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.


#1 bootjangler on Sunday February 08, 2015 at 9:50am

There’s a good point here which needs to be pushed much more. I’ll expand a bit…...who does actually use (or imply) the term “all Muslims”? I’d say the conservative orthodox, who want all Muslims to be like them. Then there’s far-right type characters who insist “all Muslims” are a problem. And then, ironically, comes the non-Muslim apologists, who in this case might say “Muslims will be offended,” or “Muslims love Muhammed more than they love their family.” Well this just isn’t true of “all”. They are simply siding with the conservative orthodox, who have seemingly convinced everyone that “all Muslims” are in the same bucket. It might be true (I have no stats) that the “Muslim community” is more conservative orthodox than any other, but we should not lose sight of the fact that secular/liberal Muslims actually exist. It would be mad to think otherwise, and side with the fundamentalists, which in turn, suppresses all others.

#2 Steven Carr (Guest) on Monday February 09, 2015 at 12:02am

Drawing an image of Muhammad is not satire.

#3 Steven Carr (Guest) on Monday February 09, 2015 at 12:07am

What is the main thing people fear about the EDL, the BNP and the National Front?

Their use of satire?

I don’t think so.

Satire is not the preferred weapon of right-wing extremist thugs, and it is wrong of liberals to link satire with right-wing extremism.

#4 Michael (Guest) on Monday February 09, 2015 at 7:53am

Please explain how one satirizes a non-belief. That’s like saying “Hey let’s make fun of the golfers who don’t golf.” It’s patently absurd.

#5 BlasphemyChamp on Monday February 09, 2015 at 8:11am

A couple additional arguments:

Those who are marginalized in one place are often powerful in another. In today’s global information environment, it is not effectively possible to satirize a group only in one place. So “not punching down” amounts to “don’t upset anyone”.

One facet of the problem with religion is that many people appear to base their entire self-image on religion. So criticizing any part of their religion (even parts they may disagree with) is seen as an attack on their entire self. It is the power of religion that is being satirized, not the lack of power of the people. And puncturing their over-identification is part of the satirical goal.

#6 Sean (Guest) on Monday February 09, 2015 at 10:05am

Awful, pathetic, double-standard, illogical, dishonest nonsensical article. And you claim to fight for secularism?
Sham-fucking-bolic. Hang your head in shame

#7 Steven Carr (Guest) on Tuesday February 10, 2015 at 1:33am

Of course, the big question about images of Muhammad (and other prophets) is ‘Do Islamic laws apply to non-Muslims?’

#8 HH (Guest) on Tuesday February 10, 2015 at 6:21am

@Sean Comment#6
“Awful, pathetic, double-standard, illogical, dishonest nonsensical article.”

That’s some fine assertin’ you are doing there. Don’t suppose you would deign to offer us an actual argument?

@Michael Comment #4
“Please explain how one satirizes a non-belief. That’s like saying “Hey let’s make fun of the golfers who don’t golf.” It’s patently absurd.”

That fact that you can’t imagine or understand something doesn’t make it absurd. Atheist satire is like any other. Common tropes employed by atheists taken to absurd extremes for humorous purposes.

I can’t post links but the onion and southpark both lampooned atheists. Here are a few jokes for you

Q: Why can’t atheists solve exponential equations?
A: Because they don’t believe in higher powers.

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Must be the wind.

Etc. Etc.

#9 IA (Guest) on Wednesday February 18, 2015 at 7:02pm

Graham Linehan, who knows a thing or two about satire, had an excellent quote on the subject:
“I don’t buy the ‘good satire always punches up’ line. Good satire punches every which way, but bad satirists *always* punch down.”
Given that Charlie Hebdo went after French politicians the National Front, and Christianity far more than Mohammed or Islamic terrorists, it’s plain that it punched every which way.

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