Charlie Hebdo: Not My Culture to Joke About

Did you hear the one about the Muslims who went to Paris? No, and I don’t want to. The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo, however, is banking that seven million people do, and unfortunately they may be right.

They’re printing up more copies of their last issue, the first since the terrorist attack at their office which left twelve people dead. Last week, the first run of the issue, three million copies, sold out.

While I get that people want to mourn the dead, maybe feeding a machine which profits off the mockery of disenfranchised and oppressed minorities isn’t the best way to do it. Murder is wrong. What happened at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and subsequently at a Kosher Bakery was a tragedy. Full stop. While nothing can justify these killings, these killings don’t justify supporting racist imagery.

Yes, Charlie Hebdo is racist. Some may argue that it is satire and technically they’re right. You can punch up or down and it’s still satire, but punching up is gutsy while punching down is pretty much bullying. While Charlie may have started off as a champion of the oppressed, they aren’t that anymore. They stopped punching up years ago and now their pen-holding fists clearly punch down.

islamophobia cartoon

Some may argue that the humour of Charlie Hebdo is uniquely French. Well, the minstrel show is uniquely American and you don’t see people in blackface these days, unless, of course, you go to Théâtre du Rideau Vert in Montreal, but at least it is understood by most progressive or moderately aware people to be wrong.

Some, like my colleague Niall Ricardo, argue that what Charlie Hebdo does is use racist imagery to transcend and ridicule racism and those perpetrating it. The example most often cited to prove this point is the depiction of French justice minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey. Charlie’s defenders will say that there is enough in the image to prove it is clearly intended to criticize the racism of the Front National and their leader Marie Le Pen for their positioning of an image of Taubira next to that of a monkey.

That very well may have been their intent and Taubira herself seems to agree with them. But beyond those in Paris political circles or with strong knowledge of them, who will instantly see the reference? Instead, many, including most people in North America, will just see a black woman depicted as a monkey, because that’s what the image is.

Call it a lack of understanding of French politics and culture, if you will, but then remember that if you have to explain a joke, it’s probably not a good joke to begin with. In this case it is extremely offensive to many. If you want to offend with comedy, it has to at least be funny and you’d better make sure people aren’t laughing for the wrong reasons.

Beyond that, it is not the Charlie illustrators’ culture to mock, unless that cartoonist happens to be a person from the group being mocked, which, in this case, he wasn’t. Intention doesn’t matter. A much better approach, instead of appropriating the racist imagery itself, would have been to draw a Front Nationale meeting with Le Pen suggesting juxtaposing a monkey with Taubira and the rest of her followers depicted as very white sheep.

Now that would be funny. It would also be punching up instead of down. It would have made it clear to everyone who saw it just who their targets were. It wouldn’t be appropriation and denigration of another race by the cartoonist. The problem is it probably would have sold fewer copies.

Controversy sells. So does making fun of the proverbial other. For all the claims that they are against the capitalist system by attacking austerity and against the French elite, they sure know how to play ball on that field. It’s easy to understand how the likes of Sarkozy, Le Pen and a collection of world leaders with dubious-at-best free speech records can “co-opt” a “movement” and a hashtag that wasn’t all that different from them already.

No, I don’t want to hear the one about the Muslims who went to Paris. I don’t care if it may make me laugh; it’s not my culture, heritage or history to laugh at. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the ridiculed and see how it feels.

I won’t be among the supposed seven million people heading out to buy the latest Charlie Hebdo and I hope you’ll join me. I won’t use a hashtag just because it’s trending. I won’t promote hate and racism.

True, #jenesuispascharlie but I think it’s also important to note that I am also hashtag pour equality, respect and comedy that is truly funny, not at the expense of someone who has been beaten down already.

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