An army friend of mine once related a story to me when we were in Afghanistan about a game he used to play in university lectures called, “Bait the Jew.” The premise of the game was simple: in class discussions he would say deliberately inflammatory things which would rile the Jewish students, particularly those with Zionist sympathies. He would then have a laugh at their expense. I cringed at this and felt kind of embarrassed for him but it was one of those situations you find yourself in all-too-often in the military where you gotta let some repugnant shit slide because for better or worse, this dude has my back when shit hits the fan.
But if you think about it, Bait the Jew is emblematic of how humor is generally done these days: inflammatory remarks are levied at various demographics (with various degrees of cleverness) and the “injured” party’s reaction only increases the mirth of those who see the humor in it. Sometimes, the injured party’s reaction is relatively benign (legal recourse, appeals to the government or similar jests in kind), but sometimes it’s pretty severe:
I’m gonna go ahead and say exactly what’s on my mind here: Some people are VERY happy about the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Well, to me, I think it validated a lot of pent-up xenophobia and and Islamophobia and it certainly made a fair number of self-described atheists pretty euphoric. There is a definite under-current of these emotions in the wake of the attacks and a jubilation which some are hard-pressed to contain. It goes deeper than the validation of prejudice though. Some, like certain military friends of mine, have a vested financial interest in war because (at least in the Canadian military) there’s lots of delicious tax-free money to be made fighting commies/Nazis/insurgents. But there’s also the awards, honours, medals and respect that come from service overseas.
Medals are a status symbol in the military and the worthiness of your career is (unofficially) related to the size of your rack of medals. In the context of being in the military, it’s considered a more or less objective indicator of whether or not someone is a good soldier. Sure, a guy may be an insubordinate, racist drunkard, but look at all his medals. Also, there is an unspoken resentment against superior officers who presume to command subordinates with more operational experience, and thus more medals, than them. So in my estimation, a lot of war-mongering has to do with guys who want to legitimize their careers and authority, while at the same time becoming one of the highly decorated veterans they vaunt.
I’ll defer to Bill Hicks here:
“What kind of people are these with such low self-esteem that they need a war to feel better about themselves? May I suggest, instead of a war to feel better about yourself, perhaps … sit-ups? Maybe a fruit cup? Eight glasses of water a day?“
I was one of these guys when I got into the army. I saw dudes who had deployed to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cyprus, the Golan Heights and when they’d rock their medals on parades I wanted my own taste of that. Well, I got it. And, surprise surprise, all of that admiration and veneration from the younger generation didn’t mean all that much when I finally had it.
How far do you have to go down that road before you see where it leads?
But I digress here because I didn’t set out to write a scathing indictment of the military mindset wherein a solider validates himself, his existence and his career through violent campaigns and occupations which leave people dead, orphaned, bereaved and embittered.
Rather I was writing about humour and the way it is done. This hits a little close to home for me because as of late I have been trying my hand at stand up comedy so I find myself very much concerned with what is funny and what is not. Now at the outset, let me be clear: I am not above laughing at crude, insensitive, racist, sexist, etc. jokes. I’d like to qualify that by saying that I only laugh at them if they are clever, good-natured and well-wrought but that would be lying. I’ve laughed at the worst of the worst and will continue to do so provided I find the joke in question funny.
Now I think many of us would agree that if I, as a white male, went around making racist jokes about blacks, saying the word nigger all willy-nilly and advertising bigotry, the people who were the butt of my jokes would have a legitimate qualm and reason to not find them funny. If things were taken a step further and I got my ass kicked by the injured parties, a lot of people would probably be like, “Well he got what he deserved.”
Now notwithstanding the fact that there are orders of magnitude of difference between the shit-kicking I deserve and a shoot-out in the streets, can we at least acknowledge that a similar dynamic is at play here?
