Responsibility of the Writer to the Reader
by Ethan Glover, Tue, Jan 20, 2015 - (Edited) Wed, Feb 28, 2018
My original inspiration for writing about this topic was Charlie Hebdo. He drew some cartoons that to some, made fun of Muslims. This allegedly led to his death. We don't know exactly. Al Qaeda and ISIS have both claimed the killings, but they try to claim every significant terrorist event.
I think Hebdo's cartoons had many good points. There are plenty of Muslims who agree with his message. From what I've seen no Muslim's have made a big deal out of showing Muhammad either.
But, I believe Charlie played on the team vs. team mentality that people have. I'm sure he was aware that many people who read his material are bigots when it comes to Islam. They love to see anything that goes against that religion.
I get that Hebdo did more than make fun of Islam. He made fun of everyone. There is an idea that many people have in their heads, that as long as you're making fun of everyone, or if you're an "equal opportunity asshole," then you're in the clear.
I get that satire can provide value. It can mean a lot. But I think before we hit publish we have to step back and think, "Is this helping anybody? Is making fun of terrorists in this way enlightening people on the issue?"
One of Charlie's most "offensive" cartoons showed a terrorist beheading Muhammad. There is an important message there. But Charlie's "supporters" are still blaming Islam on terrorism. The bigotry that Charlie tried to enlighten people on still exists.
I don't think Hebdo's audience 'got it.' I mean, I don't think he got the message across at all, and he died for it. Charlie lost his audience, and now they celebrate him in ignorance. They never came to understand what Charlie was saying.
Your Public Voice is for Everyone
You have to know your audience. You have to be 100% empathetic to how they will feel about what you write. And by audience, I don't mean your "circle of fans," I mean everyone. Good satirists know to be empathetic towards the people they're making fun of. They understand the line between satire and hate.
Sure, it's hard to be empathetic towards terrorist groups. I get that. What I'm saying is that Charlie didn't have to show the image of Muhammad. He could have presented his message in a way that resonated with at least a few terrorist members.
That's the goal of sharing your voice and thoughts for writers. It's not to make people laugh, to wave a flag, or preach to a choir. Laughter is what puts food on the table for a satirist. But at the same time, satires purpose is to lighten up a subject. It shines some light on a topic that is otherwise difficult to cover without causing tension.
The whole value of comedy is to allow people to talk about, think about, and consider issues that people often avoid.
I'm not saying people don't have the right to take risks and draw whatever they want to draw. I'm not talking about free speech. I think it's important to take a second to think about how what we say will affect everybody. Especially for professional writers, artists, and journalists
Don't just pander to "viral" elements like laughs, likes, upvotes, and controversy. Try to get a message across. That's the whole point of writing to begin with.
If you're just going to wave a flag and perform like a monkey in a circus, then what's the point? You don't have to do anything as stimulating as writing if that's your goal. You can just put on a goofy hat and dance with your dog on YouTube. Hell, why not be a FOX news analyst?
Provoking one group for the sake of laughs from another is not important work. There's no use in pretending otherwise.
Your Voice Has an Effect
Maybe I've got Charlie Hebdo's intentions all wrong. I don't want to ignore his side of things and ignore the fact that he has friends and family in mourning. But there's an important lesson that we can all take away from this. The responsibility of the writer to the reader.
The responsibility to not just entertain, but to meet curiosity. To educate where possible. Even if you're only a satirist, I still think you have that responsibility. Without that responsibility, you're nothing but a cheap clown.
I think anybody who has a captive audience, like Hebdo did, has an opportunity to have a positive influence on the world.
While people are crying things about free speech, I don't see that as the issue here. Rather, it's the easy thing to yell about when people don't understand the problem or how to express their feelings about it.
We need to ask the same question Hebdo asked before drawing his cartoons. "Why is this happening?" Islam isn't causing the violence; that's clear.
The people who are rallying to Charlie's "cause" are for the most part hateful and ignorant towards Islam. They don't understand what happened. I get that killing someone over cartoons is wrong, but so do Muslims.
That misunderstanding, the fact that people don't realize that Muslim's are on their side, is a tragedy. Charlie died without ever making that clear.
Charlie was the victim of a violent gang born out of the oppression in the Middle East. Where people are witnessing the murders of their brothers and sisters. Where justice is unheard of. Where desperation is at unimaginable levels. Where young boys would do anything to get the invaders out of their country.
If we want to solve this issue, pushing satire to the limits to enable bigotry isn't going to help. As a writer, you could spend a career pandering to controversy. But at the end of the day, will you realize that millions of readers never actually understood what you had to say?
That's the message I think people need to consider.