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Cartoon controversy redefines acceptable humour


The following editorial was published in the Guelph Mercury, February 13, 2006.
 

I was listening to some old Tom Lehrer recordings recently, and remember thinking how the political incorrectness of the 1960s wouldn’t work at all today. Imagine the reaction of animal rights activists, and perhaps the public in general, to a song promoting the sheer joy of poisoning pigeons in the park on a beautiful spring afternoon.

But “it’s not against any religion to want to dispose of a pigeon,” as Lehrer gleefully reminds us. “We’ll murder them all amid laughter and merriment, except for the few we take home to experiment.” People actually thought this was funny once. I still do. Why? Because we know Lehrer is not serious. That’s why it’s called humour.

I’ve never been much good at telling a joke, and I don’t really pretend to understand where funny ideas come from. But it seems clear that humour is always at someone’s expense, sometimes our own. It’s often based on challenging strongly-held beliefs, calling them into question in the form of parody that points out how ridiculous those beliefs can seem to others. This makes religion and sex key targets for humour.

Over the years, we have increasingly reduced the number of things it is acceptable to poke fun at. Pierre Trudeau’s dream of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms pretty much took care of that. It has spawned an era of creeping liberalism and political correctness from which humour may never recover. Don’t get me wrong. Some protections are always needed. But serious reform has largely come at the expense of our ability to laugh.

Liberalism is a two-edged sword. At one extreme, we crusade fanatically for the rights of the unrepresented. At the other, we cloud and confuse our own freedoms. We start out as outraged; we pass laws to prevent bad stuff from happening to people. And when we’re done, we are hamstrung in what we’re allowed to do and say, even in fun.

Over the past few weeks, people wiser than I have been asking, where is the line? I’ve spent the morning reading the Web for reaction to the “cartoon controversy,” in which the Prophet Mohammed was lampooned in a Danish newspaper, and later reprinted in France and even Egypt. Editorial heads rolled. I have read about freedom of the press, responsible journalism, prejudice and stereotyping, boycotts, and threats of violence and death. Nowhere have I seen mention of the concept of humour. Maybe that’s because the cartoons themselves are not that funny. From a western belief system, the preposterousness of the concept behind them had more comedic potential than the actual execution.

The Muslim community was, of course, outraged by depictions of the Prophet telling suicide bombers to stop killing themselves because “we have run out of virgins.” What is less fathomable, are last week’s images of Muslims chanting “Jihad” and signs saying things like “Massacre those who insult Islam.” The true sadness of this picture is that the behaviour does not represent a majority of Islamic peoples.

We are approaching an odd point where tolerance and intolerance may meet. Western civilization continues to go further to protect in law the rights of all levels and members of society. The hard core of Muslim fundamentalism is intolerant of any instance where the west is perceived to step over the line. The consequences appear catastrophic.

Ironic too: in Tom Lehrer’s landmark 1965 recording, “That was the Year that Was”, he managed to insult Germans, Catholics, Jews, and a host of others in one fell swoop, all while praising perversion and porn. This was considered funny by most people. These were days when humour was not accountable to the same religious or social standards, and when offense to one of those groups was not responded to with bomb threats and armed occupation.

The Catholic Church certainly wasn’t thrilled with Tom Lehrer when he wrote and performed “The Vatican Rag.” At a time when the Vatican was modernizing the liturgy, Lehrer took the concept to an extreme. Result: laughter. But that didn’t cause the Pope to put out a contract on his life, or the life of any person who laughed at his song.

Yet that’s what is happening now. Start by killing the cartoonist and attacking every government that didn’t suppress the freedom of its press to reprint it.

Humour almost always gives offence to someone, and this is why humour never works—at least not for everyone at the same time. Islamic fundamentalists do not laugh when people poke fun at the Prophet, and by extension, the Islamic belief system. Should fear of chaos forbid it?

Muslim leaders are warning of increasing violence. “The press,” they say, “must respect religions.” Why? Because we are liberals. And when liberal thinking fails and fundamentalism is offended, then the social foundation that demands respect and for the most part, delivers it, goes out the window in favour of violence and terror.

Some things just aren’t that funny.

 

©Garrett Klassen is president of Crunch! Communications in Elora, Ontario, Canada.

  

Poisoning Pigeons
in the Park

The Vatican Rag

by Tom Lehrer

 

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