Freedom of speech

The view from Billinudgel

The best medicine

Inevitably, in the wake of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the argument has turned to the line between satire and offence. But, in fact, this is a false dichotomy. 

The two are indivisible; if satire does not offend at least someone, it ceases to be satire and becomes no more than humour. The whole point of satire is to expose cant and hypocrisy, and there are always those who cherish their own versions of one or both. 

But if we accept that satire is intrinsically offensive, should there be limits and, if so, what are they? The first thing to note is that while satire is always offensive, offence is not always satirical. 

Offence can be serious: it can be polemical and rhetorical, genuinely critical and even iconoclastic. But it can also degenerate into tedious preaching, simple abuse and, at its worst, spite and bigotry. Society generally reacts to some sort of censorship, although hopefully not the kind of idiot response of the oafish policeman who claims to be shocked and hurt at the sound of drunken swearing. 

The old test used to be something like the one of obscenity: would the matter complained of be offensive to the ordinary citizen? This may have been considered satisfactory when the citizenry was more or less homogenous (or at least thought to be so), but it is clearly impractical in a vigorously multicultural polity like modern-day Australia. 

Now offence targeted at racial or religious groups and individuals is generally stigmatised and occasionally punished. But there are always loopholes – the general catch-all is the defence of fair comment. 

This is no more helpful than the other old fallback of excusing obscenity – pornography was allowed if it was considered to be of literary merit. The spectacle of courtrooms full of earnest academics passing judgement on the aesthetic virtues of the bawdy 18th century pot-boiler Fanny Hill was one of my most pleasurable memories of London in the early 1960s. 

There is a much simpler test for satire: is it funny? It doesn’t matter whether you cringe or gasp with outrage as long as it also makes you laugh. Of course, even that doesn’t always work: Alan Coren’s hilariously but undoubtedly racist lampoons of Idi Amin in Punch magazine eventually fell foul of politically correct censors. But the test works well enough for most purposes. 

So: where does that leave the pages of Charlie Hebdo? Frankly, I’m not familiar enough with the magazine to judge. Clearly much of it is genuinely funny, but perhaps there were times when its zealous anti-clericalism crossed the line into, well, evangelism. That should never, of course, be a cause for lethal vengeance, although sadly it often has been and will probably be again.

But laughter, as the Reader’s Digest used to say, is the best medicine. After all, even the most rabid fanatic would find it hard to aim a Kalashnikov while guffawing.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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