Satire, free speech, “ands” and “buts”

It’s not a “but”. It should never be a “but”, it’s an “and”. “But” is a hinge that folds back on itself and disavows what came before. “I believe in free speech, but Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons,” “terrorism is abhorrent, but Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons”: the “but” establishes a relationship between the two clauses, and suggests that the latter statement cancels out the former. The speaker claims a principle, then gives it up in the next breath. “”I believe in free speech, and Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons,” “terrorism is abhorrent, and Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons”: that’s better. Now we have to take responsibility for the relationship between the propositions. Now we can talk.

I wasn’t going to write anything about Charlie Hebdo, and yet here I am. We have enough opinions, and I am going to write one more. It strikes me that I’ve made three claims so far regarding Charlie Hebdo and the massacre at the magazine’s office. Two of those are probably uncontroversial: most people would say they agreed with free speech, and most people are against terror. Perhaps you’re less inclined to agree that Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons. Perhaps you accept that racial imagery was used, but the magazine’s mockery was applied universally and part of a distinctly French tradition of mockery, so no specific racism can be imparted to it. Or maybe you’ll point to the fact that one of the magazine’s major targets of mockery is Front National leader Marine le Pen.

The sharp edge of many of the le Pen images strikes against her sex. Being a woman is a grotesque, mockable quality (and this has often been the case in satire, which is hardly an inherently radical or “progressive” medium. Thackeray, for example, starts Vanity Fair by setting up Jane Austen as a prim, prissy old governess before figuratively chucking her out of a carriage window, in a novel that cribs relentlessly from the woman he defenestrates). Charlie Hebdo had le Pen as an ersatz Joan of Arc with her tits jutting out in hideous metal cones, le Pen shaving a Hitler sweep of fringe and toothbrush moustache into her pubes. Race, like sex, is a vulnerability that the cartoonist can catch on: the Boko Haram kidnapping victims as big-mouthed welfare queens, a black politician as a monkey, big-nosed semitic caricatures. (I find all these images fairly horrible, and they are within the lines of free speech because they do not directly incite or threaten violence.)

The qualities “white” and “male” can’t be exploited in the same way. There’s no trope of exaggerating them to undermine an individual, because they are the neutral attributes of what we accept culturally to be the human subject. It’s not just about who is mocked. It’s also about who does the mocking – who has the licence to make fun. Charlie Hebdo is staffed, largely, by white men. Its laughter ranges over several targets, while the power to direct that laughter stays within the class that habitually exercises power. And this doesn’t make the magazine bad or inherently racist, it’s simply true, and worthy of observation when we’re considering the relationship between satire and power. From Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele to Hislop and Merton on Have I Got News For You, its most successful practitioners work from more-or-less inside the lines of cultural authority.

That’s true too of Chris Morris, my favourite satirist working right now – he’s male, he’s white, and he went to a public school. What I like most about Morris is the way that he exploits this position of default authority. Sometimes this is direct, like with the vox pops he did for local radio and The Day Today. Formally, these are simple: he asks an absurd question of a member of the public, and they reply with something that’s preposterous because it doesn’t challenge the terms of the question. (A typical exchange: “Can you tell from people’s faces if they’ve got an awkward stomach velocity?” “I think you can, yes…”) The reason they work is more complicated. Morris presents himself as entitled, and the people he addresses react with automatic deference, because the habit of challenging authority is rare. In general, we use a small number of cues to decide what social position someone holds relative to us, and then shape our own demeanour appropriately.

This technique worked magnificently on celebrities in Brass Eye, and then the same dynamic became the basis of a lot of the sketches in Blue Jam. The woozy, unpinned horror of the nightmarish scenarios in that show often comes from the fact that authority figures are behaving in bizarre, unaccountable ways – and the characters they’re talking to have no way of escaping from the situation, because they can’t muster the social capital to say no. Sometimes while listening to the programmes, I have a desperate, clawing feeling of wanting a character to just refuse when a doctor is suggesting an unnecessary bone removal, or telling them their child has “symptomless coma”, or forcing a patient to hit him on the bottom with a ruler (doctors figure a lot).

In his 2010 jihadi farce Four Lions, a lot of the humour Morris extracts is from his would-be terrorists trying to look like terrorists: when they make a video, the prop gun is absurdly too small and a menacing diatribe against western culture turns into a rambling discussion of fast food joints. Protagonists Omar, Waj, Barry and Faisal are idiots. They’re clumsy, incompetent and querulous, and being laughable doesn’t make them less murderous. Ultimately, even though their suicide bombing campaign devolves into Honey-Monster-costumed absurdity, even though Omar tries at the last to refuse, they end up playing the part they were supposed to.

At the end of the film, we get a glimpse of the aftermath, in which the police response casts them as a deviously clever internal menace, tidying away the ridiculous to make them an enemy worthy of national dignity, arresting Omar’s devout and peaceful brother. It’s not a “but”, it’s an “and”: the terrorists are moronic, and they are violent, and the response of state and public validates them when it’s supposed to be opposing them, and it’s not clear how anyone could step outside the predefined lines of the role they’re put into. And, and, and. It’s never a “but”.