Alastair Miller/Bloomberg News

Now Is the Time to Stop and Think About What Satire Really Means

In the wake of the horrific shootings in Paris, everyone is talking the Charlie Hebdo talk. But will we walk the satirical walk?

“Satire is what closes on Saturday,” satirist George S. Kaufman wrote, satirically. It is worth unpacking what this quote really means. Ostensibly, it means that when you choose the rapier of satire rather than the comforting swaddle of mass entertainment, you are limiting your audience in a self-sabotaging matter: While you’re busy finding yourself clever, the crowd has moved on to giggle along with cute kittens singing catchy songs. Satire is satisfying, but generally speaking, the only people listening are the person doing the satirizing and those who already care enough to agree with him. Most people ignore him, or, if they do anything at all, call him a jerk. 

In the wake of today’s tragic terrorist attack in Paris, which killed 12 people including top cartoonists at satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the word “satire” has taken on its own power, its very existence a rejoinder to hatred, a founding pillar of Our Way Of Life. It is being cast as noble. But this is not how we usually see satire. Satire is usually a pain in the ass. Satire exists to discomfit the comfortable, to slaughter sacred cows, to puncture the illusion that we all live in a “polite” society. Satire is crude, and rowdy, and often self-aggrandizing: Satire is meant to call attention to itself in any way possible. Charlie Hebdo was particularly skilled at this: One cover, actually supporting the French law banning Muslim women from wearing burqas, featured a woman wearing a burqa … somewhere other than her head. Good satire is a little gross and cares not of taste. You want people to think … and you’re not against using a good dick joke to do it. Satire attempts, by its very nature, to shake people to alert.

But, mostly, people don’t like to be shaken to alert. They just want to go along with their day. They care a lot less about freedom of expression than they do freedom to go about their lives in peace. You’ve seen a lot of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo today, a strong defense of satire as a way of life. But it is worth noting that most publications aren’t showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And it is also worth noting that Americans—the people supposedly so proud of their freedom of expression—haven’t always been on the side of the angels here. South Park’s attempts to show a cartoon of Muhammad were famously censored by Comedy Central—in an episode that explicitly stated that the lesson everybody learned was “the best way to get what you want is to threaten other people with violence”—and the Metropolitan Museum of Art quietly removed all images of Muhammad from its halls five years ago. Even when Charlie Hebdo was firebombed four years ago, Time Paris bureau chief Bruce Crumley wrote that it was “hard to have much sympathy” for the magazine and that “insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile.”

Charlie Hebdo would respond, “of course it is.” If you’re not being obnoxious or offensive, what are you even doing? One image shared in the wake of the attack today was an old cartoon from The Onion that showed, ahem, “an image of the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fiving Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist.” (It’s quite the image!) The joke here, of course, is that those religions don’t attack those who show their gods in cartoon form … but that is also what makes the joke, and the image, ultimately sort of toothless. (While certainly inventive.) After all: You didn’t, actually, see Muhammad in that Onion picture. Obviously not. Who wants that heat?

But: If no one is offended, then what is the point? It’s all self-congratulatory faux enlightenment with no conviction behind it. It’s a back pat for “getting it,” without actually risking anything. The offense is the point. The offense is the defense of the way of life. Charlie Hebdo fought for—and its cartoonists and writers and editors and police protectors ultimately died for—the right to piss people off without regard of taste or civilized society or what you or anyone else thought of them. We all stand with them today. But will we stand with them tomorrow? Did Sony Pictures and those theater chains stand with them two weeks ago? Does Comedy Central, and the Met, stand with them now? We live in an open society—free, among other things, to be timid. It is encouraging to see the world embracing Charlie Hebdo’s principles of satire and aggressive engagement with extremists today. But I can’t help but fear this show’s gonna close by Saturday.