Thursday, April 22, 2010

Well, at least it wasn't a chicken suit...


On my commute home from work I sometimes like to listen to a talk show host named Gene Burns. He's generally pretty reasonable. Usually a moderate, which I like, and a little liberal on the universal healthcare concept, which I also like, but tonight I he said something that I almost totally disagree with.
He mentioned a recent episode of Southpark where the creators were forbidden by comedy central from showing Mohammed in the irreverent cartoon, because pictures of the prophet as a living entity are haram.
So, instead of omitting the Prophet, Southpark featured him as an unseen guy in a bear-suit.
Gene proposed that some things ought to be beyond the reach of satire--not in the sense of making them illegal, but that it should be highly frowned upon to poke fun at religious icons. He listed Mary, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha (you know, just to be all inclusive and stuff) and Moses as well as a few arbitrarily chosen "secular" topics, like breast cancer.
Firstly, I think Gene fails to make a distinction between forums in which it is in poor taste to crack jokes about people's dearly held beliefs.   I would argue that we as a society NEED satire. Satire generally isn't addressed towards one particular type of person, but instead as an amorphous blob of anonymous people out there. Satire is addressed to a group. Among those people might be Muslims, Catholics, and Atheists, and let's face it: all of those groups have done some godawful stuff in the name (and sometimes though they might deny it, spirit) of their worldviews. It's good  for the rest of society to remind people that there are other people with worldviews outside of their little bubble, and that not everyone believes the way they do. Humour can be a way for the oppressed to vent, as it was in the case of the jokes that sprung up in the Ukraine targeting the Soviet Union after the Chornobyl disaster in 1987. It can be a way for groups to cope with tragedy internally, by laughing at something that hurts.
Satire can be a way of reminding a self-confident group of its faults--we'll know when the Catholic Church has rehabilitated itself because the priest jokes won't be funny anymore, just like the Pollack jokes aren't funny anymore. (Why was that ever a fad?) Sometimes, wounds NEED to be poked, because if they didn't hurt, we'd not do anything about them until they were necrotic.
Satire can also be a telling diagnostic about the ills of a society for an outside party, and it can also teach historians about a society's worldview in a way archaeology can't.  The profusion of Gay/AIDS jokes  which were apparently socially acceptable in political circles in the eighties tells me a lot more about the worldview of the Reagan administration than does a trite gradeschool history text. You'll notice that the fact that those aren't funny anymore shows that we've grown as a society...
Satire is an indicator of the weakness of society, it can help society heal, and it can also be a sign that a weakness has been overcome.  
For example, as a white middle class middle American, I can happily joke about things like Teryaki chicken with a maraschino cherry and a slice of pineapple. The haute cuisine of my people. It means I'm comfortable enough with being a bit of a bumpkin that I can make fun of it.
I think I've stated why it's important that there are no sacred cows in the public forum when it comes to satire, but just to cement that point, let's imagine a situation in which Gene Burns' wish came true, and joking about the Virgin Mary was viewed as something one should not do in satire.
If we were to say "people shouldn't make jokes about the Virgin Mary because she's an inspiration to millions of people", where would we then draw the line? Should we not make jokes about cow tipping because there might be a Hindu in that amorphous blob of an audience who might be offended? How small does a group have to be before we can say: "Eh, that's ok, we can offend them." Does this rule only apply to the world major religions? And what makes their feelings more worth sparing than the Scientologists? If I draw much inspiration from A Tale of Two Cities, and my friend draws much from the Bible, why is it in poor taste to make fun of the Bible but not Tale of Two Cities? Are my life lessons less important than hers?
How do we keep from marginalizing people by making their cherished beliefs fair game while the cherished beliefs of the majority are off limits? Or do we just make any belief off limits for satire, acknowledging that something sacred to one group can be ridiculous to another? And if in refraining from satirizing any beliefs of anyone, what if we rendered ourselves easily controlled by a tyranical entity because no one would speak out for fear of offense? Worse, what this rendered society mirthless and boring?
Now, where I *might* agree with Gene is in the private sphere, even though he was clearly talking about the public one. This is where joking becomes personal, and becomes a judgment on specific people.  Already, society draws lines here, designating what is polite and politic and what is not. I would not, for example, make a joke about Mohammed to a Muslim friend unless I was certain they would not be hurt by it.  I care what that person thinks about me, and I care that I not hurt that person's feelings.
The work sphere is similar. It is in your best interest, in your coworkers' best interest and in the company's best interest that you be nice and not make that joke about women drivers on the company-wide emailing list. Firstly, it would be rude. Secondly, you then become less employable because when people get offended, they don't play nicely together and the whole company suffers.
So yes. I agree that the old adage that one does not talk about Money, Religion or Politics in private spheres like work and amongst one's non BFF friends.
So, to sum up, being polite to people you know and sort of know is good for you and them.
While there is a right to free speech, there is not a "right to not be offended." And for good reason.

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