Martha Thomases: What It All Means

crumbBy the time this column runs we may have some other, more fresh horror than the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Certainly, those of us who love comics will have read myriad opinions on What It All Means, and, perhaps, we will simply want to talk about something else.

Tough noogies. I’m going to talk about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

First of all, I want to be clear. I am totally in favor or freedom of expression. I support all kinds of anti-censorship organizations, including but not limited to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Nothing that I say should be interpreted to mean that the journalists, editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were in any way, shape or form responsible for the terrorist attack against them.

That should be obvious, but here in New York, respectable news media seem to accept police union boss Patrick Lynch’s contention that Bill de Blasio is responsible for the murder of two police officers because he stood next to Al Sharpton.

Neither do I want to argue about what is and isn’t funny. I have my ideas, and you have yours. While I might be able to persuade you that my point of view is reasonable (and vice versa), I can’t make you laugh when you are not amused.

Having said that, I want to talk about my perspective on what is funny. In general, I think the point of humor generally and satire specifically is to ridicule people in power. To me, pointing out that the emperor walks around with no clothes, that’s funny. Pointing out that the peasants walk around with no clothes is just mean.

(Obviously, that isn’t all that contributes to my personal sense of humor. It’s just what is relevant to this issue).

So, as you might guess, I didn’t find a lot of the “offensive” cartoons very funny. Part of it may be that I’m American. Part of it may be that I didn’t live in Paris in 1968, the era in which Charlie Hebdo was born. It isn’t shocking to me for someone to make fun of the Pope, or Israel, or Islam.

And I was bothered, somewhat, by the crudeness of the portrayals. Although there is a persuasive argument against my feelings, I still felt a racist undertone. Again, that could be a cultural difference between France and me.

I don’t want to use the word “should” when I talk about humor. “Should” is the antithesis of humor. And still, I may have to in order to make the points I want to make. Because I think a large part of the audience for those cartoons missed (what I consider to be) the point, and thought they were laughing at those ridiculous Muslims.

French Muslims don’t have a lot of power. It isn’t funny (to me) if they aren’t wearing any clothes. Drawing a caricature of the Prophet to rile them up is pretty much childish. Not worthy of a death sentence. Not worthy of any legal censure. But maybe worth a conversation, over coffee and/or brandy, about what the cartoonists wanted to say and what people perceived them to be saying.

Joe Sacco, in this comic, illustrates the issue for me. We are free to say/draw/publish/play whatever we want. A thoughtful adult tempers this freedom with some thought about how our free speech is understood.

Using stereotypes is a convenient shorthand for humor and other kinds of communication. I grew up with a father who told Polish jokes. I’ve sat around many a bar table listening to (and telling) blonde jokes. These are (comparatively) harmless. However, Muslims are not all the same. The shorthand of stereotype in this case works against not only Muslims, but all of us.

One of my favorite musicians, Billy Bragg, said on his Facebook page “Thus we extend the hand of friendship towards moderate Muslims only to slap them in the face in our determination to offend them in the name of free speech. In doing so, we legitimize the rantings of extremists who say that Muslims have no place in Europe. Radical Islamists are already declaring that this week’s cover of Charlie Hebdo is ‘an act of war.’

“If we genuinely want moderate Muslims to be part of our community, to stand beside us against the extremists, then we have to start a process of building trust that will involve listening to their concerns. That’s not ‘self censorship’, it’s respect – the very thing that civil society is based on.”

Free speech doesn’t mean we are not each responsible for what we say. It means we are more responsible, because we can’t blame our imprecise language or inarticulate ideas on anyone else.