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On being murdered because some people can’t take a joke

If anything, satire in our society runs the risk of being too safe, of making its targets appear less dangerous than they really are. In cutting them down to size, satire sometimes humanizes as much as it disparages.

By Don Futterman

People holding Charlie Hebdo cover with Mohammed cartoon during a unity rally (Marche Republicaine), in which 50000 people paid tribute following the three-day killing spree in Paris, January 11, 2015. (Photo by Shutterstock.com/Hadrian)

People holding Charlie Hebdo cover with Mohammed cartoon during a unity rally (Marche Republicaine), in which 50000 people paid tribute following the three-day killing spree in Paris, January 11, 2015. (Photo by Shutterstock.com/Hadrian)

This week 17 French citizens were murdered because some people literally can’t take a joke. Artists were martyred for mocking Islam and Islamic extremists, police lost their lives because they were charged with protecting those artists’ right to free speech, and Jews were slain because they were Jews.

A joke, for or an instant, inverts the way we look at the world and defies our expectation. Satire is by definition subversive, making us aware of the inherent contradictions in any social system or in our own conflicted personalities. Humor is the individual’s ultimate weapon to resist social conformity, which is why tyrants and rigid ideologues always find it so threatening. It cannot be controlled.

All these people lost their lives because their murderers do not believe that human beings are capable of of holding two possibly contradictory ideas in their mind at once – which is the essence of all humor.

Read also: Paris victim Yoav Hattab died a Tunisian patriot

These killers are the vile vanguard of fanatics not spiritually sophisticated enough to understand that the sacred and the profane are inextricably intertwined, or that anything that is genuinely holy is resilient enough to survive derision, even of the most profane kind. They are not able to understand the West, where a person may laugh at his own belief system, recognize its inconsistencies and still embrace it.

The Kouachi brothers and their accomplices were simpleminded butchers who wanted the rest of us to become simpleminded lackeys. They could not tolerate the complexity of life, of the real world, of people who do not submit as they did to an unforgiving and inhuman credo.

Satire is used to diminish and belittle the objects of its mockery, to expose their lies and hypocrisy and reveal their flaws. Islamic extremists are hardly the first to find mockery a sufficient justification for a death sentence. The most criminal regimes in human history, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, were notoriously humorless and did not suffer public satire. Nor did the church or most monarchies for much of history. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin are only the latest in a long list of dictators and tyrants to punish those who lampoon their follies.

Satire is deployed to sting, to attack, to infuriate. Or to survive; a Jew at a café in 1930s Berlin tears hair out as he reads the Jewish paper, when he spies his friend reading the Nazi paper, Der Sturmer. Outraged he asks him, “How can you read that hateful rag?” And his friend answers, “In your newspaper, Jews are losing their jobs, getting arrested and beaten up in the streets. In my newspaper, we are wealthy and powerful and control the world.”

When we enjoy satire, we feel momentary power over political or religious leaders, social institutions or commercial culture, and feel slightly more independent of their ability to impact or control our lives.

Read also: The real reason Bibi wants French Jews to move to Israel

For those of us weaned on Mad Magazine, George Carlin, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, Doonesbury, Seinfeld and the Simpsons, mocking sacred cows is mother’s milk, part of our essential being. The parodic or self-mocking worldview, is as deeply rooted in our psyche as the value systems and institutions we jeer at.

Comedy in our culture is mainstream, not marginal; we expect our YouTube and sitcoms to make us laugh on demand in a way that is unprecedented in human history. When we are exposed to satire that is genuinely angry, unsafe, that is willing to provoke disgust to make it’s point, we don’t digest it with our usual facility.

We reward the megastar comedians of our global culture, even if they are animated characters painted yellow with purple hair.

The subversive essence of humor is hardly a basis for creating a stable society or building a strong community. But that is exactly our challenge; to embrace human contradiction and keep perspective on our own limited significance in the cosmic scheme of things, to poke holes in our social order while acknowledging our human need to belong to a social order.

If I have to choose between the Simpsons or the religious order of thugs, I will champion Bart and Lisa knowing that they are infinitely more human, profound and true. If the 20th century taught us nothing else, it proved time and again that those who seek purity in human affairs are choosing death over life.

If anything, satire in our society runs the risk of being too safe, of making its targets appear less dangerous than they really are. In cutting them down to size, satire sometimes humanizes as much as it disparages. If I can laugh at something or someone then it feels like it or they can’t hurt me; at least not directly, at least, not physically, which in an open and free society, is usually the case. I may be motivated to scoff rather than take action.

Charlie Hebdo are guerilla cartoonists specializing in unsafe satire; they use comics to make their readers laugh but also to provoke, to disgust, to insult, to incite strange thoughts, to jar us from our comfort zone.

But if another ridicules your beliefs, you have the choice to challenge them in the marketplace of ideas, to turn away or turn the channel, to refute their claims, or if the offense is considered intolerable, to seek recourse in a court of law.

Contemporary western culture, with all its confusion and self absorption, has the wisdom to accord humor a central place in our pantheon. The murderers of artists, police officers and Jews in France aspired to impose a humorless regime on as many people as they can. And while we should mock them, it is time for everyone in the West to stop treating them like a joke.

Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private foundation which works to strengthen Israel’s civil society. (The Moriah Fund supports +972.) He can be heard every week on the Promised Podcast, a discussion of new Israeli politics and society.

Paris victim Yoav Hattab died a Tunisian hero
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    1. victor arajs

      We need more respect for Islam and more satire and biting criticism of judaism

      Reply to Comment
    2. Haifawi

      Purple hair??? Only sherri and terri have purple hair, and neither of them are yellow…

      Reply to Comment
      • C.C. DeVille

        All of Springfield are yellow. Remember when Peter Griffith thought the whole town had juandice?

        Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Lightbown

      “Satire is used to […]expose their […] hypocrisy”

      Charlie Hebdo sacked cartoonist Maurice Sine after he refused to apologize for a comment published by the rag in July 2008 concerning a rumour that the son of Prseident Sarkozy was going to convert to Judaism in order to marry a Jewish heiress. Sine was subsequently prosecuted for antiSemitism in February 2009 but was freed by the court at Lyon which considered he had a right to use satire. The decision was upheld on appeal. In 2010 the tribunal of grand instance awarded Sine 40,000 Euros for dismissal without due process and this was upped to 90,000 Euros by the court of appeal.

      Sine also received death threats from the League de Defense Juive. Charlie Hebdo did not denounce these threats nor did it publish any satirical caricatures concerning these attacks on free speech. Nor has it ever published any caricatures of Zionists or of the Jewish claim that God promised the land of Israel to the Jews.

      Fearless defender of free speech? My arse, defender of hypocrisy more like.

      Reply to Comment
      • ICat

        What’s the point of this convoluted mumbo jumbo, Richard Lightboon?

        Reply to Comment
        • Bryan

          I know you believe you have found a killer insult to disarm your opponents (you recently directed exactly the same accusation of “convoluted mumbo-jumbo” at me. Richard’s point is simple and obvious and has been noted by many: in its search for mass-circulation Charlie Hebdo lowered its standards and attacked easy targets that appealed to popular bigotry. There is a noble role for satire in this world but from the time of Jonathan Swift it has been a weapon best employed against the rich and powerful, not the poor and powerless.

          Will Self said “the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from HL Mencken’s definition of good journalism: it should ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’. The trouble with a lot of so-called ‘satire’ directed against religiously-motivated extremists is that it’s not clear who it’s afflicting, or who it’s comforting. This is in no way to condone the shooting of the journalists, which is evil, pure and simple, but our society makes a fetish of ‘the right to free speech’ without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right.”

          Dr. Mathias Wedel, Editor-in-Chief of German satirical magazine Eulenspiegel said: “My colleagues and I would always defend the freedom to be able to say, draw and write anything we want to. But we don’t need to exhaust every freedom or demand to use it. Doing so would not be provoking our readers, but only Islamists. And there are more effective ways of fighting Islamism than with a caricature in a satire magazine.”

          Glenn Greenwald, in an excellent article on the hypocrisy exposed by Charlie Hebdo explains that “our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least. Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim commentary (and cartoons) are a dime a dozen in western media outlets; the taboo that is at least as strong, if not more so, are anti-Jewish images and words.” (https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/)

          Reply to Comment
        • Eliza

          Maybe to point out by way of example the hypocrisy of those who champion free speech when the target is Islam but fold when it targets Jews.

          What Don Futterman fails to understand is the difference between laughing at ourselves and laughing at others. The latter is rarely, if ever, actually funny. Gratuitous insult is not funny nor satirical.

          There are numerous examples of claims of anti-Semitism or blood libel when Jews or Israel is the target of satire. Yet, there seems to be open season on all things Islamic. It is one thing to satirize the co-opting of Islam for violent purposes but quite another thing to just mock Islam.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Mikesailor

      The use of violence against messengers whose views are somehow considered unpalatable, blasphemous or insulting is far more pervasive than your examples. Outright violence is a weapon used by the powerless, those who feel they must avenge a wrong and this is their only method. Yet, look at all those where other action is used to squelch speech. Are Jewish complaints about Dieudonne in France part of this same phenomenon? Only they us the so-called “legal system” to punish one who satirizes or insults their positions. I never heard of a Jewish entertainer being punished for making Islamophobic statements but Mr. Dieudonne has been punished numerous times for making, what some would define as “antisemitic” statements or gestures. After all; What is a Quenelle anyway ecxceptr a satirical gesture considered by some Jews as a Nazi salute? I often thought that these lawsuits say far more about the plaintiffs than Dieudonne himself. And why are statements about the Holocauset criminally punished in Europe while the most vile statements about Isrlam are accepted and even encouraged? Look to who has the power to make speech “criminal”. In the US, the Salaita affair wherein Jewish donors pressured a US Uuniversity to abrogate their promise to hire a professor and the university did their bidding was a dispute over free speech. And in that case, the specch complained of was private tweets on a private account. Nobody deserves to die for speech but taking a “holier-than thou” attitude in this morass is cowardly and somewhat hypocritical.

      Reply to Comment