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That Charlie Hebdo cartoon

Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to controversy. and that’s putting it lightly. The French magazine pushes boundaries weekly, and so much so on occasion that it causes “uproar” and “disgust”.

Both have been used to describe the publication’s recent work (and its impact) – a cartoon that asks what Aylan Kurdi would have become had he had the chance to grow up. The photo of the boy’s body, washed up on Turkish shores, made front pages around the world last year. Charlie Hebdo satirized it then and, referencing the sexual assaults that happened in Germany on New Year’s Eve, had a point to make about it now. 

The cartoon depicts two pig-snouted men chasing two screaming German women. The caption states Kurdi would have become a German ass-groper. The real attacks in Cologne have largely been blamed on foreigners. And to the upset of many, there are a lot of “foreigners” migrating to Europe these days.

CBC and Time reported on how outraged social media was; the Queen of Jordan has commissioned a cartoon to be drawn showing Kurdi as a “successful member of society”. The Guardian wrote about how Ronald Reagan tried to use Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A’ as a campaign anthem. (The song is meant as an attack on the “hollow jingoism that wages foreign wars”.)

In satire we see what we want to see. We see it through the lens of our experiences and if the lens is too cloudy, we miss the point altogether. If it’s too edgy, the point gets cut up in our outrage. Satire has the power to be both the mirror and the little voice in our head: it can reflect ourselves back at us with some unavoidable nudging and goading about how things indeed looked different in your head.

Whether it’s the work, the audience or both, the cartoon failed to do that. There’s always the trade-off between producing “art” (with the power of introducing a new concept or idea) and “art people will like” (which gets a more digestible version of that message out). It’s a challenge to do both. Add finding the line between satire that pushes us, uncomfortably, to a new understanding, and satire that pushes us right over the edge because it’s sensational and tasteless and crass. 

I think it’s safe to say that Charlie’s cartoon is meant to contrast the world’s outrage when it first learned of three-year-old Aylan with the racism, stereotyping and rhetoric on the streets of Europe today. Regardless of whether the image goes too far, it still makes a point about “white Europeans” through a caricature of “non-white foreigners”. Where is the cartoon of the former, that replaces human features for snouts, hooves, fangs or drool to represent the baseness of stereotyping and racism? What was published may go too far, but it’s still within the same paradigm. The frame is the same. The perspective is old. And instead of seeing an “uproar” that demands a change in racist attitudes, people were outraged because the cartoon is simply no way to treat a poor foreigner…

The “butt” of the sartorial joke may have been meant for those who stereotype migrants, but foreigners instead ended up as collateral damage at the expense of a point that got stolen amid misdirected controversy.

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