Déjà Vu

Missing the Point of Charlie Hebdo. Again.

The French satirical magazine stands accused of racism and anti-refugee bias when, in fact, it was mocking both.

Charlie Hebdo

Offense is not given. It is taken.

Few other outlets bring this truth to life better than besieged left-wing satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Once again, this magazine finds itself at the center of a global furor for depicting the dead refugee child Aylan al-Kurdi in two searing images. The first features the washed up image of poor little Aylan next to a McDonald’s happy meal sign, and the other features Jesus walking on water next to a caption stating that while Christians float, Muslims drown.

The outrage began when Arab and Turkish newspapers decided that Hebdo must be mocking little Aylan.

But soon, non-Arab media also joined the fray and eventually certain race-equality activists, such as barrister Peter Herbert—chair of the U.K.’s Society of Black Lawyers and former vice chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority—were threatening legal action, stating that ‘Charlie Hebdo is a purely racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication that represents the moral decay of France. The Society of Black Lawyers will consider reporting this as incitement to hate crime and persecution before the International Criminal Court.’

But never in living memory has a magazine been as misunderstood as Charlie Hebdo. For the truth is, Charlie Hebdo is not a racist magazine. Rather, it is a campaigning anti-racist left-wing magazine. And its cartoons, which are so often misunderstood to be promoting racism, are in fact lampooning racism. Hebdo is no more racist a magazine than that bastion of liberal media The New Yorker was when it depicted Obama dressed as a Muslim, fist-bumping his angry black-revolutionary wife Michelle. As the editor for The New Yorker unfortunately had to subsequently explain, his cover was lampooning the right-wing prejudices and smears that had risen against the Obamas, not endorsing them.

And this brings us to satire. Satire is, by definition, offensive. It is meant to make us feel uncomfortable. It is meant to make us scratch or heads, think, do a double-take and then think again. It is supposed to take our prejudices, turn them upside down, reapply them, and make us think we’re seeing something we’re not, until we stop to question ourselves.

Yes taste is always in the eye of the beholder. But that’s the whole point of good satire. It is not meant to be to our tastes. It is meant to challenge our tastes. Having our fundamental assumptions about life challenged is never a comfortable thing. Bringing this back to the subject at hand, far from insulting him, these cartoons about Aylan are a damning indictment on the anti-refugee sentiment that has spread across Europe. The McDonald’s image is a searing critique of our heartless European consumerism, in the face of one of the worst human tragedies of our times. In particular, this image plays on the notion that while we moan there are not enough resources to cope with the influx of refugees, we simultaneously offer two for one McDonald’s Happy Meals to our own children. The image about Christians walking on water while Muslims drown is—so—critiquing what the magazine views as hypocritical European Christian “love” and truly bigoted claims, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s, that Europe is a “Christian” civilization.

Not to our taste? OK. Make us cringe? Fair enough. Don’t like them? Fine. But whatever we do, let us not misrepresent these images. Juxtaposing images of a dead child next to offers of cheap food “meal deals” is not mocking little Aylan, it is mocking us. It is mocking us for what we miss every single day, hidden in plain sight, and we do not see it because this is how desensitized we have become to human suffering. No, those besieged, brave satirists at Hebdo are not mocking Aylan. They are mocking newspaper covers like this from the UK right-wing tabloid The Daily Mail in which an image of Aylan was—in a national newspaper— placed below an actual food deal. And how many of us noticed that on the day this Daily Mail cover went to print?

Poe’s law refers to a standard by which satire can be judged to be too good, where parodies of extreme views are so well performed that they are indistinguishable from the real thing. Yes, if those courageous disturbers of our conscience at Charlie Hebdo—those who survived the massacre, that is—are guilty of anything, it is that they are too good at their job.