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A Familiar Debate On Comedy In Which Contexts Collide

Mourners around France created makeshift memorials to the victims of the massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Claude Paris AP
Mourners around France created makeshift memorials to the victims of the massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

In the aftermath of the massacre Wednesday at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine, there are obviously big questions about the attackers, their motives and what it might mean for French society. For more of NPR's coverage of the attack and of Charlie Hebdo, check out the Two-Way.

But on Code Switch, I wanted to point to two conversations about Charlie Hebdo that are happening online in different spaces. They're like a lot of discussions about language and offense-taking more broadly, in that they highlight a tension between social contexts, where people come into them with different understandings of what's being discussed.

First, you should read this essay by Harvard's Arthur Goldhammer, which explains the peculiarly French sensibility that informs Charlie Hebdo's humor.

"There is an old Parisian tradition of cheeky humor that respects nothing and no one. The French even have a word for it: 'gouaille.' Think of obscene images of Marie-Antoinette and other royals, of priests in flagrante delicto with nuns, of devils farting in the pope's face and Daumier's caricatures of King Louis-Philippe, whom he portrayed in the shape of a pear. It's an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful. Such satirical humor has little in common with the kind of witty political satire with which Americans are familiar today through watching Jon Stewart or John Oliver. While not apolitical (attacks on Marie-Antoinette surely had a political valence), gouaille does not seek to stake out a political position or mock one political party to the benefit of another. It is directed, rather, against authority in general, against hierarchy and against the presumption that any individual or group has exclusive possession of the truth."The satire that Charlie Hebdo exemplified was more blasphemous than political, and its roots lie deep in European history, dating from a time when in order to challenge authority, one had to confront divinity itself. In that one respect, the fanatics are not wrong: Charlie Hebdo was out to undermine the sacred as such."

And then there's this pointed, difficult post by by Jacob Canfield at Hooded Utilitarian, which has been getting a ton of attention on Twitter. In it, Canfield makes a complicated point: 1) that Charlie Hebdo's staff was within its rights to produce its content; 2) that content was also bracingly hostile to Muslims, immigrants and gay people; and 3) its approach should not be beyond criticism.

"When faced with a terrorist attack against a satirical newspaper, the appropriate response seems obvious. Don't let the victims be silenced. Spread their work as far as it can possibly go. Laugh in the face of those savage murderers who don't understand satire. "In this case, it is the wrong response. "Here's what's difficult to parse in the face of tragedy: yes, Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper. Its staff is white. Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to 'attack everyone equally,' the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic. ... "They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong. White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist."

You can see the tension between these two ideas pretty consistently in comedy-related controversies we have here in the States. Take the hullabaloo in 2012 involving the comedian Daniel Tosh, who got into it with an audience member over one of Tosh's routines about rape. After the woman in the audience expressed her distaste for Tosh's joke, he responded by telling her that he hoped she would get raped. The details of that exchange went out into the wider world, and became the source of heated debate.

One set of responses went, broadly, like this: This is comedy being performed in a comedy club, and anything anyone says in the context of this club is in bounds — even rape.

Another went, again broadly, like this: There are certain subjects that are beyond the pale, or at least, certain ways of talking about those things that are beyond the pale.

Of course, either of these stances is complicated by the relationship the speaker has to his audience — someone from Group A might understandably be less receptive to a pointed joke about his group if the person making the joke comes from Group B, and Groups A and B have messy histories. (Like, say, women — who are more likely to be a victim of rape — not feeling a rape joke from men, who are more likely to be its perpetrators.)


And this is complicated further by how humor is experienced. Many people in the club laughed at Tosh's joke — and that probably includes a whole bunch of people who very likely would have been offended by the same joke had it been made by, say, a co-worker at the office. Who we are to one another, where we are with one another when we say it — all that matters in whether we chuckle or bristle.

It's important to remember all this over the next few days, as we talk about the "rules of good satire" and the ways people "should" respond to humor. What's funny and what's offensive aren't static concepts and are informed by all kinds of dynamics, both specific and broad and immediate and old. There are no hard-and-fast rules — any that exist are specific to our contexts. What we need, as always, are better understandings of contexts that are not our own.

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