Satire, Charlie Hebdo, and Responsible Journalism

January 21, 2015

A commentary on civility and ethical standards in the aftermath of terrorist events in France.

COMMENTARY

No conceivable argument can ever justify the cowardly and barbaric murder of the journalists and cartoonists of the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. And, the courage of those who perished in this atrocity-including psychiatrist, Dr Elsa Cayat-has rightly been praised by many in the media.1 To be clear: whatever one may think of Charlie Hebdo, there is no moral basis whatsoever for “blaming the victims”-blame falls squarely on those who carried out this despicable attack.

Nevertheless, there is a broader issue to consider, when assessing the limits of “free speech” and the ethical responsibilities of journalists. For example, according to a report by Frida Ghitis for CNN, Charlie Hebdo once featured a drawing that showed three rolls of toilet paper, labeled the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah, under the headline “In the toilet, all the religions.”2

Now, I would argue that while Charlie Hebdo had a legal “right” to print such a drawing, it was hardly an act of responsible journalism. That Charlie Hebdo has cheekily dubbed itself “Journal irresponsable3-”irresponsible newspaper”-in no way immunizes it from criticism of its journalistic ethics or practices.

Charlie Hebdo is commonly described as, “a satirical magazine.” Indeed, I have seen several cartoons published by CH that I found clever and “satirical,” and my critique is not a blanket condemnation of the publication’s work. But, in my view, the “toilet paper” cartoon was neither clever nor satirical, as I understand the latter term. As Princeton Professor Alvin B. Kernan has written, “Magical spells, incantations, curses, invective . . . verbal overkill, and the language of hard-attack, are not satire, in the sense that the word is ordinarily used . . .”4( p212)Kernan goes on to say that many satirists “. . . have accepted society’s view that attack must be limited to those men and practices which are dangerous and evil by generally accepted standards.” There may be many things to criticize in the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah, but it is hard to make the case that these texts, held sacred by millions, are unambiguously “dangerous and evil.”

I believe that genuine satire uses artfulness and wit to skewer a particular evil or malefactor. (Think of Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 satirical film, The Great Dictator, which brilliantly lampooned Hitler). A scatological depiction of the holy texts of Christianity, Islam and Judaism strikes me as ham-fisted and sophomoric. But more important, the toilet paper image is gratuitously insulting and demeaning, without inspiring positive change within these faiths. (Are the three religions supposed to renounce or re-write their most sacred texts?) Whether or not the cartoon crossed the line into “hate speech” is clearly a difficult and highly subjective judgment; but I have no doubt that many people of faith experienced the cartoon as deeply hurtful, if not hateful. As the Ethical Journalism Network has aptly stated:

“It’s a tricky task to judge exactly what constitutes hate-speech. There is no accepted international definition and the tolerance levels of speech vary dramatically from country to country... Freedom of speech is a right for everyone, including politicians and public figures and it is the job of the journalist to ensure that everyone has their say, but that does not mean granting a license to lie, or spread malicious gossip or to encourage hostility and violence against any particular group.”5[italics added]

As a writer, editor, and ethicist, I believe we have a moral responsibility to “call out” Charlie Hebdo in this particular instance, but also to make the broader point that freedom of speech-precious right that it is-comes with certain ethical responsibilities.5 This surely does not mean that Charlie Hebdo or any publication should be “censored,” banned, or suppressed by legal means. Nor does it mean that journalists must avoid giving offense at all costs. Sometimes, despite one’s best efforts at decency and restraint, readers will indeed be offended. It does mean that journalists, ethicists, and the general public must have a frank discussion of journalistic civility and ethical publishing standards-and of the sometimes hazy border between satire and hate speech.

Finally, in my view, psychiatrists-whose professional code of ethics calls for “respect for human dignity6-have a special responsibility to repudiate abusive or hateful speech, not merely in the clinical setting, but in society at large.7

Note to readers: This blog is a revision of the version that appeared on this website on January 21, 2015. The author appreciates the constructive criticisms of the original version.

Disclosures:

Note to readers: As with all blogs on this site, the opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Comments not followed by full names and academic titles will either be removed or heavily monitored. -The Editors
 

References:

1. Salewicz C. Doctor Elsa Cayat: Psychoanalyst who wrote for 'Charlie Hebdo' and was murdered in the terrorist attack on the magazine. The Independent. January 12, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/doctor-elsa-cayat-psychoanalyst-who-wrote-for-charlie-hebdo-and-was-murdered-in-the-terrorist-attack-on-the-magazine-9973719.html. Accessed February 3, 2015.
2. Ghitis F. Terrorists can't kill free speech. http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/07/opinion/ghitis-paris-magazine-killing. Accessed February 3, 2015.
3. Charlie Hebdo (Web site). http://charliehebdo.fr. Accessed February 3, 2015.
4. Kernan AB. Satire. In: Weiner PP (Ed). Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Volume 4. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1973. See: http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=DicHist/uvaGenText/tei/DicHist4.xml&chunk.id=dv4-29&toc.id=dv4-29&brand=default;query=212. Accessed January 21, 2015.
5. Ethical Journalism Network. Hate-speech: a five-point test for journalists turning the page of hate in media campaign for tolerance in african journalism. http://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/en/contents/hate-speech-a-five-point-test-for-journalists. Accessed February 3, 2015.
6. American Psychiatric Association. Opinions of the Ethics Committee on The Principles of Medical Ethics, Preamble, Section 1. http://www.psychiatry.org/practice/ethics. Accessed February 3, 2015.
7. Compton M, Shim R. Address mental health’s social determinants through policy change. Psychiatr News [Update]. Jan. 28, 2015. http://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.pn.2015.2a1. Accessed February 3, 2015.