When Graphics Inflame

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for When Graphics Inflame

PARIS, Sept 19 (Reuters) – French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad on Wednesday, a move criticized by the French authorities which sent riot police to protect the magazine’s offices.Issues of the magazine hit newsstands with a front cover showing an Orthodox Jew pushing a turbaned figure in a wheelchair with several caricatures of the Prophet on its inside pages, including some of him naked.

Oy! Why, when the Muslim world has exploded in fury over the idiotic hate film, The Innocence of Muslims, would Charlie Hebdo, long a strident satirical weekly, add to the tension with their own provocation? Reuters reported that Charlie‘s editors said “the cartoons are designed simply to poke fun at the uproar over the film”—not, as critics say, “of deliberately stirring controversy to sell newspapers.” Publication forced French embassies, schools, and cultural centers in some 20 Muslim countries to be closed on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, in a precaution ordered by the French government.

This is not the first time that threats and acts of violence were prompted by graphic art. In 1968, Evergreen Review #51, featuring a story on “The Spirit of Che” with a Paul Davis portrait of Che Guevera on the cover, so inflamed anti-Castro Cubans that they bombed Evergreen‘s offices (no one was hurt). In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad, fueling another massive display of fury.

And the anger is not always targeted at graphics:

(Reuters) – A few hours before Lotfi Abdeli was due to stage his play “Made in Tunisia, 100 percent halal” last month, hundreds of Salafi Muslims who believed the show was offensive to Islam occupied the open air theatre and began to pray.The play, a satire about politics and religion, was cancelled.It was not the first time religious hardliners have stopped the plays of Abdeli, a Tunisian actor and playwright known for criticizing ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali before last year’s revolution.At last week’s Hammamet festival, Abdeli, whose life has been threatened, was accompanied by personal guards.

The easy answer is to be more circumspect regarding the impact of satire on its audience and targets. But that is no answer. Violence has long been used as a weapon of protest against insulting “ideas” or “images.” There is no parity here. An idea or image, no matter how repulsive, does not translate into death or destruction. On the other hand, satirists must accept that their work provokes and consequences ensue. The answer is in the word “responsibility.” Was Charlie Hebdo responsible? In comedy, timing is everything. In satiric publishing, that’s a useful thing to consider. Which is why I choose not to reproduce the cartoons in question.


.For more Steven Heller, see Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility.