Art, Law

Is Nothing Sacred?

Where satirists use art and language to promote their politics, fundamentalists use guns to enforce theirs. In satire and comedy nothing is sacred and everything is absurd, that is their politics. For religious authoritarians many things are sacred and nothing about that is funny.


Nietzsche said that love of irony is a sign of health and everything absolute belongs to pathology. This morning in Paris, at the offices of the weekly satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, at least ten journalists and two police officers were shot dead by several masked gunmen who were heard shouting that the prophet had been avenged. The magazine had printed cartoons of Muhammad in 2012 that included images of him naked and showing him being pushed in a wheelchair by an Orthodox Jew. The magazine’s famous cartoonist Charb (Stephane Charbonnier, pictured above) was among those killed.

Notwithstanding this needless slaughter, Al Jazeera, an hour or so after the murders, asked French journalist Agnes Poirier (according to a tweet from her) whether the magazine’s remaining journalists should apologise for making fun of Islamists. This is an absurd attribution of blame in the wrong direction. If nothing is sacred, there is nothing to apologise for; if things are sacred, then murder is contrary to God’s law.

Some argue that, even in a non sacred world, there are no grounds for anyone to be gratuitously offensive. But I do not know the verb ‘to offend’, nor am I familiar with the emotion of ‘being offended’. I am familiar with the emotions of anger and resentment. But people who claim to be ‘offended’ are using the word to blame their anger and resentment on a perceived cause. Why should they be entitled to do so? The verbs ‘to insult’ and ‘to affront’ mean doing acts intentionally designed to cause hurt. That is a different matter. Artists, comedians and satirists are not acting with that intention, but instead the intention of producing art and comedy and satire. If some people feel hurt by the process, they should show more resilience.

Charlie Hebdo has a record of commitment to satire and fearlessness, and has been long accustomed to threats. Charb once said he would rather die standing than live on his knees. The magazine’s offices were fire-bombed in 2011 and the staff subjected to death threats. Their cartoonists, journalists and editors carried on, reflecting their history of readiness to challenge religion and taboos. Unlike the masked gunmen this morning, they never hid their faces or names. Unlike those of us who self-censor out of fear, their commitment to freedom of expression is true bravery.

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