Satire Should Never Look Down: Thoughts on Engaging ‘The Other’ Post Charlie Hebdo

‘What kind of persons do we need to be to live in harmony with others?’

The blood that was brutally shed in Paris 10 days or so ago has opened a wound from which raw words, feelings and emotions have flowed. In the initial smarting pain of such a callous attack, some of this reaction was reflexive, full of expletive, some of it roared at piercing volumes at the horrible agony, some of it went too far in all kinds of directions.

It’s when the levels of adrenaline begin to ebb that the real pain, deep and constant and thudding comes. Screaming at the time is sometimes all that can be done, but violent haste makes poor laws and it is only in the more settled aftermath that decisions should be made. Namely: how does what has happened change our relationship to the people who did this to us?

Back in 2010 I released a book with Hodder called Other: Embracing Difference in a Fractured World.

Though it didn’t get on any best-seller lists, some nice people said some really nice stuff about it. Phyllis Tickle wrote ‘this is a brilliant work,’ and Peter Rollins called it ‘a work of rare beauty,’ while Brian McLaren said it was the work of a ‘leading public theologian,’ three words that haven’t been seen together since.

Anyway, in the light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the debate around the limits—if any—of satire and free speech, I’ve been returning to some of what I wrote then about this problem of how to engage the other. I thought it might be helpful to highlight some of it now, and also finesse some of those thoughts too.

In the book I quote the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote that:

‘The Other has a face, and it is a sacred book in which good is recorded.’

He goes on to implore:

Stop! There beside you is another person. Meet him. Look at the Other’s face as he offers it to you. Through this face he shows you yourself.

Levinas is clearly being an optimist here. He wants us to take time to see the good in the strangers we are wary of meeting. One strong critic of this view is Slavoj Žižek, who considers Levinas’ view of the other far too simplistic. In my book I set out their differences:

While all of us want to be in relationship, we all know that we have a fear of engaging the other. Where does this fear come from?

Levinas would argue that we fear connection with the other because we have unresolved fears about the other within ourselves. Žižek, on the other hand, would argue that we fear connection with the other because we are wary that the other has unresolved fears within themselves.

For Levinas, the problem is the enigma of the other, for Žižek the problem is the enigma in the other: we worry about engagement with our neighbour because we fear their unresolved desires may consume us.

Supporting his argument Žižek quotes Hegel’s famous dictum that ‘The enigmas of the Ancient Egyptians were also enigmas for the Egyptians themselves.’

From Levinas’ viewpoint, we are wary of the mysterious Ancient Egyptians because we don’t understand them — their actions and language are strange to us, and we would need to overcome the fear within us of this strangeness if we were to engage them.

But Žižek would have us reflect that the actions of the Ancient Egyptians were strange even to themselves. So if we were to engage them, it would not be simply a case of overcoming our fear of their strange ways, but reconciling ourselves to the fact that they have not overcome their own fear of their own strangeness.

What this means in practice is that engagement with those who are ‘other’ is a complex iterative process. Beginning with Levinas, we must take time to look into their eyes… but if we look deep enough, what we will see is not them, but what we look like to them… all in the hope that they are similarly engaged in this process of self-reflection too.

As we do this, we must learn to accept some ground rules. Firstly, this engagement is not about changing them. We do not come as colonists or patrons, not Pygmalion aristocrats trying to socialise others into our norms. Our first thought must be this: how do I look to this person? Do I look empathetic, loving or welcoming? Or do I look privileged, powerful and judgemental?

Secondly though, we do not come to this meeting of eyes with any illusion that either side is complete or coherent. Not only will others not understand me perfectly, they won’t even understand themselves perfectly—and this is equally true for me. I won’t be able to understand them perfectly, because neither do I completely understand myself.

This is perhaps why we cannot truly say ‘Je suis Charlie’: we neither know him, or ourselves, well enough.

What might we take from this in the light of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity? I think there are many lessons to learn here, but here’s a few that I’ve been mulling to begin with:

  1. ‘Boutique Multiculturalism’ shouldn’t be mistaken for something more.

In a very good interview last week, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman noted:

Boutique multiculturalism, as Fish defines it, is a superficial fascination with the Other: ethnic food, weekend festivals, and high-profile flirtations with the Other. Boutique multiculturalism is exactly what all this global consumerism nonsense in the Facebook status message means. Purveyors of this superficial brand of multiculturalism appreciate, enjoy, sympathise with, and “recognise the legitimacy” of cultures other than their own. But they always stop short of approving these radically.

In other words, ‘the trouble with stipulating tolerance as your first principle (…) is that you cannot possibly be faithful to it because sooner or later the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant at that same core.’

