Thursday, January 08, 2015

 Charlie Hebdo – too soon (?), two different ways

Unfunny jokes have an interesting place in the pro-free speech pantheon.  Much as some would deny it, not all forms of speech are equally worthy of protection.  That which one vehemently disagrees with – but is cogently argued or is just plain hilarious – must count as an “in”, of course.  The right to swear at a cop for the thrill of it, or to picket, with homophobic placards, the funeral of a US solider killed in combat?  Possibly “in”; this is the zone where the potential hurt caused by the words seems disproportionate to their objective mundanity (swearing and homophobic comments are ubiquitous, so to proscribe them in one narrow context is hardly riding roughshod).   And unfunny jokes are even more everywhere.

Nearly ten years ago, I thought that the Danish cartoons were unfunny.  Which doesn’t mean that (and I don’t think that I should have to spell this out, but I will, just in case) vigilante action or violence is an appropriate response.  The two main options in dealing with unfunny jokes are to ignore them, or to make an immediate, but considered, withering response.  The second option is not straightforward – it runs the acute risk that the joker will then respond that the listener/jokee doesn’t have a sense of humour, or some such.  A repetitive loop, for the recital of unfunny jokes ad infinitum, is thus probably created.  In an extreme case, unfunny jokes can hence develop into being a psychic assault; the joker metaphorically holding the listener/jokee hostage.  The only escape here is to go back to Plan A:  ignoring the joke.  But sometimes, I dare say, there is too much water under the bridge for this to be a viable option for the repeatedly harangued jokee.

From what I’ve seen of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, they also seem unfunny.  Here, I disclose my bent for what some would consider transgressive humour – I thought that the Chaser’s “Make a realistic wish” skit from 2009 was hilarious.  I was stunned at the blowback it received – and most especially at the side-stepping of the real issue:  was it funny or not?  I’m sure it wasn’t funny to “Make a wish” type foundations, or to the stressed-out parents of kids-with-cancer etc (I wouldn’t be so sure about the kids themselves here).  But it was funny to many others – and it did not fall into that type of speech that, if censored from broadcast TV, would have plenty of other avenues to makes its point.  Let’s be clear about it, then:  Australia has its own Taliban tendencies, and most worryingly, in my opinion, these people don’t stop at censoring unfunny jokes.  Indeed, they probably just ignore these, and only really become censorious when funniness strikes.

“Too soon” is not an objective measurement.  In this post, I don’t intend to cause disrespect to the families of the deceased and injured Charlie Hebdo editorial staff.  They certainly didn’t deserve what has happened.  Some may even be heroes, but if so, they didn’t die in the service of comedy in my book, at least.  All were victims of Islamic terrorism, but some were also, I fear, dupes of a peculiarly “Christian” mindset (see below).  A satirist’s solemn duty (other than being funny) is to lampoon their own culture, and purported even-handedness across cultures that the satirist barely knows is a certain – and tired – short-cut to being unfunny.


To understand what was motivating the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, it may be useful to compare humour across Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  I’m no expert in comparative religion, much less humour as a specialist sub-topic, but here goes, anyway.

In Judaism, the coming of the Prophet still awaits.  In Christianity, the Prophet has been and gone, but we await a second, more spectacular, coming (talk about hedging your bets).  In Islam, the Prophet-waiting caper seems to be firmly over.  

To illustrate what this means for humour I will draw – drum roll, please – a cartoon.  However, due to my drawing and technology skills, this will have to be a “text” cartoon.

A Rabbi, a Christian cleric, and an Islamic cleric are each looking at a cartoon which separately insults, with purported humour, their respective religion’s most sacred personage.

The Rabbi responds:  “That joke was already old at the time of Solomon, you second-rate schmuck!”

The Christian cleric responds:  “I bet you wouldn’t dare make the same joke about Islam or Judaism!”

The Islamic cleric responds:  “We’re outraged!” and “Too soon!” (though almost certainly not in those exact words; “too soon” is a piece of Knowing Insider-speak, an exquisite formulation that is half-comment and half command to desist).
In religion, then, a framework of waiting appears to be paradoxically good for the development of quick repartee. Conversely, a condition of post-Prophecy seems to encourage tetchiness in thought and deed. Neither of the above Christian nor Islamic responses engage in humour, and they share a wounded defensiveness.  One difference is that the Christian response, in seeming defiance of any and all New Testament imperatives, provokes the joker into finding another, probably more vulnerable, victim. It is personally delivered – and if taken seriously, it is potentially very nasty.  

The Islamic response, in contrast, is said on behalf of the group.  It directly aims to shame – and shut up – the joker.  Like the censorious stressed-out parents of kids-with-cancer, its “we” is both a strength and a weakness.  It is an-all-or-nothing, us vs them, proposition, as to what is fit to pass before their minority’s ears and eyes – making the outrage understandable in the heart, but at another level, deeply unreasonable for the rest of us.  If such communal outrage is taken to its extreme, as we have just seen, it is also very nasty. 

Censorship of funny jokes is the worst cancer of all.  So chill out, world – either turn the other cheek, as the (never-was/penultimate) prophet once said, or use your brains for a change and fire back with a better, shinier joke.

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