In his blog for The Monthly on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Mungo McCallum concludes his Readers’ Digest argument that laughter is the best medicine by observing that even those wielding automatic weapons can’t fire them if they’re doubled over with mirth. “After all,” he writes, “even the most rabid fanatic would find it hard to aim a Kalashnikov while guffawing.”
McCallum’s piece is about the lines that are or should be drawn between satire, humour, and offence, but what he fails to address is who exactly is to determine those limits, and what criteria they are to employ in order to arrive at their judgement.
This is another aspect of the battle for societal control so relentlessly fought by groups such as Collective Shout and individuals such as Melinda Tankard Reist, with whom I have locked horns on more than one occasion. See the Category Defamation Threats on this blog if you want to know just how hard these people will go after you in an effort to shut you up and impose their views.
I know people who find Seinfeld cruel and unfunny. I know others who find The Simpsons offensive to their sacred notions of family. I’ve heard arguments that the HBO series Breaking Bad, in which a regular high school chemistry teacher morphs into a drug lord after learning he has terminal cancer, has led to an epidemic in the manufacturing of methamphetamines. I find McCallum’s line quoted above offensive in its casual dismissal of the profound seriousness of rabid fanaticism. I don’t find it satirical or humorous, and I suspect it could only have been written by someone who has little first-hand knowledge of any kind of terror.
The point is, something will always offend someone. There are those who are outraged because every cliff top in the country is not fenced off to protect us from falling over it and sustaining injury, or death. There are those who want to kill every shark in the ocean because now and then one of them eats someone. There are those who believe being hurt and offended is so great an injury laws can and should be passed to prevent their emotional distress.
There are those who take out their Kalashnikovs because they believe being insulted and offended are justifications for murder. There’s very little that can be done about someone with that particular mindset, and if all other provocations are denied them through censorship of potentially provocative commentary they will still kill, on the spurious grounds that an entire mode of existence is offensive to them and it’s their right to eradicate it.
The fight for the power to wield societal control is constant, and it takes a myriad of forms. In general, our liberal democracy is controlled by the values of the bourgeoisie who are, also in general, obsessed with issues of law and order, affronted by graffiti, entirely precious about their right not to be offended, insulted or otherwise emotionally ruffled, and consumed by notions of decency and what they determine to be appropriate. Look at our politicians if you don’t believe me.
There is no doubt that words can damage. Vilification of any kind causes hurt and damage and destruction. Rather than impose legislation that seeks to prevent and punish the utterance of damaging and destructive words, satirical commentary, unfair criticism, racial and religious abuse, I would prefer that we instead focus our attention and resources on education and remediation. I think this because largely legislation has no effect at all in everyday situations, and in many instances can make resentment against the other, whoever the other happens to be at any particular time, even worse.
In my opinion, legalisation that seeks to control who can say what, when and where is driven by bourgeois desires to exercise social control and create a perceived utopian culture in which proponents of bourgeois ideology feel most “comfortable.” While the bourgeoisie have not yet resorted to firearms with which to impose their vision of the world, they have instead demanded a level of surveillance and state control over language and how it may and may not be used that is astounding.
While I do not agree with Attorney-General George Brandis that everyone has the “right” (whatever “right” means in his context) to be a bigot, it seems to me that legislation attempting to prevent the expression of bigotry is doomed to fail, except in very rare high-profile situations.
The battle for societal control will not be won by silencing. It is a wrong-headed and prejudicial battle in the first place. We cannot, for example, silence the Murdoch press and even if Andrew Bolt came a cropper with his racist views what was gained in the larger sense by his stumble? He hasn’t shut up, he’s just as offensive, if not more so, and he gained an inordinate amount of support and sympathy. In general, his name is remembered as a consequence of those events, and not the names of those vilified and insulted, or the nature of the vilification and insult.
I know from my own experience of being threatened with legal action if I didn’t retract and shut up that it only made me more determined to express views I believed to be worthy of expression and that I had the right to express, because why shouldn’t I? My views were extremely offensive and insulting to some. So what? Theirs were equally offensive and insulting to me. Neither of us should have been silenced, and only one party (not me) had the financial wherewithal to threaten the other with silence or ruin.
What we need to do is think about is what can be done that will actually achieve fundamental change, instead of focusing on window dressing and band aids that at best do nothing and at worst incite those who are silenced by legislation to even more devious expressions and behaviours.
McCallum is wrong, laughter is certainly not the best medicine when faced with a Kalashnikov, or being otherwise silenced by punitive measures employed by the state at the behest of the hegemonic bourgeoisie.
The best medicine is to resist and refuse efforts to silence, to be subversive, to transgress, to contest, to challenge, to protest, to be civilly disobedient, to refuse to be shut up by those who are “uncomfortable” with certain forms of expression. Your discomfort is not my problem, tell them. It’s yours. I’m sorry you feel it, but there are ways you can deal with it if you have the courage, and silencing me is not one of them.
I laughed my head off, said someone taken hostage by murderous ideologues never.