.