Satire, with its objectifying, disparaging gaze and deliberate misrepresentations, is a form of othering—of representational violence. Sometimes its mocking and critical ways make satire so explosive that the symbolic violence of its distortions motivates actual violence on the part of those who feel targeted (or offended) by its referential finger-pointing and nose thumbing, as with the murders on January 7, 2015, of twelve people at the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Drawing on satire theories from the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, this essay asks what literary and cultural scholars can learn from the Charlie Hebdo murders, from comparison with the Salman Rushdie affair of 1989–98 (since both were prompted by perceived disrespect to Islam in satiric works), and from the vigorous discussions the murders prompted among media commentators and bloggers concerning satire’s offenses and dangers. Familiar positions on and debates about satire’s intentions, differentiating strategies, targets, effects, and moral positions—and related debates about free speech and censorship—received new airings in the context of the murders and the renewed attention to satire they prompted. By examining key positions and recurring assumptions in the public discourse on satire after the shootings, the essay shows how a relatively dormant field of scholarly theory and classification was reinvigorated by real-world events that test its assumptions and demonstrate, in compelling new ways, the risks and perils of satire’s unstable power in our heterogeneous societies.

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