Interview with Christian Y. Schmidt Laughing is a comfort

Christian Y. Schmidt
Christian Y. Schmidt | Photo (detail): Guo Yanbing; © Goethe-Institut China

On 7 January 2015, twelve people were killed in the terrorist attack on the office of the French satirical weekly “Charlie Hebdo”, including editor Stéphane Charbonnier (“Charb”) and four other cartoonists. Christian Y. Schmidt used to be on the editorial staff of the German satirical monthly “Titanic”. We asked about his reactions to the attack.

You served on the “Titanic” staff for a long time. What went through your mind when you heard about the attack on the“Charlie Hebdo” office?

My first reaction was to post on Facebook: “The occupational risk is increasing. RIP, my colleagues.” And that’s probably true. When I was working for Titanic’s editorial department in Frankfurt in the ’90s, the risk of being killed for that was, at any rate, lower.

Satire is good at broaching painful subjects. Can it be comforting as well?

No and yes. First off, satire denounces something. It attacks social wrongs, lies, oppression, stupidity and so son, and exposes them to ridicule in the process. So even the subtlest and most elegant satire is always aggressive, too. It doesn’t give any comfort, at any rate, to the butt of the satire.

It’s a different story with consumers of satire, who suffer from social wrongs, lies, oppression and stupidity. Satire doesn’t do away with all that, to be sure. But by enabling consumers to laugh at those wrongs, stupidity and so forth, satire does afford them some comfort.

Our absurd lives, which end in death for every one of us, would be unendurable if we couldn’t make fun of that absurdity time and time again. Death can be laughed at. That’s a great comfort.

Some papers are now making a point of printing “Charlie Hebdo” caricatures on their front pages. Is this in your opinion a good reaction, to defend the value of freedom of the press?

Yes, actually every newspaper in the whole world ought to be doing that. It’s not just about press freedom, which is also endangered from very different sides. First and foremost, it’s a very practical matter of protecting creators of caricatures that show, for example, the Prophet Muhammad. Islamist terrorists simply cannot attack all the news desks in the world, there aren’t enough of them to do that.

Furthermore, it’s a matter of showing that a religion like Islam cannot force its convictions on the whole rest of the world. If Muslims say it’s forbidden to depict the Prophet Muhammad, then all we can say to them is: that applies to those who believe in the Prophet. That doesn’t apply to the rest of the human race. Which means that Muslims, too, have to get used to people simply ignoring, flouting or making fun of their religious convictions, just as other religions have had to get used to it.

Of course I know that some Chinese people see that differently. Satire is hardly widespread in China, which certainly is due in part to the fact that disputes are conducted in a less confrontational way here. And yet China is also threatened by Islamist terror and will have to give more thought to this threat in the years to come.

Christian Y. Schmidt is a German author who spends more time living in Beijing than in Berlin. He served for many years as an editor of the German satirical magazine Titanic and is now a Senior Consultant at the Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur, a Berlin-based “independent think tank and design agency” working “ at the interface between journalism, commerce, science and art”. In 2008 he published a book about his travels through China called Allein unter 1,3 Milliarden (“Alone Among 1.3 Billion”), which made the Spiegel’s bestseller list.