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Satire in 2015: Any Room for Outsiders?

09/03/2015 11:28 GMT | Updated 06/05/2015 10:59 BST

Freedom of speech, that most elusive subject. Lately it has been a very contentious topic.

The murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists, as well as other civilians, have left us all horrified. Unlike the abhorrent killings carried out by religious extremists, the response was understandable. There was an outpouring of grief, not only from France but the world over. In January, Paris lay witness to a unity march on an unprecedented scale and support for Charlie Hebdo was spontaneous globally.

Last month, Will Self articulated an intriguing point of view on BBC Radio 4. The journalist and critic quoted H L Mencken, stating that satire should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". He is right. Freedom of speech is imperative. However, this value has collapsed under a cultural paradigm, strictly within which people are allowed to speak their minds. In a limited space, the views of the powerful are championed whilst those who favour a more nuanced approach are excluded. Challenging assumptions and inciting justice for the powerless is often shelved.

The French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, features cartoons, reports, polemics and jokes. It operates as a liberal vessel for all. However, although the late former editor Stéphane Charbonnier claimed it reflected "all components of left wing pluralism, and even abstainers", it more often than not upholds the racialised myth of "secularism". The French Republic purports equality, fraternity and freedom for all its citizens; these values have been engulfed by a rhetoric that sustains the status quo. Voices conflicting with the interests of the powerful are inevitably bastardised or at best shrugged off as neoliberal thought.

Of course, nothing can justify the intolerable acts of terror committed by the gunmen, who have identified themselves as belonging to the Islamist Terrorist group Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen. They murdered innocent journalists and should not be exonerated from their crimes.

However, the constant misrepresentation of vulnerable individuals should be condemned. A disproportionate number of cover stories are directed towards everyday French Muslims, a group already rendered invisible; its past caricatures of pregnant Muslim women taking advantage of the French welfare state are evidence of this. This is especially poignant today, as France faces a struggling economy and as anti-immigrant fears are consequently being endorsed. Such egregious and dehumanising images exist alongside an onslaught of orientalist media stereotypes which fuel wider public resentment for those, who for centuries, have been scapegoated by the West. Even more insidious is the persistence of the media in seeing Muslims as a cohesive group, not only encouraging the view that they live undesirable lifestyles, but the view that these individuals are inseparable from terrorists who claim the same religion.

We need to protect multiculturalism and not undermine it. In response to recent events, French mosques have seen an increase in attacks. Rachel Dhabi, writing for Al Jazeera, recently remarked: "Deadly terrorism seeks to stamp out the possibility of difference - which is why, in condemning outright those atrocities in France, we need also to keep insisting on and cherishing our diversity."

Undeniably, the Charlie Hebdo killings were an incursion on a liberal freedom of press. In exercising this right, absolutely no one deserves to be murdered because their content has caused offence. Nor should they have to self-censor what they believe is important to call out. However, in 2015 we must recognise western states continue to scapegoat an already afflicted and historically victimised people. Satirical publications often do not advocate originality in vision, but confirm the 'otherness' of certain groups as a necessary and metaphysical threat to western democracy, helping to legitimise ongoing colonial interventions in the Middle East. We need to ensure that satire does not exacerbate the geo-political dimensions of the modern world, which falsely identifies religion as that which polarises our differences. This is something which literary theorist Edward Said presciently identified in 1991 as forming part of "a cultural war against the Arabs and Islam".

Will Self questions "were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo really satirists, if by satire is meant the deployment of humour, ridicule, sarcasm and irony in order to achieve moral reform?". Often, the press fails to criticise the powerful in a substantial, mobilising way. We must focus our anger at the correct people, namely extremists, imperialists and fascists. Satire can and should be used as a rigorous tool in identifying tyranny and injustice.

With its myopic attitude, have publications like Charlie Hebdo left any room for freedom from abstract categorisation? Charlie Hebdo contributes to the reduction of identities of individual Muslims, often acting at the behest of authority. In doing so it encourages the wider population to engage in a narrative that draws dangerous divisions between 'us' and 'them'; these recent echoes of conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington's ideas are that which Self has recognised as incongruous: "The trouble with a lot of so-called "satire" directed against religiously-motivated extremists", he says "is that it's not clear who it's afflicting, or who it's comforting."

This is 2015. Is it possible to complicate the language we use to describe the powerless and at the same time condemn the terrorism of a fanatic few? Or, alternatively, do we need to capitulate to the rhetoric of power in order to be heard? How can the vulnerability of minorities be protected under the intensification of recent events?

In 2015, the meaning and importance of freedom of speech needs to be reclaimed.