The Right to Be Offended — Karl Sharro in The Atlantic on the retreat of free speech.
As a satirist who focuses on the Middle East, I’ve bumped up against my share of boundaries. Two years ago, for example, I struggled with how to satirize the tendency of some Western observers to distort conflicts in the Middle East by attributing those conflicts to “ancient rivalries” rather than, say, contemporary political struggles. Ultimately, I decided that the best approach would be to push that logic to its absurd conclusion by writing a “tribal” guide to the region, which relied on familiar stereotypes about Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, and others. I hoped readers would understand that these caricatures were meant not to be crude and bigoted, but rather to show how disconnected the ancient-rivalries thesis is from reality. And readers did understand—for the most part. This ability to test the boundaries of good taste, and even to be offensive, is essential to effective satire. But it’s now under threat.
Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris and the cold-blooded murder of 12 people, a familiar refrain rang out in some quarters. The assault on the satirical magazine, so the argument went, represented a collision of cultures: a Western one that champions freedom of speech and an Islamic one that does not tolerate offenses to its religious symbols. But one of the real storylines here isn’t some clash of civilizations; it’s the steady erosion of freedom of expression and the rise of the right to be offended—in the West as well as other parts of the world.
The culture-clash interpretation of the horror in Paris transcends political divides in the West. On the right, some claim that Muslims’ beliefs are incompatible with modernity and Western values. On the left, some construe the attack as a retaliation for severe offenses, essentially suggesting that Muslims are incapable of responding rationally to such offenses and that it is therefore best not to provoke them. The latter explanation is dressed up in the language of social justice and marginalization, but is, at its core, a patronizing view of ordinary Muslims and their capacity to advocate for their rights without resorting to nihilistic violence. This outlook also promotes the idea that Muslims and other people of Middle Eastern origin are defined primarily by their religion, which in turn devalues and demeans the attempts of Arab and Middle Eastern secularists to define themselves through varying interpretations of religion or even by challenging religion and its role in public life. By seeking to present religion as a form of cultural identity that should be protected from offense and critique, Western liberals are consequently undermining the very struggles against the authority of inherited institutions through which much of the Western world’s social and political progress was achieved.
Given that I often deal with the issue of jihadism in my satire, the Charlie Hebdo attack highlighted the dangers that my colleagues and I face when we mock extremists. Still, there is a risk in framing what we do as satirists and cartoonists as a heroic battle against extremism. For one thing, this implies that only ‘worthy’ works of satire should be defended on the grounds of free speech. For freedom of speech and expression to mean something, they must be defended on their own terms, not because of their political usefulness in the fight against extremism.
This is a critical distinction given the current climate in the West, where a culture of taking offense has found fertile ground and is increasingly restricting what artists and writers are able to do and say. The British writer Kenan Malik traces the origins of this trend to 1989, when the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomenei issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie for allegedly blaspheming Islam in The Satanic Verses. In From Fatwa to Jihad, Malik argues convincingly that the response to the fatwa and similar threats has been counterproductive, coming to pose a grave threat to free speech. “Internalizing the fatwa has not just created a new culture of self-censorship, it has also helped generate the same problems to which self-censorship was supposedly a response,” he writes. “The fear of giving offence has simply made it easier to take offence.”
The murders in Paris have certainly brought the struggle for free speech into stark relief. But it’s premature to expect the episode to reverse the trend toward more restrictions on expression in the West. This week, for instance, the gush of support for freedom of expression was quickly countered by backlash against an op-ed written by Anjem Choudary, in which the radical British Islamist justified the Charlie Hebdo attack by claiming that Muslims don’t believe in free speech and that France shouldn’t have allowed the cartoons to be published. Many people argued that he shouldn’t have been given a platform in the press, particularly at a moment like this (for a sense of the intensity of the response, just look at Twitter).
But restricting free speech further, even in the case of so-called hate speech, would be precisely the wrong response to the carnage in Paris. Instead, we should reassert the rights of satirical magazines and radical preachers alike to express their views, and the freedom of anyone and everyone to challenge them. That’s the best lesson to learn from this tragedy.
What’s Funny — Colin Stokes in The New Yorker.
Over the past few days, it has become apparent that many people have lost their ability to laugh. Some of us could laugh at one point but, owing to recent events, have become unable to do so. Others of us seem never to have been able to laugh in the first place. This is a guide both for those who only now find themselves incapable of laughter and for those who have had difficulty laughing their entire lives.
Part I. A joke is a thing that is meant to make life tolerable.
Suffering is all around us, just like furniture when you are at an IKEA store. Sometimes it comes from the natural world, like the wood used to make the furniture that is currently surrounding you at the IKEA store. Sometimes it comes from other people, like the people who pick things up and then leave them in totally random places around the IKEA store. Sometimes it’s just there, and we don’t know where it came from, like that ownerless dog that follows you around the IKEA parking lot, and then wants to come home with you, but the second you let it into your car, it poops everywhere.
When people make a joke, what they are doing is combining words and/or images in ways that are intended to surprise you a little. They may even surprise you a lot. These surprises make us laugh because we weren’t expecting them, and we involuntarily react by laughing when we are released from a state of not knowing what is about to come. Laughing lets us forget about the suffering that is an unavoidable part of life, at least temporarily. It frees us to lie down in a bed that we don’t own at IKEA, and to try to forget about the small dog that changed the way our car smells forever.
Part II. Sometimes jokes make people upset.
Necessarily, in the course of trying to surprise people, jokes can surprise some people a little too much. Once I told a joke to James Bond when he was suspended above a tank of sharks, trapped in a device that would drop him into the tank if he laughed. He didn’t laugh, though, because he’s a professional spy. Also, it was a current-events joke, and he’s a fictional character from the nineteen-fifties, so he didn’t get it, even though it was really funny, I swear. People often get angry about a joke that they think went too far, and they lash out at the person who told it to them. After he escaped from the shark-tank-laughing device, James Bond was pretty upset with me.
But those who write jokes come to expect negative reactions from a certain number of people. James Bond doesn’t come to any of my standup shows anymore, and certainly not when he’s stuck in the shark-tank-laughing device, which is surprisingly often.
Part III. Jokes can tell truths about things.
Some jokes are more than just surprising per se, because they articulate a truth about something in real life. My friends used to joke that I didn’t know what the term “per se” meant, because I always used it when I was talking about pears that could talk. We laugh at these types of jokes and then, when we’re done laughing, we realize that some of the things we heard in the jokes relate to real life. In this case, I realized that I was, in fact, using “per se” incorrectly.
Part IV. Sometimes getting upset at jokes helps you learn new things.
There are some people who have distorted beliefs about reality. I once fiercely believed that priests and rabbis rarely frequented bars together. When people hear jokes that challenge what they think they know, they can get angry. Did you hear the one about the priest and the rabbi in the bar? It took me a long time to wrap my mind around that one. But now I am surprised by almost no one entering a bar.
Part V. Jokes can be bad.
Some jokes are just completely horrible. Did you hear the one about the blind ship captain? He couldn’t sea anything. That’s a horrendous joke. But I still should have the right to tell it. Just like you have the right to say that it’s not funny, and then temporarily blind me and make me the captain of a ship to show me how unfunny it is. Actually, you don’t have the right to do that—that would be false imprisonment and the infliction of grievous bodily harm. What you should really do is say that it’s not funny, perhaps call it insensitive to blind ship captains, and then move on.
Doonesbury — Hot tips.