Now that Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has permitted the prosecution of German satirist Jan Boehmermann the time has come to fully wade into the free speech debate and take it beyond the question of policing the boundaries of a democratic society. Commenting on this decision, The Guardian criticized Merkel for tarnishing “her country’s reputation for freedom.” While the familiar issues of Europe’s core values—learning by the minority to develop a culture of laughing at oneself; of intolerance, bigotry, and micro-aggression against Islamic communities; of a new idea of plural Europe, with new rules of living together differently, that is in the making—will be played out as the controversy develops, the case of the German satirist opens the door to new issues for deliberation.
The chain of reactions began with the demand by the Turkish government to ban the broadcast of the video “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan,” on the program extra 3, which mocked the Turkish president’s authoritarian disposition. The German ambassador in Ankara was summoned and officially conveyed Turkey’s displeasure. Reacting to this demand by Turkey to the Germany government, Boehmermann upped the ante and staged a satirical episode on his regular show aired by the public TV broadcaster ZDF. Sitting at a desk, with the Turkish flag and a small portrait of Erdogan behind him, mimicking a news bulletin, Boehmermann read a poem about Erdogan having sex with goats and sheep, beating up Kurdish and Christian minorities, and watching child pornography. Undoubtedly the provocative video stirred controversy. Boehmermann was aware that he was breaking the law and said as much at the start of the episode. He has gained a reputation for stinging satire. The broadcast was a deliberate attempt to test the limits of state censorship. Will it censor, he wondered, a puerile vulgar poem for realpolitik reasons? Will it succumb to the pressure of the Turkish government, especially since it needs Turkey’s support to address the refugee crises in Europe? As the protest erupted ZDF deleted the poem from its online portal. Merkel publicly conceded that it was offensive.
Boehmermann’s prosecution for an offense within the secular domain, as different from the cartoon cases of Denmark and France which offended religious sentiment, raises some interesting issues about the limits faced by offensive expression, especially satire, in democratic societies. Three in particular need our attention. The first is on the status of satire as a particular form of free expression whose rationale it is to produce laughter by deliberate provocation. Are there limits to such provocation and on what grounds, normative or political, do we argue for them? This brings us to the doorstep of the second issue, that of the necessary congruity between the structures of satire and the kind of society which must exist for the satire to be able to elicit the intended laughter. Does the congruity have to be thick, for it to work, or will a thin congruity also do? This aspect of congruity must be explored sociologically in the context of contemporary Europe which is still learning to accept and normalize its new plurality. Europe’s internal struggle brings us to the third issue, the viability of such national projects of norm making in a borderless world. When the politics of the “outside,” which belongs to different normative worlds, knocks at the door and comes in uninvited, what should a government do?
There are many interesting sides that emerge in each of the three aspects. Let me begin with the first. Henri Bergson in his classic book, Laughter: An essay on the meaning of the comic, sees such comic sketches as a necessary corrective for society which, in the absence of such humor, may become too inelastic. The idea that a society must retain a degree of elasticity to live with the quirks and foibles of individuals and groups, and perhaps even accommodate them, as social norms evolve, is indeed a valuable idea. Laughter, as a gesture, therefore, in the face of the emerging inelasticity of power, becomes a valuable corrective. It prevents the exercise of power from becoming too rigid and too arrogant. From this Bergsonian perspective Turkey needs a lot of laughter to pull Erdogan, who has spread fear among dissenters, down a peg or two. Satire, in addition to being a corrective to an emerging inelasticity in Turkey, also compels German society to debate the social and legal limits of what is permissible. It seeks to shift the boundary outward expanding the zone of what is acceptable. Achieving such an outcome was Boehmermann’s objective.
Charlie Hebdo’s staff members knew that producing satire aimed at venerated targets was dangerous. Their valor lies in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech. While many question the defense of that far-flung territory because of the bigotry that can lurk there, Charlie Hebdo has guarded it vigilantly, keeping it open for all should a time come when we, too, may need to challenge taboos and risk sacrilege. Without those who stake out the border provinces, we would all be forced to dwell in an ever-shrinking expressive terrain.
