Who to target for satire

30th Jan 2015

Dr Masuma Rahim

Despite the fact I write for the Press, I gave up news almost five years ago. The odd piece sneaks in, obviously, but, on the whole, I read only features, long-form and books. When the ‘odd bit’ does sneak in, it’s usually via Twitter. Thus I discovered what happened in Paris.

My fears were confirmed: yet again, someone killed civilians and claimed to be acting on behalf of a much bigger group of people. Cue recriminations, sage words of advice from media bigwigs and the endless debate over press freedoms.
So, as in Denmark, some cartoons were printed, some people got offended and decided to kill others notionally related to the cartoons. So far so medieval. My interest here is not in what Islam says about violence (although Muslims generally do a pretty poor job of contextualising Qur’anic verses which appear to sanction aggression against non-Muslims, of which more later) but to consider more broadly why there’s some feeling that satire and faith cannot coexist (satire is also technically medieval, of course, but it’s one of the better aspects of it).

The point of satire, of course, is to rip to shreds anything you think deserves it. Done well, it’s clever and biting and hugely enjoyable. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like satirical comment, but there’s usually a proviso that the target has to be ‘right’. What this means in practice is ‘poke fun at people whose integrity and morals I question, but don’t try it with anyone I agree with, even if you question their integrity and morals’. That might be acceptable in the playground; it’s rather harder to justify as adults. The idea that we never question anyone or anything for fear of causing offence is nonsense. I’m not terribly bothered by your being offended and I certainly don’t think that the Press should function according to your sensitivity. That’s not as callous as it sounds: I am offended by a lot of things – by the way immigrants and women and gay people and disabled folk are vilified in the media; by the gender norms thrust upon us and the body shame we are forced to feel – but I don’t tell anyone what they’re allowed to print as a consequence.

You are free to be offended by satire – after all, that’s sort of the point – but why not put that offence to some good effect? Firstly: I am more offended by murder than I am by some drawings. If you’re not, I question your humanity. Think about your values, perhaps. And, come to that, if your belief system can be knocked by something as trivial as a drawing maybe you should reconsider your relationship with that belief system in light of the fact you’re an adult with the capacity to reason.

Secondly, consider the reason the object of your affection is the subject of satire. Is the accusation correct? If so, pipe down. If not, do something enlightened to correct people’s impressions, such as engaging in rational debate. But there’s a third option: in some cases, agree that, actually, the other side might have a point. And that goes across all groups – faith and non-faith. But let’s talk about these things sensibly, because dealing with accusations of violence and barbarism by acting in ways which are violent and barbaric does little to lessen the claims levelled against those you hold in high regard. Grow up, get over your heightened sense of self-importance and do something which might just make society that little bit better.

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