Charlie Hebdo and Sacred Cows: On the Place of Mockery in Civil Society

It’s been seven days since the horrific murders of 12 Charlie Hebdo employees by militant Islamist gunmen. In that week we’ve seen potent and emotional shows of support for the organization and for the right to free speech, and an emphatic refusal around the world to be silenced by intimidation or violence.

As we begin to step back and take a breath, though, other questions emerge. For instance, what’s the proper place for taunting and mockery in civil society? Certainly it has a place at times. The Emperor has no clothes. Human society remains unjust. Humor helps bring such truths to the surface. 


Still, if a Muslim man and woman were walking down a street in Paris or Melbourne or Milwaukee and people along the way spit on images of Mohammad or mocked the burka, we would condemn their actions as wrong and offensive. But put the same kinds of things in a cartoon or a movie and it’s above reproach. It’s free speech. It’s even courageous.

Yet for those who have been humiliated by their portrayal in the media, the only difference is that their attack happens out of sight, while sitting around the kitchen tables or gathered in their temples. As throughout history, so now human society always tries to keep its victims hidden.

If it were Muslims drawing cartoons in the Chicago Tribune or L.A. Magazine of a 13 year old Virgin Mary being gang raped by the Trinity, or someone urinating on the Eucharist, would we say that Catholics shouldn’t be furious? I doubt it.

Or if a Catholic comedian were to do a routine about how “the Jews” just got what they deserved for killing Jesus, would we tell our Jewish friends to “chill”? If “The Interview” were a comedy about successfully killing President Obama, would we insist it’s just a movie?  

The fact is, no matter how “modern” and “civilized” we see ourselves, we all have sacred cows. Some are unjust and need to be challenged, no doubt. But others hurt no one; they’re just sacred. And what exactly is gained in demeaning them?

Alongside our embrace of free speech (which I wholeheartedly support), at some point the question has to be asked, what about being kind? About enhancing the web of relationships that is community? About building one another up?

Offering a bold example of what is possible, Charlie Hebdo this week has on its cover Muhammad standing by himself, a tear in his eye. In his hands he holds a sign: “Je Suis Charlie.”

The caption above says it all: “Tout Est Pardonnné.”

“All is forgiven.” 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Atkinson
4 years 2 months ago
Interesting fact: When you arrest Islamic terrorist and/or sympathizers (especially women) who do not commit crimes, and revoke their visa or passport they use every legal means available to not go back to their African/Arab/Persian country. If the western world would educate Islamic people as to the real living conditions in these countries (especially for the women) they might just readjust their view on leaving countries where they have enjoyed such freedoms, as press, speech, religion, sexual independence, and the right to be an equal human being with all others, life, liberty, equality, freedoms, rights, and happiness are supreme to their reasons for being terrorist/sympathizers.
Robert Lewis
4 years 2 months ago
'The fact is, no matter how “modern” and “civilized” we see ourselves, we all have sacred cows.' The "sacred cows" are different from culture to culture, and, if you go to live in modern France, you better understand that the "free speech" principles of what the French call "laicite" take precedence over the importance of reverence for religious icons. I suggest that the Muslims who value reverence of the Prophet and the Prophet's name make a judicious decision NOT to go to live in modern France.
John Fitzgerald
4 years 2 months ago
Jim -- I agree with the substance of what you are saying but not with the timing. I am appalled and offended by the kinds of things that Charlie Hebdo puts out but let's leave the focus on the murder of the 12 plus people for now. In the current context, this kind of piece is often interpreted as sympathetic to the truly violent extremists in the Muslim world. Sometimes broad-minded-ness can be left unspoken for a time.
Craig McKee
4 years 2 months ago
5 million copies, and 100,000 PEN-WAVING French citizens of all religions cannot be wrong. The "sensus fidelium" has spoken, much louder than bullets "avenging the prophet." Vive la France! et les Jesuites francais:
Vince Killoran
4 years 2 months ago
Ridicule and incivility and humor--sometimes together, often separate--are hallmarks of modern, pluralistic society. On occasion these cartoons and other forms of humor can offer real insight; often they do not. It's messy but the alternative--censorship & theocracies--are even worse. A couple of years ago THE ONION published an article that reported that Jesus was a male prostitute before his public ministry.
4 years 2 months ago
Jim, you wrote "what’s the proper place for taunting and mockery in civil society? " Let me point out that in another very recent article going with the announcement of Junipero Serra's impending sainthood, one writer in an article on Five Fun Facts wrote about how the missionaries beat the Indigena, and then made light of it (Fun Fact #5); to say that it went beyond 'mockery' and especially in light of the recent revelations of how our military forces used brutal forms of torture lead me to ask why Fun Fact #5 was 'funny' and why neither Catholics, nor the writer, nor the folks who okeyed the sainthood of Serra aren't appalled by the history of the mission system. So, I''m waiting for the editors and writers of America to tell me "what’s the proper place for taunting and mockery in civil society?"


The latest from america

The freshness and wonder, the way that what was there before still exists but is now shot through with newness. The city glitters. Why not? Lent is the season of baptismal preparation as much as penance.
We have experienced God’s benevolent interventions in our own lives.
Lucetta Scaraffia, editor in chief of "Women Church World" a monthly magazine distributed alongside the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, poses in her house in Rome. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, File)
"We are throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by a climate of distrust and progressive de-legitimization," founder Lucetta Scaraffia wrote in the open letter to Pope Francis.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shakes hands with Alabama State Sen. Henry Sanders at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., on March 19. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., responded to a question about his religious views by talking about his own faith and what he sees as a distortion of Christianity among U.S. conservatives.