PA: Charlie Hebdo — Punching Down

÷Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the
powerful… When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel
— it’s vulgar.”
÷ — Molly Ivins

Continuing our exploration of asseverations made after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the above is often quoted as the raison d’être of satire. This leads one to logically conclude that if Charlie Hebdo picked easy targets, then the cartoonists weren’t actually doing satire and so they are not completely innocent victims. The image conjured is one of a room of vulgar cartoonists “punching down” on a powerless minority.

Assuming the definition holds, whom can we satirise? According to the quote we must satirise only those that are in power. Even within the powerful there is a hierarchy so satirists should aim at the very top Dog. If this being exists, His power would be infinite. He would eclipse everyone in power, meaning all satire should be aimed against Him. Alas, this leads to a recursive trap because His perfection would make the identification of foibles and hypocrisy difficult.

Relaxing this idea of power leads us from God Himself to those with the means and motivation to do great harm — men such as males, warlords, leaders and messengers of God. A perfect example of such a man was Muhammad himself, whose power was not only exercised during his lifetime by his dogs of war, but has managed to persist to this very day in the form of Islam which has the power to influence how a billion people live.

We must be careful, however, to not satirise him until he became the powerful and influential man he was; we must not satirise young Muhammad the kid, when he was over-powered by others. After Muhammad’s death, his influence continued through his young wife Aisha, upheld as an example of an influential woman in Islam. As a member of the elite herself we may satirise her during the period she had power, but not before. There is a grey area in the twilight time period between 6 and 9, between the time she was over-powered and when she became a woman. Both examples are ideas that are surely unacceptable to the author of our original quote.

Moving to a more timely example, one can make fun of a radicalised terrorist (powerful and violent), but not a merely religious person (potentially an oppressed minority). This means the go/no-go to satirise is based on the information you have of the person at the time. A Western cartoonist may not make fun of Islam. However if the follower of Islam proves to be a terrorist, then the axis of power has flipped and the cartoonist may draw. More precisely, the satirist must not satirise a man of Middle-Eastern appearance as he enters the office (in case he is one of the oppressed), but she may do it after he has clearly drawn an assault rifle with intent (thereby identifying himself as a terrorist oppressor). The cartoonist must pull her punches, amicably establishing a “Friend Zone” until this happens. This leaves a painfully short window, the ironically named “Safe Zone” (see Figure 4), in which the poor, liberated cartoonist scrambles to take pencil to paper, furiously scrawling her scathing caricature, further angering the terrorist and basically fattening herself for slaughter. Such an action will escalate the situation into the “Dead Zone” formed a few seconds later when he permanently finalises the order of power between the belligerents.

Figure 4 | Direction of punching flips following an escalation of suspicion.
Figure 4 | Direction of punching flips following an escalation of suspicion.

Moving from particular cases to satire in general, the quote implies satire itself has power to cause an effect (otherwise it wouldn’t matter to whom it is applied). This then puts satirists in an awkward position. Satire is famously one-sided: progressives seem the only side capable of it, and conservatives are more often its brunt. Thus the “powerful” in the very real battle of the minds in which satire is a weapon are the progressives themselves. Based on the metric of “ability to attack with satire”, then almost every piece of satire is punching down, akin to beating a weak mute until the cows come home. So we are left with a strange formulation where progressives should only punch themselves. This is rare but has been observed, for example, in First Dog on the Moon, whose satire is best described as essays in progressive mutual self-flagellation with pictures of dogs around it.

Oppression is applied nonlinearly to members of a society. The majority of a society stand to benefit from institutionalised advantage and get support from the multitude of their own creed and so are positively liberated. In contrast, minorities are disadvantaged while at the same time have less brethren for support and so are doubly burdened in their oppression. This results in a power law distribution of power, which we dub the “‘power law’ power law”. Only one member of the society can be completely free from the threat of satire iff this person is the lowest person in existence. Considering Muhammad is apparently satirisable by no one, then the Left’s prohibition implies he is equal to or less than this infimum.