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Firefighters carry a victim on a stretcher at the scene after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, on Wednesday. (JACKY NAEGELEN/Reuters)
Firefighters carry a victim on a stretcher at the scene after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, on Wednesday. (JACKY NAEGELEN/Reuters)

Paris attacks illustrate the power of mockery Add to ...

To find the offices of Charlie Hebdo, you turn onto a dull-looking side street just south of Boulevard Voltaire and just north of the Place de la Bastille. This corner of Paris, as those landmarks suggest, has a long history of wildly dissenting mockery of authority, and an equally long history of violent and deadly reprisals for such mockery. It’s in these narrow streets that the most famous principles of free speech were first articulated, and where heads were first chopped off in defiance of such principles.

You would not, at first, think of this pulpy cartoon weekly as being part of that tradition. The fluorescent-lit offices of Charlie Hebdo, every time I’ve visited, have resembled nothing more than a student newspaper on production night: a helter-skelter of crumpled papers, cigarette butts, half-full wine bottles and stubble-faced guys trying to think of something funny on deadline. It was here that the cartoonist known as Riss, whose real name is Laurent Sourisseau, once showed me how to caricature then-president Nicolas Sarkozy: the sharp triangles of eyebrow, the ever-panicked eccentricity in the pupils. He had published works mocking George W. Bush for the Iraq War, Mr. Sarkozy for his attacks on immigrants, and a decade of French leaders for their pomposity and folly.

On Wednesday morning, Riss, who is now Charlie Hebdo’s managing editor, lay injured among the bodies of a dozen of his colleagues and protectors. His boss, known throughout France as Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), whose childlike, comic-opera cartooning had set the newspaper’s style, was among the dead. He’d described his paper recently as “engaged, left-wing, anti-religious, atheist, secular, sometimes militant.” There is no doubt, from the slogans shouted by the killers during the videotaped attacks, that this was an act of revenge for the paper’s campaign of mockery directed against militant groups, such as the Islamic State, the extremists who back them and the religious fundamentalism that propels them.

Satire and mockery may have been the first forms of political dissent to attract violent reprisals (the earliest dissenting newspapers, and the coffee houses that gave rise to them, were largely dedicated to the mockery of inherited power and privilege). In recent decades, we’ve come to think of them as a colourful decoration on the side of Big Politics: an entertainment rather than a direct attack.

But, as we’ve seen over and over recently, it is mockery, far more than rhetorical or logical criticism, that reaches its target and drives its wounded victims to paroxysms of revenge.

Weeks earlier, the world had witnessed a strikingly similar, though fortunately bloodless, parallel attack, in which the entertainment giant Sony Pictures was ripped apart and humiliated from within, electronically, in revenge for its production of the movie The Interview, a surprisingly well-sketched spoof of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. That the Seth Rogen movie’s style of humour – primary-coloured, adolescent, embarrassingly funny, mercilessly pointed – was an echo of Charlie Hebdo’s could not be lost on anyone who has seen both.

What joins them is the unapologetic display of disrespect, directed against those who value nothing more than unquestioning respect. The dividing line between extremism and civility, authoritarianism and democracy, today is increasingly drawn along this line: For lack of any coherent ideologies, many of today’s extremists are fuelled on pure demand for silent adulation and blind faith.

Think of the satirical punk band Pussy Riot, whose members were imprisoned in Siberia for nothing more than showing bold-faced disrespect for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political and religious milieu. Or the authors of numerous satirical articles, social-media accounts and artworks who have been shut down or censured in China after their works became online memes in that country’s lively digital culture. Or the Danish authors of the satirical Prophet Mohammed cartoons of 2005, who triggered violent reactions from extremist groups not unlike those who attacked Charlie Hebdo.

Mockery travels faster than news or analysis. While Charlie Chaplin’s Interview-style mockery of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator was not considered a major part of the arsenal against the Fuhrer in that predigital era (and certainly didn’t provoke violence), the instant spread of disrespectful imagery is capable of threatening entire edifices of authority overnight.

What Charlie Hebdo offended was not any broad community or religion or political tendency, but rather those militant few who are driven to revenge and violence at the prospect of disrespect. Its unsubtle, schoolyard style of humour, much like Mr. Rogen’s, turned off a lot of people and groups, but that’s a fully acceptable response to bad taste and not at all related to vengeful violence.

A century and a half ago, what the police called “respect crimes” were part of the political mainstream in countries such as Canada, where wounded honour was the cause for duels and vengeance. Gauntlet-throwing died out, in most places, for generations. But something has happened in the online age to make mockery, once again, into a potent instrument. The only reasonable response is to deploy it as often, and as mercilessly, as possible.

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