Of the navarasas (nine moods), hasya (humour) is considered the most difficult one to master, especially when a person is catering not to a niche, but to a larger audience. Here, Jaideep Varma’s documentary “I am offended” — a painstaking, oral history of the use of satire in Indian popular media — makes an important point. It stresses that satire works best when humour has an underlying theme: when it offers social commentary, holds power to account, or simply relies on good-natured storytelling to make a point. In other words, satire is a potent tool for journalism, with entertainment an embedded component of it.
However, when it is directed at a section of the population that a person doesn’t identify with, like in the case of Charlie Hebdo ’s cartoons, it comes across as more insouciant than subversive.
Contextualising humour An intelligent voice that emerged amidst the cacophony of “Je suis Charlie” was that of British novelist Tim Parks. Writing for the New York Review of Books , he tried to contextualise not just the kind of ribald humour practised by Charlie Hebdo, but also the outrage its cartoons on Muhammad provoked.
He gave an instance where he himself had tried using satire to attack the Catholic Church’s position on birth control. His objective, while doing the assignment for Italian magazine Comix , was to lambaste the Vatican on its strictures with regard to abortion. The motif he was trying to deploy, “condoms with images of saints,” his editors felt, would fail to strike a chord with the intended audience. The magazine was willing to satirise the Church’s views on abortion and the use of contraceptives, but using such a tool, they felt, would not just betray insensitivity, it would defeat the purpose.
Mr. Parks realised later that this “cultural blindness” was inimical to the objective of satire as he understood it. Such a motif would have not given the readers the perspective he intended. It would have not only antagonised Italian readers — Catholic by culture if not by belief — but also caused revulsion towards his progressive take on abortion.
Here, the point he tries to drive home is not that the editors at Charlie Hebdo did not have a right to criticise Islam, but that satire on a beloved figure like Prophet Muhammad, without any understanding of his significance in Islam, would alienate the very audiences it may have otherwise attracted. This audience includes the moderates and liberals among France’s 3.6 million Muslims, constituting about six per cent of the country’s population. Offence for offence’s sake can be defended but it is offence for debate’s sake that has to be actively promoted.
The magazine’s defence may be that its very objective is to be an “equal opportunity offender”; that its core objective is not to enlighten readers but to cause outrage, which is very much a part of France’s post-enlightenment culture. But even for such an offence, a certain amount of understanding of the “other” is necessary. Did Charlie Hebdo attempt to do that? Did it have anyone from a Muslim background in its core editorial team? The core question here is: was its satire backed by some sensitivity?
Targeting the powerful Let me take another example: Indian comedy collective AIB’s Roast. I did not take offence to the very act, which was a way of pushing the envelope in comedy in India, by introducing “insult humour.” However, even within that, the jokes that stayed with me longer were the ones that were subtle; the ones that did not bank on expletives and gossip alone. In other words, the ones where some intelligent writing was involved. These were the ones which depended on script more than tomfoolery.
A point that one of the comics in “I am offended” makes is that Birbal was among India’s first stand-up comedians. There may have been more like him. But Birbal stays in our mind because he used satire to draw attention to an issue; humour was a tool in his hands. In doing that, he targeted people who were more powerful than him, not the more vulnerable ones.
Many humorists featured in the documentary like to emphasise that humour works best when it is directed inward, when it provides an outlet for some unhealed wound or scar in a person’s psyche. The point where a comedian is at his best is also the point where he is at his most vulnerable. Laughing at one’s self is the best way to draw attention to a particular topic, which strikes a chord with a larger section of the audience.
Were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo doing that? And did the “survivors’ issue” succeed in doing that, even though it sold about five million copies rather than the usual 60,000 copies? The answer will be apparent once the professed solidarities expressed by “Je suis Charlies” tire down and silent contemplation begins. The results will be visible with the content the magazine publishes and the attention it is able to garner. If it wants to target a larger section of the audience, it needs to better account for the culture of the more vulnerable, the sensitivities of the marginalised. And in France, the marginalised include its Muslims, those living on the fringes, in the banlieues.
One starting point could be to hire a cartoonist or writer from among France’s Muslims. It would be a fitting tribute to the dead cartoonists if Charlie Hebdo could get to see the issues from the new entrant’s viewpoint. Similarly, AIB can continue roasting celebrities. However, the more it relies on intelligent writing, the more shelf life its acts would have.
Also, as one respondent in “I am offended” points out, a certain amount of offence concocted by such comedy collectives is tolerated because they form a neat coterie of middle class, English-speaking, urban protagonists. It is again a question of taking on the bastions of privilege rather than attacking the soft targets by deploying the most convenient tropes, like someone’s skin colour, deformities or sexual orientation.
Satire needs to be premised on not just liberty but also equality and fraternity. A culture that includes the right to offend the “other” also needs to understand the “other.” An equal opportunity offender can also be an equal opportunity aesthete. Humour without context remains mere hot air. And satire without sensibility remains soliloquy, where the artist caters merely to an echo chamber.