Tragedy of the highest order happened today in France as 12 people were killed at a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo . The attack was apparently one of terrorism and a response to the years of poking fun at various members of radical groups within Islam as well as its’ figureheads. In the wake of all the publicity that “The Interview” garnered, the questions have again begun to float out: How far is too far with humor?
Charlie Hebdo has been no stranger to controversy or violence. In fact it has promoted it’s sometimes radical beliefs and satire many times over the years. This very publication had already been placed under heavy watch since it ran a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad. In fact, many felt they often crossed the lines, the US included. That they could be targeted has been a looming threat for a long time. That many were actually killed in cold blood is unforgivable and hopefully those who carried out such a cowardly action will be found and brought to swift justice.
In the wake of such unprecedented evil, a moment of reflection is surely in order. It is my hope however, that the decision is not made to make our humor as a society “safer”.
There will always be a fine line drawn between what is in good or bad taste but the simple truth is that the ability to poke fun must endure. Those of us blessed, and yes, we are blessed, to live in a free democracy that promotes open speech, must never forget this great liberty to speak our mind and voice our opinion. Great art is meant to provoke as well as attempt to answer some sort of truth or question. Were the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo or “The Interview” great art? Most likely not, but what they represent matters greatly.
Going back as far Jonathan Swift and the great political satirists of his age through Mark Twain to Charlie Chaplin to the the team behind South Park, humor has existed as a means to speak out against a perceived injustice or at the very least to make a point, even in a surreal way. Living itself can be very serious business, but it has been argued that being able to laugh at some of life’s absurdities is extremely good for you. Imagining a life without the ability to express or experience laughter is asking to put a lid on a constantly boiling pot to the point of explosion.
The basic argument against certain jokes or types of humor is that it takes on subjects that are too serious, from one’s religion to personal life to famine itself. You know what the best defense against all of this is? Not watching it or paying attention to it. The abundance of variety that exists within the entertainment world today means you are never without literally hundreds of choices. If something strikes you as offensive or in poor taste, there is plenty else out there.
There should be no such thing as a sacred cow or subject that is above criticism or skewering, especially if it doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny. Retaliating with violence is the most base of responses and only reinforces the inferiority of the argument against it.
Islam has often been held up as the poster child for intolerance for humor, but there are just as many cases of other societies banning art because it offends a certain sensibility. What is tragic is when radicalized members of a group strike out in violent ways because they can either not handle or not respond in a better, more humane, more civil way. These are the people who must be judged and cast out, not the humorists or satirists they target.
I will not go as far as saying artists are heroes. They are merely human, like the rest of the world. Yet what they attempt to do, to put the human experience up to the mirror for us to see what is reflected is a heroic gesture.
Far too often we let fear and the unspeakable forces for evil dictate terms to us. Humor can be a means to fighting back, by proving that we don’t fear them, that in fact, what they stand for is not above mockery. By naming something as evil or unjust and taking away it’s power, that is the best way to make sure it never overtakes everyone.
Every free society is judged and endures chiefly by upholding its own beliefs. France in this time of great loss can take some solace in knowing that it stands still as a principled beacon of freedom. The freedom to make fun. The freedom to laugh or mock or at least call something into question for the world it take a closer look.
Let us mourn all of those we have lost and may their legacy of rebellious spirit and shaking of the status quo shine on. Then and only then, can we march confidently toward any sort of victory against the darkness that threatens to encroach on us all.