People light candles forming the name Charlie during a gathering in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AFP Photo/Patrick Hertzog)

Charlie Hebdo Massacre: Is There a Limit to the Art of Satire?

JANUARY 08, 2015

Among my many labels, I like to see myself as an aspiring satirist. Whether under my name or a nom de guerre, I’ve been publishing my satirical works for the past  six years. In 2010, along with a few friends, I created a satirical TV program that ran on national television for 1,5 years. Last year, I hosted a workshop in an international writing festival on crafting social criticism through satire. This is a form of expression I am really fond of.

The shooting at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo yesterday caught me in shock and horror. Nothing justifies a murder, let alone this kind of carnage. When the works of pens are retaliated with the rounds of Kalashnikovs, there’s only one outcome.

The responses to this brutal savagery have been mixed, depending on the demographics. Most people, regardless of their background, condemn the slaughter and hold the act of taking lives in contempt. But while some see the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists as martyrs of the free world, some others say what happened to them was not unprecedented because they have been playing with fire all these times.

This debate on whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had it coming sparks the old question of the boundaries between comedy and satire. Is there a limit to the art of satire? Is there any topic that satirical artists should keep away from? If there’s a boundary and the satirist chooses to cross it anyway, would the repercussions be justified?

No, I don't think there should be boundaries on comedy and satire. By its basic nature, satire is a medium for social criticism, and I don't believe anything in this world is immune to criticism. The world has seen centuries of power and authority without the moral obligation to answer the critics and it didn't turn out very well.

Having said that, I believe that the only thing that regulates the creativity and aspirations of a satirist is his or her own conscience and moral values. I, for instance, will not find myself within a touching distance with what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did. Not that I consider religions as a taboo and critic-proof — I poke fun at religions a lot, especially my own, because Christians are just as funny as the next believers. But it’s just not the way I would like to do it.

Back when I was working on that TV show, we threw plenty of jibes at a lot of people. We poked fun at the president, ministers and members of the House. Anybody in power was an easy target. Sometimes we caught ourselves in trouble. We were threatened with lawsuits that, fortunately, never materialized, we had certain public officers refuse an invitation to come to our show and were blacklisted by some institutions. That is the price we had to pay for choosing to channel our criticism through this medium.

We never, however, put religion issues on our crosshair. Not even once. Did it cross our minds? Yes. As a matter of fact, always. But we stopped short of executing such ideas. Did we think religions shouldn’t be subject to satire? No. Our consideration was that, broadcasting rules aside, would our audience receive satirized religious issues in the way we wanted them to? Would our satire work to highlight an issue we wished to address? Or would it take the focus away from what we intended to do in the first place and, at the end of the day, instead of solving an age old issue, end up creating a new one?

Our moral values and conscience suggested us to stay away — for the greater good.

Yesterday was not the first time I heard of Charlie Hebdo, even though unlike its British counterpart, Private Eye, I’m not a frequent reader. I can’t say I’m a fan of their cartoons. Most of them are of poor taste, which makes them, at the very least, cringe-worthy. They still went with it anyway because no law prohibited them from doing so, and their morals — their only regulators — encouraged them to proceed.

It would be problematic for me to say I encourage Charlie Hebdo's way of lampooning, but I do know that I’m a proponent for freedom and liberty of speech. No killing is justified.

One thing for sure is as satirists, we know we are always dancing on thin ice and our maneuver could break the surface any time.

Pangeran Siahaan is a creator of the Provocative Proactive TV show, aired on Metro TV from 2010 to 2012. This article was first published in his website

Charlie Hebdo