When is Humor Abusive?

In the wake of the violent attack on Charlie Hebdo, millions of people have been cheering for the magazine as a bastion of free-speech in the face of intolerance and violent censorship. But many moderate French muslims have pointed out that while they disagree with the violent attack, they still find the satirical depiction of Muhammad to be offensive. When the magazine followed the attack with this cover, one young community leader commented to the Washington Post:

media_xll_2709516“My first reaction was angst, this does nothing to make things better,” said Nasser Lajili, 32, a Muslim city councilor and youth group leader in Gennevilliers. “I want to make clear that I completely condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But I think freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.”

I am reminded of Penny Arcade’s “Dickwolf Incident” when a single cartoon spawn hoarders of protesters, who objected to jokes about rape, and counter-protesters, who felt that the protesters were overreacting. I’m going to avoid discussing it in depth, because that far too much of that has already occurred, but if you’re curious for more information, a thorough blow-by-blow can be found here (and part two). The entire debacle stemmed from this cartoon:

This was literally debated for years. Consider that.

All over the interwebs voices cried out about how this supported rape culture and would potentially trigger rape survivors. To the uniformed reader is a bit mystifying (it certainly confused the original cartoonists), and many found issue with what they saw as intolerant censorship. After all, it was just a cartoon about the weird world of MMORGs. And in the good tradition of Judith Butler, the protester rarely bothered to explain why it was so upsetting. I eventually realized that the crucial detail many found it offensive was the depiction of a rape victim being ignored or not being taken seriously. It is offensive the protesters argue, because by depicting this behavior it supports the real life behavior (ignoring and discrediting survivors is a significant part of rape culture) and because it will remind rape survivors of their own experiences, forcing them to re-experience the trauma (for some reason we just say triggering and not PTSD).

I have always had some difficulty with the “triggering” argument, though in a broader sense than the context of this article. Allow me to explain with a short story. I was once at a stand up comedy event put on by a group at my college and at one point input was requested of the audience, namely qualities for a character in the next skit. I raised my hand and suggested Tourettes (bear with me). The guy taking suggestions told me very seriously that they don’t make fun of tragic medical conditions. They then proceeded to perform skit featuring child abuse jokes. Now I’m 90% sure no one in the audience had Tourettes, its kind of rare, but I knew personally several that had experienced abuse as children. I’m not going to defend my suggestion (I have matured and acknowledge that I was being a dick), but I would like you to remember the last time you heard a joke about narcolepsy made by someone who didn’t have it. If we’re going to avoid making fun of people with Tourettes, why are narcoleptics fair game? Why is rape not acceptable humor material, but comedians everywhere joke about pedophile priests? In response to the protest of the Dickwolf cartoon, one of the cartoonists listed all sorts of other crude and offensive cartoons he’d produced and asked why this was any different. That argument degenerated rapidly into threats of violence, though unlike Charlie Hebdo, actual violence was avoided. The question remains, why these seemingly arbitrary categories?

The answer is twofold, one is conceptual and the other is a bit more tangible. The conceptual reason is the context in which the cartoons exist. Rape culture is the set of societal structures, beliefs, and behaviors that supports rape, primarily by failing to punish rapists appropriately. One cartoon is nothing, but a thousand jokes about ignoring rape or not taking it seriously would subtly affect how people respond to the real thing. In situations with real racism, mocking or degrading jokes are important ways that people reproduce racism. In the US, where African Americans still experience a fair amount of discrimination, jokes that mock or degrade black people are socially unacceptable. The old cartoon caricatures of African Americans have been effectively banned for supporting racism. And this is all very reasonable, expect when the process of discrimination is not being recognized.

The tangible reason for categories of humor being accepted or not is simple: it is recognized as such. While drawing a cartoon comparing a black man to an ape would get me fired in the US, cartoons mocking French Muslims are being praised around the world as great examples of free speech. These are the same French Muslims who endure harassment and discriminatory laws such as the ban on headscarves. Charlie Hebdo is particularly guilty of this hypocrisy, having fired a cartoonist for making an anti-semitic joke.

At the same time, I also lean towards supporting free speech with extremely minimal caveats. I think cartoonists should feel free to draw racists cartoons. However, I also think that we should recognize this behavior as such and judge it on a more personal level. I could draw a series of racist cartoons, but people would recognize this behavior as unacceptable, and I would rapidly run out of people to talk to. I think Joe Saco summed up this question rather well:



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