This statement has all the key words—“venerated targets,” “outer precincts,” “taboos,” “ever shrinking expressive terrain”—that we need to think about when analyzing the Boehmermann affair. Such analysis invites us to engage with the normative concerns of a society seeking to expand its domain of freedom. Episodes such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons the satirical poem of Jan Boehmermann, the cartoons by Ali Ferzat, or the late Jaspal Bhatti’s satirical TV shows, redefine the relationship between state and religion, or state and culture. This is an evolving relationship where boundaries are being continually tested by the democratizing process. State and religion, or state and culture, are in the process of changing as a result of local pressures and political contingencies. Targeting taboos, with the help of satire, is therefore an important part in this process of evolution. It produces a societal response, which is laughter at excessive self-aggrandizement as in the case of Erdogan. It exposes the hypocrisies of those in power. It gives the state, and the powers that be, a sense of how much capacity society has to live with (if not accept) the purported offense.
At this point is useful to set to rest this Western arrogance that “we” can comfortably live with satire but “they”—non-West, particularly Islamic, societies—cannot. A Google search of satire in Islamic society soon debunks this myth. It takes you to wonderful examples of satire in Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and many other countries. Neda Ulaby did a survey that showed this robust tradition of satire in the Islamic world. My argument here will, therefore, disregard this Eurocentric position and accept that if some societies have more of a capacity to deal with satire and some have less, this should be regarded as a by-product of the political struggles that are being waged in each society. The truce at any time, between the satirist and the state, will determine the transition point when the state will change from being benign, and ignoring the provocation, to being hostile and prosecuting the transgressor. A point in case is Germany. The decision to prosecute will enable us to see the extent to which Germany has internalized the norms, of a free society, that it so loudly proclaims whenever the issue of the limits of free expression come up in international affairs.
This first set of issues, of the three mentioned earlier, looks at satire in terms of the political, legal, and moral issues raised and is usually cast in terms of a binary between free speech and censorship, artistic freedom and offense, and democracy and tyranny. Indian jurisprudence has tried to negotiate this tension in terms of the idea of the “reasonable restriction,” which may be legitimately placed on free speech and expression by the due process of law. In the US these restrictions have produced hate speech jurisprudence and voluminous case law. This is a very productive line of discussion, since it identifies the principles of a free society and the challenges to it, and also the conflicts that may arise between two or more core principles.
While this is indeed a productive road along which to travel, it does not examine the social context in which satire acquires its ability to be playful and effective. It is a truism to say that no satire has a ready global appeal, and that every satire gains its particular sting in, and from, a national cultural context. R. K. Laxman’s daily cartoon in The Times of India depicting the common man made sense to one who has had to endure the arrogance and daily stupidity of Indian politics. Trevor Noah’s performances provoke laughter because the audience connects with the nuances of his punch lines since these are embedded in local histories and cultures with which the audience is familiar. When Noah, parodying an Indian accent, says to the British missionary who is trying to convert him, that there is no vacancy for a new god since “all the positions are occupied,” referring to the millions of gods in the Hindu pantheon and using the language of the Indian bureaucracy to say so, he is incredibly funny to an Indian. Similarly when John Oliver tries to uncouple the aura of wealth from the grandeur of Trump’s name, he discovers from his research that Trump’s name was originally “Drumpf,” it is hilarious. The argument is simple; social and cognitive context is important for humor to be effective.
Which brings me to the second major issue for consideration, the question of congruity. In On Humour, Simon Critchley makes the insightful argument that there must be a congruence between the structure of a joke and the structure of a society for the incongruence of the joke to generate a laugh. This congruence takes place at many levels, language, signs, meaning systems and gesture and is a product of years, if not decades, of working to align the performance—whether a cartoon, stage act, or TV episode—with the different micro cultures in society. This alignment of many micro cultures produces a macro culture, a public culture to which the satire speaks. When a joke resonates with a wider public such an alignment can then be regarded to be on track. The alignment may get destabilized, by new micro cultures that enter the public space and challenge its coordinates and meaning systems, but as long as the joke continues to resonate it helps produce the wider public culture. This wider public culture, over time and with regular inputs, becomes a national public culture and takes shape through language, literature, film, song, sport, politics, and of course through humor. The British, for example, would never be able to make a masala Bollywood film, nor the French a Jackie Chan movie. These require a sense of what works in a national culture.
Congruity between the structure of the joke and that of society is an important property of satire. Although just 35 years old, Jan Boehmermann has been able to create such a culture of congruity with his widely popular satire show. The particular episode where he mocks the Turkish president must therefore be seen within this context. He has established congruity between his humor and his audience as a result of which he enjoys national appeal and has a popular show with regular watchers some of whom are even perhaps even loyal to it. A political culture of being comfortable with satire, of living with it, has emerged in Germany. Only its boundaries are now being tested by persons such as Boehmermann.
Jürgen Habermas, commenting on Rawls’ idea of the “overlapping consensus,”introduced the idea of the “sedimentation” of a culture. He argued that “if experiences associated with an incipiently successful institutionalization of principles have already become sedimented in the existing political culture … such a reconstructive appropriation can accomplish more than the hermeneutic clarification of a contingent tradition.” Sedimentation of satire has taken place in the public culture of Germany. Erdogan’s demand seeks to unsettle such sedimentation.
The issue is really is whether such a sedimentation is thick or thin, of whether many of the micro cultures, in their relationship with each other, have produced a large overlapping consensus within which Boehmermann’s satire resides. Such sedimentation has not taken place across many countries of Europe where offense is deeply felt, by some micro cultures, on some satirical expressions. This was demonstrated most forcefully, and also tragically, in the case of the Charlie Hebdo and the Danish Cartoons of the Prophet. In these cases the terms of the sedimentation are themselves being questioned. They are considered to be disadvantageous to the minority communities, especially the Islamic communities, who are told that the dominant culture of secularism, of laïcité, allows mocking of even venerated objects.
Deep religious pain is not a sufficient basis for censorship. Holocaust denial is. The congruity between the sacred symbols of minority cultures and satire in this area is thin, particularly in France which takes an uncompromising attitude to integration of the minorities within the majority culture. The challenge is to make it thick and acceptable, to have the different communities agree on the terms of living together particularly on the issue of the boundaries of free speech. The road ahead is unclear. Majoritarian arrogance is certainly not the way to go. But this, although a related issue, is a digression from the subject of congruence in the case I seek to discuss here, between Boehmermann’s satire and German society. This is fortunately a secular issue that does not have to deal with the complex relationship between satire and the sacred as in the cartoon controversy. It remains purely within the secular space of a satirist and his object of ridicule, a political personality that happens to be the Turkish president.
From building an overlapping consensus, through a process of sedimentation within a national society, the Boehmermann affair draws attention to the borderless world that we inhabit today, of digital connectivity where information and images flow across borders in real time. The consequence of such digital borderlessness is that what is perfectly acceptable in one society, produces outrage and street violence in another. The acceptable social codes of one society are considered strongly offensive in another. The Erdogan protest may not exactly belong to this class of events, since caricaturing Erdogan may enjoy some support in Turkey but remains unexpressed because of his use of the coercive instruments of the state to punish such satirists. Nonetheless it draws our attention to the problem of a borderless world for images and words.
While sedimenting a national culture may be possible, although difficult in a plural national society, sedimenting an international society is near impossible since it has to overcome fault-lines that are not just political but also deeply cultural. Further when a cultural perspective enjoys the patronage of a state it becomes less amenable to accepting the concessions available at the border where it meets another cultural perspective. Accommodating the normative concerns of the other culture becomes more difficult. Hard positions are taken especially since they are now mixed up with nationalism. And nationalism, as we have seen, produces people unwilling to listen to reason.
There is also the additional issue of the EU-Turkey deal on refugees. Should satire be allowed to disrupt the important business of statecraft, especially on an issue as sensitive as the refugee crises? It is unclear whether this question should be read as a contingent issue leaving the core principle of defending free expression, even satire, unaffected, or whether it is of such significance that it demands a reworking of core principles. It is to the credit of Boehmermann that his satire, subsequently censored, has brought these three issues and their nuances into the discussion on the boundaries of free expression. And it has exposed both the arrogance of Erdogan and the underbelly of Europe. It is time to rethink the boundaries of free expression.