SATIRE: a composition, in verse, artistic expression, music or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.

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Numerous articles have been published over the past week concerning the atrocious murder of the cartoonists who published the weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris.  Many of those articles refer to the magazine as a work in satire and the journalists and cartoonists as satirists.   My suspicion is that a lot of people who have been scanning these articles are not clear about the meaning of the word satire.

Satire a word that originates in Latin as satira and generally refers to something that is a medley, a collection of common pieces.  That’s not entirely helpful, however.

As it expanded its use the word statire began to be recognized in a somewhat different way.  The word began to mean:

a literary miscellany, especially a poem ridiculing prevalent vices or follies.”  (Oxford)

Humor and ridicule became a part of the definition.  As the word emerges into our generation, it is a fully-blown genre of literature and the arts which draws upon humor, whether subtle or overt, to make a social comment.

Thus, Charlie Hebdo,  the Paris weekly, was invented as a medium of criticism using the genre of satire to characterize governments, religious institutions, individuals of both, public figures, and movements.   The editors and journalists employed by Charlie Hebdo  were under no restriction as to content, and delighted in becoming known internationally for its unrestrained satirical depictions of such people as the Pope, Jewish rabbis, and…Muslim leadership and Mohammed, himself.   That’s where the current problems begin.

In Islam it is sacrilegious to depict Mohammed in pictures or drawings.   If one were to enter a Mosque they would find that the only art form in use is architecture and depictions of elements of nature, such as flowers, vines, leaves, and celestial objects.   There are no human forms in the art.    Muslims regularly request not to be photographed, as it is a sacrilege to be depicted in such form.   For Charlie to have gone so far as to have shown cartoons of Mohammed, sometimes nude and with exposed genitals, is seen in Islam (particularly fundamentalist Islam) as the very depth of sacrilege.

The explanation given by the magazine is that it is satire.  It is meant to be funny, and it is meant to be a light form of criticism.   Islamic communities do not embrace such criticism, and it isn’t funny to them.

Satire in literature is a genre which has great regard among readers and students of literature.  It is seen by many as the perfect genre to capture the essence of the criticism without being explicit.   Again, however, there are some who are literalists who do not find the genre to be effective…or necessary.

In the United States the most frequent use of explicit satire has been political cartoons.  As early as 1754 the cartoons of  Benjamin Franklin regaled the foibles of the infant government.   Throughout the following history, it has been the expectation of Americans that cartoons would be a legitimate expression of political wit.   While meant to draw humorous from the reader, political cartoons have come to be respected as authentic examples of political expression meant to sway the political thinking of the readers.

It may be difficult for Americans to understand the vitriol which is raised in Europe over such journalism.   The response of the terrorists who murdered 12 people in Paris this week for having drawn and published such cartoons is beyond normal understanding.


Cartoon Credit: Pat Chappatte

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