POCATELLO, ID – It’s January 8, 2015, and nothing I can say can assuage the sadness and rage I feel for the world in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As the former editor of a small press publication that also had its moments of controversy, I can only offer deep condolences to all of humankind as the mien of intellectual freedom is horrifically defaced.
I believe that the health of a culture is measured by its people’s ability to welcome criticism, and yes, particularly offensive criticism, and significant doses of satire and humor are its benchmarks. In America we witnessed how humor and political cartoons helped heal many of the wounds during and after our Civil Rights Movement. Historically, the satire of Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal brought attention to the oppression of the Irish by the British.
And the geniuses of the late 20th Century Monty Python troupe cut deeply into the Christian mythos with the Life of Bryan and The Meaning of Life, while according to many, the US’s satirists Stephen Colbert and John Stewart offer the only sane political reporting of our times.
Ever since John D. Rockefeller oiled his carriage wheels in a petroleum puddle, capitalistic greed over oil and coal reserves has caused misery and oppression, and it makes sense for people to strike back, but what these gunmen failed to comprehend is that the satirist, the critic, the humorist, is on their side, that these sometimes crazy and offensive words and pictures are significant forces in untying many of the social Gordian-style knots that keep us running in place, religion being one of those knots.
The only useful response to being offended by speech is more speech with the hope that a healing dialogue develops.
Yes, the capitalist corporate structure suppresses and exploits people, but in turn that structure depends on religion to enable slave-style workers to accept their plight and condone the oppressive behavior of corporate (and religious) leaders. In case people have forgotten, Rockefeller had his own private army, and hoards of private mercenaries continue serving corporate masters. Doesn’t anybody read the economic analyst and critic Karl Marx these days? (“Religion is the opiate of the masses.”)
Unfortunately, these horrific acts of violence, allegedly in defense of so-called sacred territory, merely bring out more guns that further oppress the minions in order to keep the oil flowing and cash in the capitalist coffers.
Reacting violently to verbal or pictorial insults is childish, and I read this morning that one of the perpetrators was only 18. New brain research indicates human brains aren’t fully developed until age 25 or older explaining the high crime and risky behavior rates among the young regardless of class or ethnicity.
In turn, the whole concept of “sacred” territory can be perceived as dangerous. To give a philosophy, any philosophy, sacred status takes the possibility of humor and emotional growth off the table. There is no discussion, no analysis, no understanding, only a list of rules to follow by rote.
This affair carried out by its misguided self-righteous cavaliers reminds me of a scene in the Hollywood western film, Shane. Two men, a homesteader and a hired gunfighter, face each other on the muddy streets of a Wyoming boom town. They’re each carrying a grudge from the recent Civil War. They hurl insults:
“You dirty lowdown yankee. . .”
Jack Palance’s character turns away from the carnage with a sly grin while a husband and father lies dead in the mud.
Was taking violent offense at a silly insult really worth it?
Some sociologists measure the time it takes following a significant event before the first jokes emerge from the dust. They tell us that jokes are healthy; they relieve stress; they are one of the ways humans come to terms with horror.
Social media is already alive with cartoons challenging belief systems that would suppress freedom of speech and the press, proffering up the pen as more powerful than the gun.
What these gunmen failed to realize is that it’s the Charlie Hebdo’s of our world that have the only chance in hell of lifting the irrational forces that enslave us by “poking the hornets nests“ of oppression.
The day we no longer criticize our own absurdities, offensively or otherwise, the day we stop making fun of each other with or without drawing gunfire, is truly the day we die.
Penelope Reedy is the former editor/publisher of The Redneck Review of Literature (1975-1995) archived at the Boise State University Library.