Charlie Hebdo: People often take satirists ‘seriously’


Kavita Krishnan

On the latest ‪Charlie Hebdo‬, here’s my two bit to address the argument being made by several that the cartoon of Aylan Kurdi, grown up to be an ape who rapes women, is actually a critique and caricature of racism, not a racist cartoon.

True, satirists have often had the misfortune of being taken seriously, at face value, and having their satire misunderstood. Jonathan Swift was branded a misanthrope by some, for his famous piece of satire, ‘A Modest Proposal’.

What, IMHO, makes ‘A Modest Proposal’ a great satire while the CH cartoon remains fairly banal racism?

‘A Modest Proposal’ had suggested that Irish children could be eaten as a solution to the problem of hunger. Now, what’s important to note here is that the anti Irish ideologues and opinion makers in Britain weren’t suggesting cannibalising Irish babies. By, tongue in cheek, suggesting it, Swift was saying that the anti-Irish ideologues were as good as cannibals.

What sets Swift apart from CH, is that the CH cartoons are merely repeating what garden variety racists are ALREADY saying, i.e. that it’s wrong to use baby Aylan as the iconic image for Syrian refugees while actually Muslim refugees should not be allowed in since they’re prone to raping ‘our women’.

This very argument is being made on placards and posters by racists in Europe today. The word ‘Rape-ugees’ was used by racist protesters on a placard just yesterday; I saw it reported in a news piece.

How does it critique racists or make them uncomfortable, to merely reproduce their very same trope? Swift was misunderstood by some, true. But equally true that Swift’s A Modest Proposal infuriated the anti-Irish opinion in a big way, they instantly ‘got it’, that they were being branded cannibals.

And this happened because Swift used a deliberate exaggeration — he didn’t echo the arguments already being made by those he set out to satirise.

Take another example. A piece in The Hindu a few years back made a ‘Modest Proposal’ that — if my memory serves right — men’s clothes were too revealing and provocative, bare chests on dhotis and so on be banned, and so on. Yes, some comments on the webpage misunderstood the writer’s point; they took her seriously and asked her to stop moral policing. But most understood what she was satirising moral policing of women — using the classic tool of inversion.

CH neither uses exaggeration nor inversion. Inversion could have made for a great cartoon, say, a cartoon linking race with rape. But in a rape case involving a powerful European figure, like the former IMF chief. That would have truly made an anti racist point. But it doesn’t do so.

The CH cartoon has nothing to distinguish it from crude racist graffiti. It will only get nods of affirmation from Europe’s racists, not discomfort. It empowers racists in the current climate — not anti racists.