Finding a place between satire and distaste

8 mins read

Astute Swatties have likely heard and read about the Syrian refugee crisis. Last week, The Phoenix itself had two European nationals writing on the lack of awareness pertaining to this issue here at Swarthmore College. It is a terrible and complex situation that has left Europe’s leaders scrambling and grasping for resolutions. Apart from the op-ed in the Phoenix, media outlets such as the BBC and the New York Times have reported extensively on the issue. By the time this paper is printed, some of you would also have attended the discussion panel organized by the college yesterday. The politics of this issue isn’t the concern of this column. Instead, what raised my eyebrows were a few cartoons about the refugee crisis from Charlie Hebdo. The genial satirists in the fine French institution unsurprisingly appropriated the most iconic image of this crisis— the dead Syrian boy on the beach— and drew a few controversial cartoons. One depicts the Syrian boy juxtaposed with a caricature of Jesus Christ walking on water, with a caption that reads, “The Christians walk on water. Muslim children sink.”  Another shows the same beach scene invaded by a McDonald’s sign offering a “two-for-one”  promotion on Happy Meals; the words in the picture reads, “So close to the goal.” What ensued was unsurprising: Twitter and Facebook were sent into a frenzy. Personally, I had the luck of seeing someone post, “Just no. And then you wonder why you get[sic] shot at.” A lawyers’ society in Britain even filed a lawsuit against them. Harsh. I guess the publicity from the massacre did Charlie Hebdou no favors in being understood.

A quick search on Charlie Hebdo will bring up many articles that explain the nuances of the publication’s cartoons. Yet despite the valiant efforts of Charlie Hebdo apologists (some of whom have Muslim backgrounds), charging the publication with bigotry still appears to be en vogue on social media. While it is understandable that many references can get lost in translation, it is inexcusable for interpreters such as Paulo Coelho to forget that Charlie Hebdo is not just about funny cartoons. It is a satirical paper that touches on very serious things. A single skim through their publication history uncovers commentary on European anti-semitism, French politics and, of course, immigration. Nathaniel Tapely’s hilarious tweets on September 14 elucidated the reactionary stupidity of the outrage against Charlie Hebdo with satire, replacing their cartoons with English political cartoons criticizing the response to the Sudanese genocide. And for goodness sake, using McDonald’s to satirize capitalism isn’t even a uniquely French idea.

I can imagine that many of the readers of this newspaper will find my views disagreeable, similar to how they find the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo distasteful. While Swarthmoreans are most likely unaffected by this issue, the people who have been attacked about the cartoons are similar to our campus population.  By this I mean that they are attacked in cultural sensitivity and also recognize and disagree with the marginalization of minorities. This made me wonder: is it possible for Swarthmore College to create a satirical publication without someone or something being burnt (metaphorically, I hope) to the ground?

If last year’s debacle regarding the cultural appropriation of the “Dorm Games” poster text was any indication, I am not optimistic. For a more dramatic example, the shouting matches during Hussein Aboubakr’s controversial (and admittedly less than agreeable) session, do not bode well for the hypothetical Swarthmore Satirical either. In fact, such a publication will likely need a writer just for the apology letters.

There are, however, some key differences between distasteful content and challenging satirical content. Hope remains that students at the college have the capacity to differentiate between the two. Distasteful content that can potentially hurt or demean groups of people may necessitate apologies, but challenging satirical content does the opposite. Once placed in the context of deliberate satire, the initially distasteful content acquires an additional layer of intention— one that is almost always directly against what made the content superficially objectionable to start with. The ability for us to see this implied intention is what created satire in the first place and gave us the wonders of the recently concluded ‘The Colbert Report.’ But in this school, social issues are the preeminent talking points; because of the sheer prominence these issues have in our collective psyche, it may be difficult for us to identify satirical implications.

All this hypothesizing is pretty pointless anyway. Our current campus speech code prohibits “harassment” in “any form”, with harassment defined vaguely as “unwelcome conduct.” Since satire is bound to offend at some point, it is institutionally impossible for a satirical publication to exist. This is regrettable. Satire has existed as a form of social commentary since Ancient Egypt, and as long as this vaguely worded speech code exists, Swatties can never wholeheartedly partake in this complex and creative form of expression without fear of punishment.

Maybe it is time for us to review this speech code of ours. While it is perfectly reasonable for us to be protecting the well-being of our student population, it should not come in the form of overly general statements. Surely there are ways to prevent emotional trauma that do not limit our instruments of speech. Instead, a process of rewording and redefining can do much to increase the available avenues of intellectual engagement, and to clarify the instances where protection can and should be sought for. In its current manifestation, this speech code dangerously positions the college as an arbiter of taste while providing students with ambiguous circumstances of support — the policy equivalent of oil prospectors who pollute land for occasional profit.


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