Freedom of expression - through satire, cartoons and so on - is being eroded by self-censorship. Despite it being a fundamental cornerstone of European culture, we are becoming afraid to be irreverent.
This year, the 70th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights, the universal human right of freedom of expression is falling victim to a regressive movement not only in authoritarian regimes but also in our old democracies.
Five years after the attack which decimated Charlie Hebdo’s team in Paris on January 2015, when millions of citizens rallied in cities all over the world to defend freedom of expression with banners proclaiming “Je suis Charlie,” this freedom is vanishing due to general indifference.
As many warned, from the Council of Europe to Reporters without Frontiers (RSF), threats to freedom of expression, which we once thought to be a pillar of modern civilisation, are growing out of all proportion. In 2019, 31 journalists were murdered and 389 are imprisoned.
According to Terry Anderson, executive director of Cartoonists Rights Network International (CNRI) who monitors threats and abuse against cartoonists, over a hundred cartoonists since 1999 have been victims of “murder, assault, kidnapping, physical intimidation, imprisonment, arrest, travel bans, police harassment, politically-motivated lawsuits, freezing or seizure of assets, vandalism, cyber-attack, online harassment, blacklisting and bullying.”
Often the multiple taboos created by our era of political correctness - cancel culture, being “woke” and trigger warnings - are a pretext for all kinds of powers and pressure groups to impose censorship without having to go through the courts. It conduces information sources and art and entertainment purveyors to self-censor for fear of online lynchings and negative economic consequences, as demonstrated last year by the New York Times’ cowardice in deciding to ban political cartoons from its pages.
Satire, in its essence, despite its possible excesses and drifts, has always been a fundamental element of criticism against power; be it economic, political, social or religious. Its intrinsic logic is to strike as hard as possible, to spare no one and refuse any form of courtesy. Its graphic and ceremonial violence is often proportional to that of the abuses, oppressions, inequalities and powers it attacks.
Since satire has existed, it has provoked extreme reactions because it can be an extreme form of freedom of expression. It is a counterweight par excellence. Satire, therefore, is a gadfly. It has merit for revealing the nature of things, even if it can be the instrument of dictatorships, racism and extremism of all kinds as well as being a form of literature, cinema or the media.
Knowledge coupled with Emmanuel Kant's exhortation to have the courage to use one's intellect - "freie Willkür" or free will - are insufficient if the results of this courage are not widespread, if this freedom of thought is not transformed into freedom of expression with the possibility of being publicly exposed for it and opened to criticism.
Irreverence - even if libertarian, vulgar, obscene, carnivalesque - can be considered as the engine of the critical spirit, the foundation of the progress of knowledge and of our capacity to live together.
Certainly, the critical spirit can also be judged as dangerous by many because, as Plato already noted, it is more comfortable and safer to remain in one's own cave than to face reality and sunlight. In a democracy, a priori everyone should learn to move beyond their narcissistic boundaries and accept that their beliefs (religious, political, social and philosophical) can be challenged and debated.
Satire has a whiplash effect that should help to open debates, start protests and offer constructive criticism in a positive Cartesian sense. Well-made satire raises crucial questions, with an irony (which is often black) that by its nature must be biting. As the Latin goes: "qui bene amat, bene castigat" (“spare the rod, spoil the child”).
Satire raises questions that politicians, officials, journalists and specialists should be eager to answer. Questions that should feed a healthy political and democratic debate. Questions for which citizens have the right to receive true and unsanitised answers.
In the age of global interconnection, while it remains one of our European culture characteristics since Aesop and Aristophanes, the art of satire and impertinence has become more difficult and riskier. It is urgent we learn to laugh at ourselves again with the distance and intelligence of critical thinking, so we can face the evils of our time and of our fragile democracies.
Satirical cartoonists, as long as they will be published and defended by the media and their users, will help us to do so.
This is the battle facing Librexpression Centre-Foundation Giuseppe Di Vagno and the reason for its second international competition, Libex-2020. Dedicated to “freedom of expression and satire in danger,” it gathered 118 editorial cartoonists from all 47 Council of Europe member states, of which selected results are offered to the public in an exhibition of cartoons entitled 'Down with Satire!'. It is presented in the castle-museum of Conversano in Italy from September 25 to December 6, 2020.
- Thierry Vissol is Director of Librexpression-Foundation Giuseppe Di Vagno (1889-1921), an economist and historian
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