1)Someone makes a joke at another party’s expense
2)The second party is offended by the joke
3)To vindicate their bruised honor, the injured party does (decidedly less whimsical) violence against the jokester (and anyone else unfortunate enough to be nearby)
Some of you may say that I have abstracted the Charlie Hebdo massacre too much to make it congruent with my hypothetical black joke scenario, but I maintain that this is an important mental exercise which helps us to recognize common kernels of causality. So yes, while there are worlds of differences between the CH massacre and me getting my ass tuned up by a bunch of hypothetical aggrieved African-Americans (Canadians???), there is a similar dynamic of vindication here.
Or how about this: A lot of people here in the west think it’s stupid for Muslims to freak out over pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, BUT GOD HELP YOU IF YOU DON”T STAND FOR THE NATIONAL ANTHEM AT A HOCKEY GAME!!!
Yes, cause that makes infinitely more sense.
Or a lot of people might hate on (again) Muslims for those honor killings we hear so much about, but I would posit that “vindication of the national honour” (i.e. “honor killing” on a massive scale) is the main mobilizing premise used to dupe scared people into joining the war effort in the wake of some (usually trifling or made-up) initial provocation.
Don’t get me wrong I am no apologist for Islamic violence, but I recognize that it’s pretty presumptuous for us to poo-poo them for their violence when we cumulatively as “the West” are perhaps the greatest purveyors of direct violence (war), indirect violence (proxy wars) and war profiteering that have ever existed.
But again I need to digress, because this is neither meant to be a scathing indictment of Western foreign policy.
So what is funny and what is worth killing someone over? I think the answer to both is, “It’s all relative.” Furthermore, there is a degree of overlap, so some hilarious shit might get someone killed.
I recognize doing stand-up that a joke which I find funny might get my ass kicked if it offends someone, and whether popular opinion is with me or against me depends on a number of factors: The disposition of the general public, whether I am part of the privileged class, whether the subject of my ridicule is a downtrodden minority and last but not least, the prejudices of the general public. Let’s face it, if Charlie Hebdo cartoonists saw some humour in making cartoons at the expense of rape victims and a bunch of feminist extremists IRL pwned (killed) them, there would be a lot of people of the mindset of, “Well, that’s what you get for talking shit.” But since the indignant transgressors were Muslims, the attitude seems to be “Fuck them and their feelings!“
So, should Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have showed some restraint with regard to their jokes about Islam? Absolutely-the-fuck-NOT! We NEED people to push limits and say things that are on their minds even if the group-mind doesn’t deem it politically correct. The fact of the matter is that it takes a lot of guts to say some shit that you know isn’t popular, which incidentally, is why I mostly reserve judgement against the Westboro Baptist Church. Much as I might disagree with their message I have to laud their guts.
And while I think it sucks that people sometimes get killed for speaking their mind, I also think it sucks that we live in a system which necessitates the speaking of one’s mind in the first place.
What do I mean by that? Well, speaking one’s mind (whether that is asking for a raise, telling off a rival, or making an unpopular joke) is a form of asserting oneself and one’s views. But the necessity of self-assertion pre-supposes some marginalization happened as a pre-cursor. So the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists felt they had to assert themselves at the expense of devout Muslims, and the devout, more extremist elements of that group felt they had to re-assert themselves against those who had made light of their faith. Like so many struggles within a competitive socio-economic system, it’s just another case of one group trying to get ahead at the expense of another.
So again, for perhaps the hundredth time, I want to ask, “Shouldn’t we, instead of focusing on the individual acts of violence or insult (the latter being just another form of violence), instead look to transcend the structural mechanisms which pit people against one another in the first place?”
It doesn’t matter whether you identify more with Muslims or the cartoonists, cause while you bicker over who was in the right or wrong, someone is profiting from this whole debacle at the expense of both groups.
And what I find incredibly offensive about any new legislation pertaining to surveillance and privacy that will come to pass from this massacre is that it will likely disproportionately target Muslims (at least initially) and also that it flies in the face of the freedom of speech which Charlie Hebdo stood for.
So while we take sides, everyone loses.
But I digress, because I didn’t set out to talk about how we are being manipulated and played against each other.