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Jonathan Guyer: Punch Me Up, Punch Me Down

Satirists and cartoonists working in the Middle East weigh in on PEN, Charlie Hebdo, and the meaning of free expression.

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Chabonnier's iconic glasses hover above a Hebdo rally.
Image credit to Flickr user Surfguard

By Jonathan Guyer

Conservative columnists slur a prominent American cartoonist as “terror apologist.” Universities waver over whether to hold symposia on comics. And at least six authors withdraw from a freedom of speech event in disapproval of this year’s honoree—Charlie Hebdo.

Nearly four months after the shocking murder of twelve in January at the offices of the French comic magazine Charlie Hebdo, the debates spurred by the attack are far from resolved. The words, “in the wake of Charlie Hebdo,” have become sly shorthand that obscures the issues raised by the killings. Were the cartoons themselves incendiary? Did structural aspects of French society catalyze the terror? What is the meaning of free expression? What are the red lines of acceptable speech? These questions, too difficult to ask in the bloody aftermath of the Paris manhunt continue to provoke as much as the cartoons themselves. Those considerations have grown even starker following two gunmen’s attempted assault on a “Draw Muhammad” contest held in Garland, Texas on May 3, and hosted by the anti-Islam crusader Pamela Geller. Fault lines are being drawn in parallel debates underway in the United States and France. Absent from both conversations, however, are insights from satirists in the Arab world who struggle with these questions daily.

“By punching downward, by attacking a powerless,
disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech,” Trudeau said.

When Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, won the George Polk Career Award in April, he took to Long Island University’s lectern to address what cartoons can and should do: “Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful.” He wondered whether his French colleagues had crossed the line: “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech,” he said.

Though several conservative columnists have argued that Trudeau’s speech amounted to blaming Charlie Hebdo for the attack, I see the cartoonist’s remarks as framing Charlie Hebdo within a bigger discussion of the constantly shifting limits of acceptable satire. Delimiting those fluid boundaries is the duty of the cartoonist. (Trudeau “respectfully and as politely as possible” declined multiple requests for an interview.)

Many Arab cartoonists I have interviewed—all of whom condemn without reservation the attacks on the French satirical magazine—concur with Trudeau. “The fact that everybody is simplifying Charlie Hebdo into the only meaning of freedom of speech is very, very problematic for me,” the Egyptian cartoonist Andeel told me, doubting whether Charlie Hebdo’s satire was praise-worthy for its political and intellectual edge. Andeel, who has faced censorship in the form of threats from Islamists and rejections from pro-military editors, is well-versed in the tricky calculus of satire. In Egypt, blasphemy and insults to the military and presidency are illegal, and dozens of other regulations limit speech by enforcing respect for other government institutions. This puts stress on satirists, who nonetheless forge workarounds to address the country’s most frustrating issues. Andeel takes risks by regularly caricaturing Egypt’s president in online cartoons. Yet only a handful of opposition cartoonists in the country drawing for print publications use coded symbols, such as a bicycle, in order to sneak their dissent onto newsstands

“Are you challenging somebody else’s ignorance, or are you challenging your own fear?”

Andeel wonders whether, by illustrating the prophet—which is forbidden according to many Islamic authorities—Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were preaching to the French nationalist choir as they published xenophobic caricatures of Muslims and Arabs. “Are you challenging somebody else’s ignorance, or are you challenging your own fear?” Andeel asked of Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Muslims with big noses and scraggly beards.

Trudeau asked the same question in different words, and the pushback against him has been venomous. David Frum of The Atlantic went off on a limb, insinuating that, in critiquing Charlie Hebdo’s drawings, Trudeau served as an apologist for terrorism. Frum exaggerated Trudeau’s fixation with the underdog, twisting the cartoonist’s remarks by bringing in antique texts, like the novel Vanity Fair (1847-48) and an article from The Nation (1871). Perhaps Frum’s argument would have been tighter had he stuck to closely reading the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo or even Doonesbury. Then, in a column for the New York Times Sunday Review on April 18, Ross Douthat followed up, accusing Trudeau of blaming the victim, and being an insensitive liberal.

Trudeau has made a career of breaking the rules; he brought serious content to newspaper comic strips. and today Doonesbury appears on the opinion page of mainstream papers. In a 2012 strip, Trudeau mocked the GOP’s obsession with regulating women’s bodies following a Texas bill requiring women to undergo a vaginal ultrasound prior to an abortion. That explains what, on face value, appeared to be a slippery red herring in the conclusion of Douthat’s op-ed—“you’ll see today’s progressivism as a force that has consistently liberated adults at the expense of children’s basic rights and that depends on a great deal of hidden violence—millions upon millions of abortions, above all—to sustain its particular vision of equality.” For Douthat, progressives are murderers for supporting abortion, but I’m not sure how this relates to Charlie Hebdo.

“These guys [drawing for Charlie Hebdo] have all the freedom that they have, but they still go and do hateful, stupid things that tear the world apart, even though we’re already torn apart. But, of course, they have the right to do that.”

Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese cartoonist based in Qatar, denounces the assassinations in Paris and the attempted assault in Texas, criticizes the cartoons of the prophet, and is a strong advocate of free speech. Still, he considers Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to be racist provocations without substance. “I think they’re as extreme as the people they’re claiming they’re fighting,” Albaih told me. “These guys [drawing for Charlie Hebdo] have all the freedom that they have, but they still go and do hateful, stupid things that tear the world apart, even though we’re already torn apart. But, of course, they have the right to do that.”

Albaih cites Charlie Hebdo’s survivor issue, published the week after the attack, as a case in point. The green cover features another caricature of the Prophet Mohammed below the headline, “All Is Forgiven,” in French. Leading Islamic institutions, including Al-Azhar in Cairo, condemned the image. Albaih saw that cover as a missed opportunity. “They could’ve done something that brought everybody together,” Albaih told me. “There are a million ideas of what they could’ve done. They could’ve gotten a Muslim cartoonist to do something, they could have done something about we are all the same, they could’ve done something about the unification of France, the republic—a million things—but instead they kept doing it again.”

Albaih hesitates to make a hard and fast rule about punching up versus punching down, saying those considerations should be up to individual cartoonists. “We can’t put boundaries. We’re becoming the man if we do that,” he says, while arguing that the tenets of free speech are no excuse for stereotypes. “We need to stop with the lazy cartoons. If you want to talk about Muslims, you draw an angry man with a beard shouting,” which Albaih sees as “feeding into that mainstream media.”

Satirists, “shouldn’t take themselves too seriously and see satire as a blunt political instrument, because that, to my mind, starts becoming much more like
propaganda than satire.”

Karl Sharro—who blogs satirical columns, comics, videos, and more, on his popular site Karl Remarks—thinks the question of punching up versus punching down is a non-sequitur. He believes in “satire for satire’s sake” and unmitigated free speech. Sharro grew up in Lebanon during that country’s civil war, where humor was a way to cope with the vicissitudes of day-to-day life. Satirists, “shouldn’t take themselves too seriously and see satire as a blunt political instrument, because that, to my mind, starts becoming much more like propaganda than satire,” Sharro told me.

Satire, for Sharro, is not about standing up for the underdog so much as it is about being funny and original. “When I’m mocking ISIS, let’s say, we shouldn’t look at its instrumental value—what it’s achieving in the political sense,” Sharro explains. “It’s part of a whole public dialogue about where ISIS comes from, what are the roots of it. Some of those you can address in serious ways and others I think it’s much more interesting when you use the satirical tools, and it might expose some of the irrational convictions. It might highlight a particular phenomenon in society that drives them.”

For some American audiences, making fun of ISIS might itself be considered crossing the line, while across the Middle East cartoons and comic sketches about the Islamic extremist group constitute public protest. Saturday Night Live received criticism online for a sketch making fun of ISIS. Counter-intuitively, a distinguishing feature of Middle East satire is gallows humor, the ability to crack a joke as the aftershocks of another tragedy reverberate. Satire is a method for working through trauma, providing comfort to the creators and consumers as much as critique of the villains. In the Egyptian comix ’zine Tok Tok, the cartoonist Makhlouf wrote a four-page comic entitled “Je Suis Kouachi,” weaving together an imagined tale of the Charlie Hebdo assassins’ childhood. Makhlouf drew the deranged brothers’ radicalization, in solidarity with his slain French counterparts. The diverse viewpoints of Arab satirists are a crucial counterweight to the mainstream story of Charlie Hebdo.

