Satire and the Question of Taste

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charlie hebdo

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of takes on the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacre (see the Round Down for a good selection). One of the most common, and understandable, reactions from writers and thinkers has been the attempt to parse the sensitive cultural issues involved—this stems from the fact that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were often racist, specifically anti-Muslim. Add to this tangle the question of privilege: To whom does free speech really belong?

In this post, however, I will not lament the case of cartoons versus mass death. Many others have done it better before me. The issue I am interested in concerns the content of the cartoons. It is one of taste, and one of offense.

In 2006, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the controversial Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed: “As it happens, the cartoons themselves are not very brilliant, or very mordant, either.” The same could be said of the Charlie Hebdo illustrations that spurred the attack. They are not subtle. They are in fact so sophomoric that they seem to have found the low bar set by MAD magazine and ably limboed under. The drawings are emphatically not in good taste.

But why does good taste matter?

It’s doubtful that Voltaire was in good taste when he wrote the incest joke that got him locked in the Bastille for eleven months. Lenny Bruce was not behaving in good taste when he uttered the obscenities that got him arrested in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York in the 1960s. Larry Flynt certainly had no aspirations of good taste when he published the parody ad accusing Jerry Falwell of (again) incest, for which Flynt was sued in 1988.

All of these three, and many others along the way, offended deeply with their use of satire. Satire needs to cause offense. It must. That is its function. Literature should be permitted to offend, and so should all art, but satire alone is required by its definition to expose, ridicule, and criticize ignorance and hypocrisy. When no one chafes, that same old tree falls soundlessly in the forest.

Humor exists to break taboos. If Lenny Bruce had kept it clean in 1961, would Louis C.K. be selling out Madison Square Garden in 2015 with a bit about sexually pleasuring a rat in the New York City subway?

The idea of humorists systematically maintaining good taste and avoiding offense is not only ridiculous, but also impractical.

Hitchens again:

The question of “offensiveness” is easy to decide. First: Suppose that we all agreed to comport ourselves in order to avoid offending the believers? How could we ever be sure that we had taken enough precautions? … Second (and important enough to be insisted upon): Can the discussion be carried on without the threat of violence, or the automatic resort to it?

And, of course, as Teju Cole writes for the New Yorker: “It is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech.”

Whether something offends the audience or not should have no bearing on the question of that thing’s right to exist. Taste is subjective. Boundaries shift over time, and so a standard can never be established. And thus the great satirists—Jon Stewart, The Onion—get to push the boundaries of taste. But so do the bigots, the Neo-Nazis, the racists. The misogynists get to spew their repulsive vitriol on the Internet and unfunny comedians get to make their rape jokes. No one has to like or endorse any of it, but we all benefit from the crazy stew of disagreement and contention and fringe opinions and bad taste that is facilitated by free speech.

Art Spiegelman had the definitive quip about taste in 1987. A German reporter asked of his Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus, “Don’t you think that a comic book about the Holocaust is in bad taste?”

Spiegelman replied, “No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.”