The ‘no punching down’ case against satirising Islam

February 8, 2015

After the Charlie Hebdo affair, there was a lot of leftist ‘I am for free speech, but…’ talk and finger wagging directed at those who would continue to satirise Islam. It was suggested satire should always ‘punch up not punch down’. Below is my attempt to distil and do justice to the sort of thing that was said:


‘Of course I don’t think it should be illegal to satirise Islam. But still, satire shouldn’t punch down. Satire should be aimed at those who are more powerful and privileged than ourselves, not at those who are less. Across much of the West, Muslims are an increasingly feared and vilified minority. The number of violent attacks on Muslims is growing. By satirising Islam we are feeding that kind of Islamophobia. So we should stop.’


Writer Will Self expressed something like this concern, pointing out that satire of Islam and Islamic terrorism may end up harming those many Muslims whom we should be helping. Self suggests that satire, like journalism, should ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’, and he adds that the ‘trouble with a lot of so-called “satire” directed against religiously-motivated extremists is that it’s not clear who it’s afflicting, or who it’s comforting.’ (source)


I think there’s some truth to the above. Of course we need to be sensitive to issues of race, stereotyping, and so on, when engaging in satire. However, I see no good case for self-censoring all satire of Islam (not that Self argues for that). The ‘no punching down’ argument for that conclusion is too strong.


In fact the suggestion that satire should never aim at the beliefs of unjustly feared and vilified minorities has absurd consequences. Consider atheism. In the US and many other places, people are even more prejudiced against atheists than they are against Muslims. Atheists are widely perceived to be immoral. Indeed they are one of the least trusted minorities. 50% of Americans find atheism ‘threatening’. Asked whether they would disapprove of their child’s wish to marry an atheist, 47.6 percent of those polled said ‘yes’. Asked the same question about their child marrying a Muslim the ‘yes’ response fell to 33.5 percent.


So, given atheists are even more feared, vilified, and distrusted in the US than are Muslims, should satire of atheistic ideas also be avoided, then? That’s what the ‘no punching down’ principle entails. But of course the conclusion is absurd. Yes, I think images depicting atheists en masse as amoral degenerates and animals should be avoided. But not satire of atheist beliefs. No one should be self-censoring that, irrespective of the contempt in which atheists are widely held. I take the same view re. satire of Islamic beliefs. Of course I disapprove of insulting depictions of Muslims as a group (though I don’t disapprove of images insulting specific Muslim scumbags like Jihadi John, anymore than I disapprove of images insulting specific atheist scumbags). But satire of Islamic beliefs? I see no good moral case for blanket self-censorship of that.


In fact, isn’t there something rather patronizing about the thought that the much loathed atheists can take having their beliefs satirized, but not the rather less loathed Muslims? And what of all those Muslims who may in private have little problem with religious satire and liberal values, but dare not say so because of fear of ostracism, violence, etc. from their less tolerant, more fundamentalist Muslim neighbours? We are hardly doing them a favour by lumping them all together, insisting they too must enjoy the same ‘protection’ from satire of what are in reality not their own views but those of religious fascists.


Of course atheists don’t demand that their ideas not be parodied or satirised, or that Richard Dawkins not be portrayed in cartoon form. But suppose some did start loudly demanding that. Suppose some atheists did start taking enormous, exaggerated ‘offence’ whenever their ideas were lampooned. Would that give everyone else good reason to self-censor? Surely not. Actually, pandering to such demands would both encourage still more ‘offence’ and also undermine those sensible liberal atheists who rightly disowned such demands.


I am 100% behind the thought that many Muslims around the world feel hurt and aggrieved, often with very great justification. I believe the way to deal with that is to work towards fixing their situation, not to blanket self-censor all satire of ideas some of them hold for fear of causing them offence.