Thursday, January 08, 2015

We must tolerate the tyranny of jesters #charliehebdo

The kind if terrorist attack we've come to fear in the West is targeted at random civilians. They attacks our freedom, in so far as they inhibit the freedom of any of us to go about our daily business completely without fear.

But yesterday's massacre at Charlie Hebdo is a specific attack on freedom of expression. It is not a freedom everyone in the world has access to. Even when protected by the law, it is not shared equally in real terms. Some voices are louder than others, some are handed platforms and loud-hailers while others are muffled and overlooked. Yet however imperfect, it is an absolute and fundamental freedom. It is one of the greatest strengths of a liberal democracy.

Yesterday, my Twitter feed featured two rather odd responses to the events in Paris.

There were folks who insisted that satire is always a force for good. There were folks who said things along the lines of, "My idea of equality is that everyone has an equal right to be laughed at."

Some of these were posting Charlie Hebdo cartoons in solidarity. Although the magazine mocks all faiths and political stripes, the most notorious cartoons mock Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed. The magazine's freedom to publish such material is absolutely precious, as precious as any liberty you can name. The cartoons on Twitter, however - just two or three in forty-four years of weekly issues - mock members of a feared and stigmatised minority.

On the other hand, there were folks discussing, at length, what a dreadful racist and Islamophobic publication Charlie Hebdo is. Some complained that the magazine has joked, in the past, about Muslims being killed. It was really hard to see that yesterday and not infer the belief that the dead cartoonists and others, their lives stolen from them in a terrifying manner, their families and friends faced with devastation, had it coming to them.

"It's just a joke" is very often a lie. Humour is like any other tool of communication - its uses are not morally neutral. It can bring people together and lighten the load. It can be used to speak truth to power - often in circumstances where a direct attack would be impossible or ineffective. Satire is an immensely powerful weapon against governments and institutions which resist straightforward criticism.

This is partly why freedom of expression is so vital, but that's not how the argument must be made. The argument must be made in the defense of things we don't like, opinions we wish didn't exist, the stuff that offends us. And some of that is also expressed in humour.

There's no hateful force in history that hasn't employed humour to single out its enemies, to humiliate and degrade people it wishes to dismiss, oppress or eliminate. Anyone who has ever been bullied or abused is familiar with humour's sharp edges and bludgeoning force. People who rape or beat people will joke about raping and beating people - sometimes while they're doing it. Bigots of all variety will get away with making jokes about the beliefs they would be condemned for expressing openly.

When I say get away with, I do of course mean that such people can sometimes say things without provoking censure or disapproval. Censure and disapproval are appropriate responses to words and pictures that offend us. Offense matters. But it never justifies violence.

It's no accident that almost every time a public figure is criticised for racist, homophobic or other bigoted speech, it's a joke. In a liberal democracy, there are many opportunities to express the most extreme belief you can think of - you just can't paint it on the side of your house or demand five minutes on BBC One. However, there are many views which are now, largely, socially unacceptable - like being racist, misogynistic or homophobic.

But tell a joke about a marginalised group and it's ambiguous. You can use the ugliest terms and explain it away as an accident, a momentary error of judgement. You can say, "I didn't mean it - it was a joke! Some of my best friends are black/ gay/ women/ whatever!" Or, if comedy is your trade, you can explain it away as simply doing your job; making people laugh. You can hold onto your progressive, nice guy, right-on credentials. You can dismiss objectors as humourless, thin-skinned and politically correct. You can laugh at them all the harder.

There's nothing inherently benign about humour in general or satire in particular. Satire can be fueled by hate and it can stir up hate. It can reinforce ideas that lead to violence or oppression.

But, crucially, it is not violence. It is an awful long way back from violence. It shouldn't be criminalised and it most certainly shouldn't be responded to with violence. Objection, argument, boycott, social and political pressure - we need to take humour seriously (I really hate that, but it's true). But the worst, most hideously offensive joke doesn't warrant a punch in the face, let alone being shot in one's place of work.

This cartoon by David Pope of the Canberra Times is entirely apt. Killing people because of the things they say or write or draw is as ridiculous as it is horrifying.

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