Jokes hold the potential to transform the way we talk about the news and what we consider news in the first place. “I have always respected satire for the way it gives powerless people, the power that someone else has all,” the Egyptian cartoonist Andeel told me days after the attack. “If you are a president or whatever, you have all the guns, you have all the policemen, you have all the jails, you have all the money, you have all media, and you have everything.”

It is in the nature of humor that the punchiest jokes tack very closely to the red lines of good taste, and pushes the listener or reader to rethink why those boundaries exist at all. Cartoonists operate in this ambiguous space, where that line is never clearly demarcated. If the job is strenuous in the West, where the assassin’s veto now menaces cartoonists, it is even more so in capitals in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, where cartoonists navigate vague laws, unsympathetic governments, and sensitive readers.

“When I’m making cartoons, when I’m expressing my opinions on Facebook or whatever, I’m always more concerned about people who totally disagree with me,” says Andeel the Egyptian cartoonist. “I don’t feel like this is what Charlie Hebdo is doing.”

Prominent authors—Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi—share this sentiment and have withdrawn from the PEN American Center gala, which honored Charlie Hebdo. Their critique, in brief, is that Charlie Hebdo punched down at a disenfranchised and unprivileged minority, namely France’s Muslims. Others might call that an over-simplified reading of the Parisian comic magazine, as they point out that the French cartoonists used racist and xenophobic imagery in order to mock the racists and xenophobes among us, in keeping with the French tradition.

Nevertheless, I find it befuddling that advocates of Charlie Hebdo have taken to explaining the French comics by quantifying them by topic. Cartoons are not data points, to be plotted and explained. Some have advanced the “equal opportunity offender” line—that all religions and topics were in the French satirists’ bailiwick. If they were equal opportunity offenders, then critics have the right to analyze the cartoons and how they offended; none of this is tantamount to being an apologist for terror. As Doonesbury’s creator says, “What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must.”

Such critical perspectives, however, have been characterized as victim-blaming. In fact, the satirist’s traditional role spans from provocateur to watchdog. In his seminal 1904 book, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud emphasized humor’s capacity to challenge authority and surpass the internal and external constraints of censorship, to surmount taboos. “The joke then represents a rebellion against such authority, a liberation from the oppression it imposes,” he writes. Caricature performs a particular form of degradation, which Freud likened to the act of unmasking; caricature is “so attractive to us—we laugh at it even when it is badly done, merely because we consider rebellion against authority to be a creditable thing.” To follow this line of reasoning: our psychology pre-disposes us to enjoying mockery of the powerful. Yale University Professor James C. Scott further examines humor as a form of opposition in his 1990 book, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Scott’s critical reading of texts from subordinate groups, such as slaves’ jokes about their masters, is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of punching up.

*                      *                     *

As the PEN dustup attracts eyeballs, two French public intellectuals are sparring over the country’s rightward turn and rising xenophobia amid bigger considerations of free speech’s limits. Both of these scenes suggest that satire’s role in society is at once powerful, unpredictable, and ambiguous—and that it will take time to fully understand the impact of the assassin’s veto in Paris.

In France, the solidarity that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack has provided new opportunities for the far-right National Front, which triumphed in March’s election. The root causes of the attack and the national response remain contentious. The killings have divided France, according to philosopher Jacques Rancière, professor emeritus at the Université de Paris (St. Denis). “Obviously everyone agrees in condemning the January attacks, and everyone was pleased by the popular response that followed,” he said an interview last month. “But the unanimity we were meant to show in defending ‘freedom of expression’ fed a kind of confusion.” That confusion emboldened France’s ultra-right and xenophobic movements.

For Rancière, the French have ignored the question of “how individuals can live together and learn to respect each other,” the real provocation that should have emerged from the attack, and instead a false binary has been created. The values of laïcité—of France’s secular tradition—have been used to distinguish between us and them:

“We’ve added another chapter to the campaign that for many years has used great universal values for the purposes of delegitimizing part of the population, counterposing ‘good Frenchmen’—the partisans of the Republic, laïcité and freedom of expression—to immigrants seen as inevitably communalist, Islamist, intolerant, sexist, and backward…”

Rancière is right to emphasize the demonization of Muslims and Islam following the attack: According to EuroNews, 222 hate crimes were committed against French Muslims in the first quarter of this year. His reasoning for this rise in hate, however, is a bitter pill to swallow:

“All republican, socialist, revolutionary, and progressive ideals have been turned back against themselves. They have become the opposite of what they were meant to be—no longer weapons in the battle for equality, but arms for discrimination, distrust, and contempt directed against a supposedly ‘brutish’ or ‘backward’ people. Unable to fight the growth of inequality, we legitimize inequalities by delegitimizing the people who suffer their effects.”

The writer and psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller has written a letter in reply to Rancière full of jabs and rhetorical flourishes. Miller believes that Rancière’s reading of universal French values is wrong. Miller sees Rancière’s critique of French laïcité to be as clueless as “Putin and his Slavophile philosophers, the masters of China, of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the new Islamic Caliphate,” and so on. Yet Miller fails to address France’s rightward shift, which Rancière’s spotlights. Miller does not account for the rise in anti-Muslim attacks, and instead implicitly calls Rancière an apologist for Muslims.

Miller has been a passionate and prolific commentator on Charlie Hebdo’s fall and rise. A day after the Paris attack, he wrote:

“Unless we were to turn back time, that of the modern era, and deport all minority populations from the country, the question —a question of life or death—will be to know whether our penchant for satire, for the right to ridicule, to be iconoclast in our disrespect, whether these rights are as essential to our mode of jouissance as is the submission to the One of the Islamic tradition.”

Is respecting a religion the equivalent of submitting to it? I am not sure if that assertion is Houellebecqian or simply ignorant; however, the insinuation of expelling minorities from France is downright scary, even when employed as a rhetorical device.

For the satirist Karl Sharro, the mistake has been to frame liberal values, notably free speech, strictly as features of Western societies. “This is a completely false dichotomy, because there are people who died, were murdered, were tortured for their belief in free speech,” Sharro told me, referring to free speech activists outside of the West.

The causes of the attack, from the unresolved legacies of colonialism to xenophobia across the spectrum, must be debated. Rancière and Miller have begun to do that, and it’s too bad that few in the US seem willing to engage in such conversations. “Unable to fight the growth of inequality, we legitimize inequalities by delegitimizing the people who suffer their effects,” notes Rancière. In a riposte to Miller, Rancière writes of the need for dialogue that goes beyond the vapid label of multiculturalism, describing it as “the responsibility on each person in terms of what s/he thinks is right to say, or not say, and the way in which what s/he says is likely to be understood.” This is what Trudeau points out when he says, “Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.” Free speech advocates that have problems with that allegation should take the time to read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons—and to engage in a dialogue with Trudeau—rather than slur him.

The crux of Trudeau’s remarks demands further thought: “Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.” Reading this provocation, one is reminded that satire and journalism have quite a bit in common. Satirists, like journalists, must negotiate fluid red lines of acceptable speech. Satirists, like journalists, fight censorship. Satirists, like journalists, face dangers when they go too far. Satire, it might be said, is even more powerful than journalism in conveying new narratives. As Theodor Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia: “Those who have laughter on their side don’t need proof.”

Jonathan Guyer is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs based in Cairo and senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. He blogs about Arabic comics and caricature at Oum Cartoon.

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One comment for Jonathan Guyer: Punch Me Up, Punch Me Down

  1. Comment by Jason Bogdaneris on September 14, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    A fascinating and insightful read even if I don’t fully agree with some of the points made. An interesting question that came to mind while reading this. What would have been the reaction if the Piss Christ artist (Andres Serrano) had been killed because of his work?

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