Charlie Hebdo’s latest cartoon is ‘satire’ that does nothing to satirise. In uncritically reproducing racist tropes, it can be considered as nothing other than racist itself. Kavita Krishnan explains…
The latest Charlie Hebdo (CH) cartoon suggests that the refugee baby Aylan Kurdi would grow up to be a bestial man groping women, like the immigrants allegedly involved in sexual assaults recently in Cologne, Germany. Those of us who have criticised the cartoon as racist are being told that the cartoon actually satirises racism and we’ve failed to appreciate the French tradition of satire. The CH brand of satire is apparently like fine French caviar or wine – and its brilliance apparently eludes those who are yet to acquire the fine art of appreciating it.
So: is the CH cartoon referencing Aylan Kurdi racist or a critique of racism?
It is true that satirists have often had the misfortune of being taken seriously, at face value, and accused of exactly what they were satirizing. There were readers of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (where Swift suggested with a straight face that the solution to Irish hunger and poverty could be found by selling Irish babies as delicate food for the privileged) who accused Swift of proposing cannibalism and infanticide.
But there are reasons why, in my opinion, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon is not a case of satire misunderstood by those lacking in a subtle sense of humour.
What makes, say A Modest Proposal – that referenced babies – great satire while the CH cartoon referencing baby Aylan remains fairly banal racism?
Those planners and British opinion-makers whom Swift was satirizing were not – and this is important – proposing the cannibalising of Irish babies; they were merely rationalising inaction on Irish starvation and impoverishment. By making a ‘modest proposal’ of cannibalising Irish babies, Swift was using the tools of exaggeration and parody to make the point that those who had no qualms about starving Irish babies with cruel economic policies, were no better than cannibals. The piece mocked the reasonable, cool tone of ideologues who made ‘proposals’ rationalising poverty and starvation.
My point is that Swift did not just mirror the cruelty and callousness of those he mocked – he wildly exaggerated it, and it is that exaggeration that provides the element of parody, of burlesque, of bitter satire. After all, satire is a persuasive tool – that uses shock value to jolt its readers/viewers into recognizing the absurdity or cruelty of what otherwise seems ‘normal’. I will not try to read the minds of the CH artists and decipher their ‘intent’ – that is beside the point. What I argue is that the CH cartoon simply fails as ‘satire,’ because it is indistinguishable from straightforward racist graffiti.
Racists in Europe (and specifically Germany) are already arguing that Muslim refugees are ‘Rape-fugees’. They are already depicting Muslim as having pig-heads. They are already resentful that baby Aylan should be the iconic image of refugees – while they seek to invoke instead the trope of the Muslim migrant as ‘lascivious’ rapist whose culture is peculiarly violent to women in a way that white European culture is not. How can a cartoon that merely mirrors or performs these forms of racism be a critique of racism? It is – at best – ambiguous and at worst, racist.
To take another example, The Hindu carried a piece by Suchi Govindarajan that expressed shock and horror at immodest attire in Indian men, and proposed a dress code for men and boys. Some comments on the piece obviously misunderstood the point entirely, and asked her to stop moral policing. But most understood that she was using the classic tool of inversion to expose the absurdity of moral policing and dress codes imposed on women: that otherwise passes unnoticed as normal, everyday sexism.
The CH cartoon neither uses exaggeration nor inversion. Inversion could have made for a great cartoon satirising the racist bid to link sexual assault with migrants. Imagine a cartoon that made arguments linking sexual assault with race (as is being done in the wake of the Cologne episode) – but that, while mentioning Cologne, applied the selfsame arguments to profile white Europeans or IMF chiefs as potential sexual offendes, invoking the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. Such a cartoon would truly make an anti-racist point. But the CH cartoon does no such thing. Its performance of racism has nothing whatsoever to indicate that it is not straightforward. Its apologists are claiming the tongue is hidden in the CH cheek – but it is difficult to credit this because effective satire finds ways to reveal a hint of the hidden tongue, while the CH cartoon does not.
Interestingly, many of those defending the CH cartoon as ‘satire’ are also accusing Left feminists of ‘silence’ on the Cologne sexual assault episode – implying that the failure to link the violence with immigrants and their culture amounts to condoning or denying the violence. The fact is that Left feminists in Germany, far from being silent, have argued against the attempts to link the sexual violence at Cologne with the supposed ‘culture’ of immigrants. Silke Stöckle and Marion Wegscheider argue, for instance, that:
“Sexual violence against women in Germany is in general a large and indeed a long-existing problem: women are commonly and frequently sexually harassed at large festivals, at the Oktoberfest in Munich or during the Carnival in Cologne and other cities. According to a new study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, one in seven women in Germany experiences sexual violence. One in four women – irrespective of education level or socio-economic status – is exposed to domestic violence. The perpetrators are almost always men, among whom no significant distinction according to religion, background, educational level or social status exists…. sexual assaults on women are all too often not taken seriously, and are at first marginalised – as in Cologne, where victims have had the pleasure of being schooled by local politicians about “rules of behaviour for mass gatherings”, as though the victims, in the face of their determined assaulters, had the possibility to negotiate their way out of harm…
“Rather than connecting the events in Cologne and Hamburg to the everyday sexist violence faced by women in Germany, politicians and the media establishment have, from the moment the events occurred, focused above all on the background of the alleged perpetrators, and on questions of public security. Where sexual molestation is acknowledged as a structural manifestation at all, it is only ever in relation to the “culture” in the supposed countries of origin of the perpetrators. In this way, the debate about the attacks has been instrumentalised from the get-go and, in line with a classic racist line of argument, Muslims or refugees have been stereotyped en masse…. As far as the broader German left goes, there must be absolute clarity that women’s oppression in Germany is structurally determined and that in the struggle for women’s rights, we can in no way allow ourselves to be divided by racism – we must confront both sexism and racism with equal determination.”
In Europe, as in India, it is common for the right-wing to portray Muslim men as sexual predators. The Hindutva right in India, for instance, raises the bogey of ‘love jehad’ – accusing Muslim men of seducing/raping/converting Hindu women. In reality, Hindu women in consensual relationships with Muslim men are beaten and brutalized to coerce them to accuse their Muslim partners of rape, as has been revealed in a recent sting investigation.
The CH cartoon appears tone deaf to the Islamophobic chorus in Europe, the US, India, indeed the world. It has nothing to distinguish it from crude racist or communal graffiti – of the kind quite commonly used in racist and communal propaganda material in Europe, and certainly in India. It will only get nods of affirmation from Europe’s racists (and India’s communalists), not discomfort. It empowers racists in the current climate – not anti racists. And that is where its claim to being anti-racist satire fails.
This article was originally posted on sabrangindia.in. Reproduced with permission.