A joke is a serious thing

A slightly different version of this text was published by the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on January 24, 2015.

I was once at an international conference where women from a Third World country spoke eloquently about not wanting to live in a society where there was as much freedom as there is in “Western countries”. It came down to freedom being scary. They felt better protected under repressive state and religious laws. The eloquence did not convince me but I felt for them. They also spoke eloquently about why polygamy had benefits: it gave them live-in sisters – the other wives – and it provided relief from and help with the job of taking care of the man. (I thought that more convincing, though it was basically about the same thing.) That discussion decades ago, though not persuasive, was a lesson in relativity and humility.

I was reminded of that in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations when a few commenters said the magazine should not have exercised its freedom of expression so much.

Freedom is scary. It is for adults only. It means risks. The alternative has even more risks.

But first, who says the Charlie Hebdo workers were killed because of their cartoons? The killers did. Killers have been known to say they killed someone because she burnt his toast, so excuse me if I form my own opinion.

Given that the Charlie Hebdo killers could hardly believe their action was going to forever stop such cartoons, let us concede that their reason might be something else – maybe to radicalize others, or give the troops something to cheer about or because they belong to a criminal gang and that is what gangs do to build their reputation.

So I don’t think the men who killed the Charlie Hebdo workers did it because they were offended by vulgar cartoons.

But do let us talk of Charlie Hebdo because I want to argue for more satire in our world. Among my favourite Charlie cartoons, the one with a prophet or a god crying because it is so, so hard being adored by asses. The one where a god organizes a supper as in the movie Dinner for Schmucks (Dîner des cons) with religious organizations as the guests. Coluche, the comedian who launched soup kitchens in France, making a soup of politicians because he despairs of soup kitchens. Two terrorists with “bomb” belts facing each other: the Israeli’s belt is new housing for Jerusalem, the Palestinian’s belt is bombs.

What is offensive is not the Charlie Hebdo cartoons but the world they denounce.

No one should be able to yell Fire! in a crowded theatre nor advocate killing. Limits to freedom of expression protect from potential harm. Apart from that, we must be able to say what we want. We may be shunned for it, but we should not be killed or arrested.

If we set out as a society to prevent everyone from offending anyone, then we are setting up an Orwellian world, with those that have power having more power, with few having a critical thought, and everyone vulnerable to propaganda. If we are to decide that Charlie Hebdo is offensive, then the Archie Bunker show and The Producers (Springtime for Hitler) movie were offensive, and we are going somewhere in a hand basket.

The Pope recently said no one should make fun of faith. A while ago, a federal government minister said they would not “tolerate ridiculing any faith”.

I say organized systems, be they religions, governments, schoolyard gangs, or economic systems, which advocate ideas that are harmful to us or our rights, must be fought with all legal means. That includes lampooning them and their ideas. Our right to hear views that contradict our own and that puncture the bubbles of respectability that systems cloak themselves in is so important that I propose we reinstate jesters.

Jesters were partly valued as advisers. They jested with a political purpose. How a University of Chicago publication put it years ago – that jesters had “little to gain by caution and little to lose by candor, apart from liberty, livelihood, and occasionally even life, which hardly seems to have been a deterrent” – is poignant with the Charlie Hebdo gang in memory.

Stephen Harper’s “Royal jesters” could point out where a bad idea would lead us in the end. Like his building more prisons when there is less crime, and being more punitive when punishment feeds recidivism. Like the danger of his doing what the terrorists want – restrict freedoms – when that is what the terrorists want.


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