Friday, 9 January 2015

Reflections on satire and the sacred

Yesterday at the breakfast table, I reacted strongly to something I read. I feel sorry for Greg as he probably would have preferred to enjoy his coffee, his bagel, and his journal, rather than listening to me hold forth. However, this is what happened.

I am appalled by the murders at Charlie Hebdo. I am also very sad that several people, including, so far, a maintenance person, two policemen and a visitor, who had nothing to do with drawing the cartoons, have also been killed.

But what also caught my attention yesterday was a headline in the Huffington Post. It was purportedly a comment by one of the cartoonists murdered in Paris. He had said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.”

I thought, well other people do hold him sacred. And I wondered to what extent we should respect what other people hold sacred and not subject it to a vicious ridicule. Religious or not, we all hold certain things as sacred to us. It is difficult for most of us to have our beliefs (and ourselves) not only challenged but mocked. Where does using hard-hitting satire about social situations and beliefs end and nastiness for the sake of nastiness begin?

Then I thought, most people for whom Muhammad is sacred are not murderously fanatical and hate-filled followers of groups such as ISIS or el Qaeda. As a Christian, I am not fanatical or hate-filled (at least I hope not) nor are most  Muslims or, for that matter, most human beings. I expect most people of whatever belief persuasion (religious, humanist, atheist, agnostic, secularist, skeptic, or whatever) just want to get on with our lives and live together in a civilized way.

So I ask myself, what is the point of publishing cartoons like some of the ones pictured in the article at this blog:

Admittedly, I need to know more about French culture before jumping to conclusions about the use of humour there, but one cartoon in particular in the above article especially bothered me. It references the young schoolgirls kidnapped and raped by members of the Boko Haram — now shown as very pregnant — and according to the cartoon, wanting to be welfare frauds. What is the point of that? Why draw that? I am not asking these questions rhetorically. I really want to know. What purpose does it serve? 

I wondered if it would have been more acceptable  to say I don't hold with certain followers of a religion than to go after the religion's head himself. As a Christian, I wondered how I would feel if someone said, "Jesus isn't sacred to me" and then drew images I found very nasty. I did a quick Internet search to see if there were such images. I didn't find any although I must admit my search was only cursory. 

I suppose too it is not only the disrespect for religious images which can cause anger. It is the disrespect for other people’s feelings about what they hold sacred (and these can be secular things like flags, the culture of hockey, the family, the self-reliant ego). What if I were to see a demeaning and horrible image of one of my own relatives or friends?

What should my reaction be? As upsetting as those images would be, I would have to step back from my anger and refrain from striking back violently in either word or action. Murdering people who say nasty unfeeling things is not the answer to cruel words. So, no, the cartoonists did not deserve to be murdered. But they deserved to be criticized.

The worst of it is that, as a result their self-proclaimed heroic stance in favour of free speech, not only did they get killed, but innocent bystanders were killed as well, not to mention several children left fatherless. Should they have considered that outcome, or is free speech so important as to trump all other considerations. To what extent should people expose others to danger in the defense of their own beliefs?  A question their assassins obviously need to ponder as well.  

Where does the boundary between social satire and hate speech lie? It is a difficult question to pose and to answer. And I am not able to answer these questions, but just to ask them. What behaviours as a civilized society do we require in order to be civilized? Is self-censorship always wrong?

And if we are going to defend the right of free speech for the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, will we also defend the right of all groups to say whatever they like? I am thinking now of Westboro Baptist church and its adherents, whose homophobia and incitements to violence are vile misrepresentations of what I believe as a Christian. If their church were fire-bombed and their followers killed, should there be a similar out-pouring in favour of their right of free speech?

Why do we so often we feel must treat others callously, in thought, word and then, unfortunately, in deed. What does it accomplish in the way of promoting harmonious, civilized and yes, loving, human relations?

This raises a yet more ominous question: what about people who don’t care about civil behaviour at all?

So no, I am not suggesting that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo brought their fate upon themselves. Their murderers chose to kill when they could have taken other paths to communicate their displeasure and disagreement. But I am decrying the brutal world we live in.