When we are talking about engaging ‘the Other,’ we are not talking about liking Indian food or loving reggae. We are talking about something far deeper, far more disturbing to our very settled sense of self that has—perhaps without our being conscious of it—exploited and abused other cultures, making us very powerful and wealthy in the process. This is important, as we need to get over our shock at the far deeper issues of difference than we might think exist. ‘But I have black friends! And I live in a really mixed neighbourhood!’ These were the kinds of things I heard when riots kicked off in London in 2011. There was a sense of shock that tensions existed, tensions that we had been privileged enough to be blind to.

2. How do we look to them?

Much has been frothed over the rightness or wrongness of portraying the prophet Muhammad. Perhaps we should give more time to consideration not of what Muhammad might look like, but what we look like to others when we portray him.

Is not the real taboo here the fact that we do not like being shown a true reflection of our own selves? We do not like the invisible and unspoken power and privilege that we carry revealed and talked about.

This must work both ways of course, though it’s not my place to be able to set out what that might look like as I simply don’t know. Suffice to say this: in the case of Charlie Hebdo, what those in the Muslim and Jewish communities must do is consider how they look to others too.

3. Are We Looking Down? Are They in a Position to Return our Gaze?

Much has also been said about freedom of speech and the democratic way in which Charlie Hebdo satirised everyone equally. Every religion was attacked, every politician and every celebrity.

Yet this axis of equality is too easily flaunted. To continue the metaphor used by Levinas: what we must ask when we look into the face of the other is whether we are looking down on them as we do so, and whether they are in a position to return our gaze with any power.

Take my own situation. I might say that, in the name of equality and freedom of speech, I should be at liberty to make sarcastic and caustic comments about the kids I teach—because they are genuinely funny remarks! Perhaps, but there is a clear power imbalance here, and it would be absurd for me to pretend otherwise. Teachers who act as if they are ‘down with the kids’ are fundamentally abusing the power that they have to come down to that level, knowing that their students cannot make the journey the opposite way.

This was my problem with Charlie Hebdo, why I couldn’t say ‘Je suis Charlie.’ When satire is directed down to those who are less powerful, less privileged and who have a history of oppression, it is very very problematic.

In his book Infinitely Demanding, Simon Critchley talks of satire and activism as ‘continually questioning from below any attempt to establish order from above.’ That is what Private Eye does well. That is what Charlie Hebdo did brilliantly when it mocked Presidents and Popes.

But when the vectors are reversed, we see things very differently: what of those who continually question from above any attempt to effect change from below? That is not satire, and nor is that the outworking of free speech. It is something else entirely, and we should not be working to perpetuate it.

4. Sometimes The Gaze Will Not Be Met

None of this should be taken as expressing any support for the violent and bloody shootings. Please understand that. While the above may perhaps be true, there remain those who are so radicalised, so embittered, that they simply will not meet our gaze. There is nothing reflected in their eyes. Those in Boko Haram, those in ISIS performing beheadings—or getting children to perform them for them—these are not people whom we should expect to sit and dialogue eye to eye with.

There are such radical wounds and drives in some of these groups that we must expect further violence to be perpetrated. We will not win this ‘war on terror’ anytime soon.

However, much as we must admit this, we must also be aware of radical elements within our own communities too. Bauman continues:

Why do you reduce the issue of “radicalization and terrorism in Europe” to the phenomenon of “radical islamic ideology”? In Soumission, Michel Houllebecq’s second grand dystopia sketching an alternative (to the triumph of individualized consumer) path to disaster, the 2022 French elections are won by Mohammed Ben Abbes following a neck and neck race with Marine Le Pen. The tandem is anything but accidental.

There are very disturbing elements in UKIP, the English Defence League and other far-right parties that are gaining ground across Europe. But more than that, there is a very deep, radicalised and fundamentalist Capitalism that we are pretty much blind to. This is an ideology that has, over the past centuries, created grotesque inequality, caused untold damage to our planet, subjected whole societies to oppression and taken the lives of untold thousands.

When we talk about the problems of radical fundamentalism within Islam—which are undeniable and urgent—we must also have the courage to hear the admonition coming the other way: what about Western fundamentalism? Are we prepared to have the same ‘internal conversations’ that we urge Muslims to have within our own situation too?

Doing so would be the most fitting way to honour those who died in these terrible attacks. This should be the legacy of Charlie Hebdo: not the preservation of the right to offend, but the turning of the powerful satirical gaze on ourselves, asking the question Miroslav Volf poses in Exclusion and Embrace:

What kind of selves do we need to be in order to live in harmony with others?


You can order ‘Other’ here in the UK, or here in the US.

Teaching and writing, in uncertain ratios. London.

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