Ranjona Banerji: The uncomfortable truths the Charlie Hebdo attack makes us face

09 Jan,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


The attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the deaths of 10 cartoonists, editors and employees and two policemen by Islamists yelling that they were doing this for the “Prophet” is so horrendous that no words are enough.


That this bloody rampage was an attack on free speech is self-evident. Charlie Hebdo was a magazine which pushed the boundaries and did it fearlessly. It took pride in being offensive and tried to be as offensive as possible to as many people as possible. Most publications will not and do not go so far for a number of reasons.


The mildest is that extreme satire is not to everyone’s taste. And sometimes being offensive for the sake of being offensive seems childish or even worse, adolescent. Anyone who has watched comedians battling in the “Yo Mamma” vein will know just how difficult being completely open to satire can be.


But just because satire can be difficult or painful does not mean that one must not embrace it. Everything in life is measured by degrees and so can your personal attitude to satire.  In absolute terms however, we need more satire, not less. Wherever there is pomposity, blind belief, bigotry, sanctimonious-ness, self-righteousness, grandiosity, power, hogwash, jargon… you need humour and sometimes only satire will do the trick.


Yes, in India, the media has not pushed too many buttons here. “Humour” is something we push to a corner and there are too many Indian citizens with thin skins and no sense of fun. Also, our idea of our society is based on paying lip service to the idea of “respect”. The result is that we end up “appeasing” all kinds of bigotry in the name of “respect”. If we exposed all humbuggery for what it is, we might in fact understand real respect better.


Having said all this, we have also accepted some limits. Racist attacks masquerading as humour are illegal and/or frowned upon. Across western Europe and the US, anti-Semitism is not permitted. In most democracies, making fun of those groups who have been historically subjugated is not acceptable. These are only some examples of where we usually do not go and where we consider we should not go.


But sometimes our self-censorship can be seen as pusillanimity.  And sometimes, in the media and The Government what some would call sensitivity, good sense or self-preservation, has led to the fringe elements of all communities setting the agenda. Many groups from the police to barbers to members of various religious communities have had massive tantrums when they have felt “offended” by sometimes innocuous mentions. Perhaps now, we should laugh at them a little more. We can always exercise good sense because not all attempts at humour are successful but we might now pussyfoot around controversial humour a bit less.


David Brooks in The New York Times provides a more nuanced view of the idea of the Charlie Hebdo sort of satire: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/09/opinion/david-brooks-i-am-not-charlie-hebdo.html?_r=0


This is an argument which should not end after the attack on Charlie Hebdo is forgotten.




How far can a news channel go? Or, to put it another way, how did Times Now’sArnab Goswami accuse Congress MP Shashi Tharoor of murdering his wife Sunanda Pushkar and get away with it?


I must make it clear that I do not know who killed Sunanda Pushkar and I know no more about the case than what has appeared in the media. When Goswami blusters through his introductory monologue about injury number 12 and injury number 17 I have no idea what he’s talking about if indeed he is talking about anything.


When Goswami issues an open invitation Shashi Tharoor to his channel to discuss these numbered injuries and to come clean on what he knows, I realise that this is not journalism any longer. It is not trial by media. It is a news anchor trying to be Jerry Springer or any other such TV host who gets people to expose their innermost private lives for a few moments of fame and the delectation of those who live vicariously.


Earlier I felt, before Barkha Dutt was exposed by the Radia tapes, that Dutt had a good chance to be India’s Oprah Winfrey. Now I feel Goswami has trumped her and can become India’s Jerry Springer. No?



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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: The uncomfortable truths the Charlie Hebdo attack makes us face”

  1. ashok759 says:

    Murder – if indeed it was that – is serious business; accusing the dead woman’s husband, a man with a long record in public life, equally so. The only people who have a right and a duty to question Shashi Tharoor are the police. The media has a duty to report developments accurately, and one expects them to do it with impartiality. Showing close up photographs of a dead body was also in poor taste. Do not know what Yo Mamma signifies and have never heard of Jerry Springer, but am on the same page as our columnist in her revulsion over how public discourse is shaping up on parts of the electronic media. Viewers will start moving away.

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