Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je Suis Chuck

There is an interesting debate over the limits of satire prompted by the horrific murders at Charlie Hedbo.

On the one hand, freedom of speech - while not absolute - should not be fettered because someone finds what you say offensive.  We should be able, as a society, to say to someone who calls a person a "fag" or a "nigger" that we find that offensive and don't wish to associate with people who useful hateful language dripping in a slimy history of abuse and persecution.  But we also shouldn't ban that speech.

And the tricky part is that our efforts to "clean up" our speech by converting these sort of terms to "N-word" and the "C-word" and so on, is that we seem less able to cope when those delicate boundaries are breached by someone who is offensive.  I have less and less patience with pearl clutching by everyone, Right and Left.  I found the NYPD's politicization of the slain officers' funeral a poor choice and don't care for it, but that's their choice.  I can say that it makes me less not more sympathetic to their points, but I'm not going to get the vapors over it.  Similarly, there is no "War on Christmas" or Christians.  Talking about white privilege is not an assault on someone's delicate sensibilities.

On the other hand, good satire is a razor not a sledgehammer.  Skimming through the Charlie Hedbo cartoons, I was struck by how unfunny and needlessly crude they were.  Maybe if I was French, I would get the humor, but given how few people read the magazine, maybe not.

Satire to work must be funny.  There wasn't much funny about the Charlie Hedbo cartoons.  Using American counterparts, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were two great examples of satire, because they both mocked and needled, all the while being hilariously funny.  It is the humor that takes the sting out of the attack.  It turns the attack from a sledgehammer to a well-aimed dart to pop the pretensions of the subject.  That was as true of Swift's A Modest Proposal as it is of Bill Maher's show.

The cartoonists at Charlie Hedbo did not deserve their fate.  Even Hezbollah has condemned the attacks as being inimical to Islam.  And mocking the pretensions of the cruel is a powerful weapon.  But to mock, you must be funny.  To laugh at their barbaric ideas, you must provoke laughter (this was the failure of The Interview).

There should be no censorship of offensive ideas beyond the ability of those offensive ideas to shape our opinion.  An open mind is not a cesspit.

No comments: