Walking the fine line
Where are the limits of humor and satire?
By Claude Blanc
Humor is a double-edged sword. It is a necessary ointment in our human interactions but can backfire when misunderstood or misinterpreted. It can also be misused when its only purpose is to demean individuals or groups.
Humor has a cleansing function, be it self-deprecating or aimed at flaws and quirks in individuals or society as in political or social satire. Yet, it can also offend and wound innocent victims.
I was reminded of that last November, when I conducted a leadership workshop in Great Britain, and a section was on cultural differences. I had found a page I thought was funny, poking fun at the different ways to communicate between the Brits and the Dutch. But I was unsure, not knowing if it would be perceived as funny or insulting. After consulting a British colleague, I used it and it was a success: we all had a few good laughs.
Empathy and sensitivity to others is the key when using humor, in particular in our globalized world.
I was driving when I heard the news of the massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a profound sense of sadness and grief. Nothing could justify such a mindless act of savagery.
Being a French native, I felt personally attacked even though I did not particularly like the style of Charlie Hebdo. I felt solidarity with the victims.
Voltaire’s maxim came to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I am sure that the millions of people who gathered in Paris also felt a sense of solidarity in their grief.
Satire is an intrinsic part of French culture; for centuries, the media have been poking fun, often with great irreverence, at any institution or representative of authority. Satire has a corrective function in society. Through ridicule, the satirist points to what he or she perceives needs to change.
The Paris murderers claimed a moral justification for their actions. I could not help but remember other times in history when, in Europe, religious authorities felt justified in torturing and killing those they deemed heretical or blasphemous. Are we heading back to the Dark Ages? Or is this violent, barbaric act the extreme manifestation of the hurt felt by many Muslims throughout the world — many who would never resort to violence to express their dismay at the perceived insults to their faith?
When does freedom of speech become hate speech? And where is that fine line which when crossed makes a joke suddenly become offensive? The basic principle for me is that my freedom ends where my brother’s or sister’s starts, and those boundaries need to be continually re-negotiated in dialogue.
My youngest daughter is a senior in high school. She has been participating in a program sponsored by her school that celebrates diversity and teaches students to work in unity embracing their diversity. A few months ago, the students who participated in the program went on a trip and spent a few days together. Interacting in one another’s daily lives increased their empathy for each other. They came back transformed and excited about spreading a culture of mutual respect in the school.
That gave me hope. Surely men and women educated to engage in meaningful dialogue with those who are different can bring about a new mindset where each of us is respected in spite of the differences.
Claude Blanc is a business consultant and lives in New Jersey.
Who defines the limits?
Balancing the two freedoms of speech and religion
By Gerald F. Uelmen
Does the terrorist attack on the cartoonists in Paris suggest there is a conflict between religious liberty and freedom of speech? Freedom of speech is generally seen as complementary to religious liberty, rather than inconsistent with it. Societies that suppress freedom of speech are most often the same societies that suppress freedom of religion.
Even the most outrageous exercises of free speech, such as cartoons demeaning Mohammed or Jesus Christ, do not impinge upon anyone’s freedom to practice and proclaim their religious beliefs. That they offend religious sensibilities is obvious; in fact, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, that was their purpose.
To purposely insult someone’s religious beliefs is offensive to all peace-loving people, who strive to “live and let live.” But as far as the content of speech is concerned, freedom of speech must be absolute. Once we concede to government the authority to define what speech is permitted, and what speech is forbidden, we have surrendered freedom of speech to the censor.
To proclaim “I am Charlie” is to proclaim the right to be offensive. But just because we have a right to engage in offensive speech does not necessarily mean we should. The unfortunate consequence of a terrorist response to offensive speech is that the reaction will be even more offensive speech, in both quantity and quality. Many of those who value liberty will insist that a terrorist response to protected speech requires an emphatic demonstration that the protection will continue.
Should we accept limitations on our freedom of speech to preserve peace and harmony in a diverse world? The tension between free speech and peaceful coexistence has been playing out on American campuses since the 1980s.
Although government-sponsored educational institutions must comply with the absolute protection of speech content that the First Amendment requires, private non-governmental institutions have wider latitude. Many have responded with “speech codes” that punish what is defined as “hate speech.” The Charlie Hebdo cartoons would clearly qualify as “hate speech” under most of these codes, but many state-run colleges and universities are plagued by publications even worse than Charlie Hebdo in their tasteless insults of gays, immigrants and racial minorities.
It is useful to be reminded that freedom of speech is freedom against governmental censorship. Private entities are free to define what speech will be permitted within their sphere of operations, and they should remain free to expel those who insist on their right to be offensive.
One irony is that the radical Islamic states that impose strict limitations on speech that insults their religion, beheading those who insult Mohammed, are the same states that severely limit the freedom of religion, suppressing religions whose very existence they perceive as an insult to Islam. The executions of adherents of the Baha’i faith, for example, or the destruction of Coptic Christian churches, demonstrates the religious intolerance that often accompanies intolerance of offensive speech.
Labeling religiously offensive speech as “satire” gives satire a bad name. What makes satire appeal to our sense of humor is the unmasking of the pretentious and self-important among us. To be the target of satire will be uncomfortable, but it may also be a healthy reminder that you are taking yourself too seriously. Satire that ridicules religious beliefs or cultural values, however, has little social value. But once we concede that the only speech we will allow is speech that has “social value,” we have crossed a dangerous line — and who will define which speech has social value and which not?
Although on a much smaller scale, the evil of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is the same evil that brought down the World Trade Center and has brought death and destruction to so many peace-loving communities throughout the world. It is the evil of hate and intolerance.
Tolerance may mean you have to put up with insults and grow a thicker skin to achieve the greater good of universal brotherhood in a diverse world. In reaching out to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and embracing them, experiences of sincere dialogue can show the way. After the fall of the twin towers, Focolare founder Chiara Lubich wrote:
“We [the Focolare] have established a profound unity in God with Muslims, and precisely in the United States with a vast African-American Muslim Movement.
I learned that in this moment they feel greatly helped by the fact that they are united with us Christians in the commitment to bring universal brotherhood in the world. We must recognize one another as brothers and sisters, Christians and Muslims. We are all children of God. So we must act accordingly.”
If I accept my Muslim brothers and sisters in a spirit of love and unity, then I am not Charlie Hebdo. But that does not mean I want the government to suppress Charlie Hebdo.
Gerald F. Uelmen is Professor of Law
at the Santa Clara University School of Law.