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15 January 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:06pm

In The Frame: I am not Charlie

Our cartoonist Tom Humberstone reflects on the Charlie Hebdo shooting and subsequent debates.

By Tom Humberstone

Click to zoom into a larger image.

I wrote this comic last Thursday before I’d read too many responses to the shootings and was trying to convey how I was processing the news. Teju Cole sums up my approach with this line in his excellent New Yorker piece: “Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.”

There’s an interview with the wonderful Sara Pascoe in which fellow comedian Richard Herring asks her about her appearance on Mock the Week – a show on which most alternative comedians struggle to do well or simply don’t want to be on. Pascoe explained that that was exactly why she wanted to be on the show:

I wanted to prove that you could be good and entertaining, but also be good-hearted and not make jokes about victims or easy jokes about weak people. I’ll never talk about people’s appearances. I won’t call fat people fat or old people old or denigrate a politician by what they look like. I had such a strong ambition to be on that show and say ‘see? It’s OK, you don’t have to be like this’.

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That sums up a lot of the feelings I had when starting my weekly comic at the New Statesman. I knew I didn’t want to draw vulgar caricatures of politicians because I’ve always felt it was a cheap, lazy way in which to make a satirical point. There’s nothing big or clever about making fun of the way someone looks. It’s bullying. And is part of the reason a lot of people are dismissive of political cartoons. I understand that style of political cartooning has a particular satirical lineage in Britain but it is one that feels, to me, to be quite antiquated.

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Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Charlie Hebdo. I hold my hands up and admit to my ignorance of Charlie Hebdo. I’d never engaged with it before last week and most likely do not appreciate the cultural context for a lot of the content. But based on this clarification of the Boko Haram cover, Charlie Hebdo defenders suggest it is at best a satirical representation of the far right’s idea of asylum seekers (and that couldn’t have been satirised in any other way?), or at worst an example of Hebdo’s ‘punch up, punch down, punch sideways, punch everywhere’ editorial policy. Or it could well be both at the same time. I got a little bored of the libertarian ‘punch everywhere’ defence after several years of Trey Parker and Matt Stone using it to defend everything on South Park. It struck me that it was starting to be used like the ‘irony shield’: to shut down conversation about the intent of the joke and who is necessarily being satirised before it can even begin. It also ignores the possibility that as much as one might think they are an “equal opportunity offender”, one’s own prejudices might actually be focusing on a particular religion or race more often than others. I think it is our responsibility, as satirists or commentators, to know exactly who we are targeting, and why, before we make a joke.

I’ve seen a lot of opinion pieces and open letters in the past few days explaining that Charlie Hebdo is an extremely left-wing, liberal magazine that has been misunderstood. Usually with a (possibly sub-editor led) provocative not-at-all-trolling headlines like “Why many smart people are getting it wrong”. I can completely understand that there may not be racist intent behind a lot of the cartoons that are being shared but I think it’s worth, at the very least, considering and listening to those who find these drawings to be troubling and hurtful. Cartoons, as with all culture, can shape the way we think about and view the world around us. Simply being left-wing does not give one a pass when it comes to perpetuating crude racial stereotypes that people of colour, who deal with racism on a regular basis, consider to be offensive.

I appreciate the show of solidarity that “Je suis Charlie” represents but I also completely understand why people bristle at the idea of aligning oneself with cartoons that they disagree with. It doesn’t mean they condone the attacks. It doesn’t mean they don’t feel the emotional weight of the tragedy for those who died and their families. And those who try to suggest otherwise whenever the “Je suis Charlie” meme is critiqued are either being wilfully obtuse or shamefully manipulative.

There have been two major responses by the comics community to the attacks that have made me cringe. One response has been the barrage of well meaning cartoons, usually involving pencils daubed with the colours of the French flag, that argue the importance of satire and the power of the artist. No-one would disagree with that, and the sentiment is a good one, but I’d rather see some cartoons that show us the power of satire rather than tell us about it. Prove how important a good cartoon is to the debate.

The second response that infuriated me is the prevalence of comic artists taking selfies while posing meaningfully with a pencil or pen and captioning it with something like “weapon of choice”. As if we are all suddenly heroic for drawing cartoons now. No-one is coming for our pencils or pens. We are not being told to self-censor or stop drawing. If anything, there has never been more attention on the opinions and responses of cartoonists. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

But of course, these responses are just people trying to process and comprehend the events of last week. They are entirely legitimate emotional responses. Ways in which people are dealing with their grief and anger. 

Right now, it’s important that we’re good at our jobs. I’m looking forward to reasoned debates where we listen to each other instead of trying to score points. And I’m looking forward to seeing thought-provoking satire and nuanced cartoons that tackle big, difficult issues.