My son loves comedy. He searches for it on YouTube, he watches stand-up and skit comedy on television; for Christmas this year you got his most prized possession- the entire box set of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Among his absolute favourite shows on television is The Daily Show, and when Jon Stewart addressed the Charlie Hebdo attacks on his show the other night it left my son with a lot of questions about the limits of comedy, the definition of satire, what is offensive, and our right to offend.
This seems to me like a perfect opportunity to talk to my son about many of the issues that seem so omnipresent in today’s culture. I can use the prism of comedy and satire- two things which spark his imagination and grip his attention to talk about issues that might otherwise seem dry, pedantic, and utterly boring to a pre-teen.
The Charlie Hebdo tragedy can teach my son about xenophobia, when it is right to criticize and when we are better to leave that criticism to people who understand their culture and history. We can discuss when it is right to hold up the actions of others and insist that they are acting out of intolerance in an effort to terrorize when perhaps there is a complicated history that makes that judgement unfair.
We can talk about privilege, about one culture mercilessly judging another and insisting that the minority culture must conform to the majority culture’s norms and traditions.
Further still, we can talk about cultural elitism and how we as members of the dominant global culture have a duty to try to respect and understand other cultures- their traditions, their values, and how they express themselves.
I get to have a conversation about social justice with my son that is framed around something he cares for very deeply- something that makes him want to learn the art of nuance, language, and communication. More importantly, this tragedy has been an opportunity not just for me and my son, but for our society as a whole. Hopefully, different cultures, faiths and ideas will mix together and spawn important conversations about where our common values lie and where they diverge- and what we can do to be better.
Yes, today I get to have a conversation about how Americans want to decide how a minority culture gets to express satire.
We have a chance to talk about the privilege of viewing humour through the lens of the culture that asserts near total domination over global media.
We get to talk about the uniqueness and differences of French culture- and how we can learn that this isn’t about tolerance, it’s about understanding and celebrating French traditions.
Enough with calling social activists “intolerant bigots” who want to terrorize Muslims with caricatures of the struggles they face as members of French society, I can tell him.
Enough with insisting that our American way of being funny is somehow superior and more relevant to all cultures, not just our own.
Enough with telling the French that we understand the subtext and nuances of their media better than they do.
At the same time, I want to talk to him about satire. I hope I can teach my son that at it’s best- satire takes a belief that permeates our culture and doesn’t change the shape of it, but changes the surroundings and context of where it exists. It can take the gravity out of a subject by refusing to take even itself seriously. Satire can, in this way, criticize ideas that are accepted as above criticism- it leaves the idea intact and instead plays with the culture that it inhabits. Satire can be hilarious, it can be absurd, it can be provocative. Sometimes- when it really succeeds- it can be all three.
This is what made Charlie Hebdo such an important cultural force, and this is what I hope it continues to be.
-Special thanks go to Dan Finke at Camels With Hammers for making a post that explains my position perfectly, thus allowing me to avoid having to parse it out piece by piece in a blog post. Thanks also go to Socratic Gadfly for giving me the idea that turned into this post.