When cheap laughs cost too much: There's a fine line between satire and hate speech

For the Muslim Times' collection of articles on free speech

For the Muslim Times’ collection of articles on free speech

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Clarence Page; Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage. “Culture Worrier,” a collection of his best columns, is available in print and atchicagotribune.com/ebooks.

Some people unfortunately think that the best way to respond to the intolerance of Muslim fanatics is to insult all Muslims.

That’s the twisted thinking behind professional Muslim baiter Pamela Geller’s ill-advised contest in Garland, Texas. Her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, offered a $10,000 prize to a cartoonist deemed to have drawn the best mocking picture of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Most Muslims quite sensibly ignored the stunt. But when you bait enough people, somebody will rise to the bait. Two heavily armed and armored Muslim men from Phoenix arrived to shoot up the contest, authorities say, but were blocked by the Garland police force. A traffic cop fatally shot both — and Geller succeeded in making her own organization sound no less reckless than the fanatics she baited.

Clarence Page

Clarence Page

Oh, sure, there are some people who buy into Geller’s insistence that she is only defending free speech. But that does not excuse her from criticism for expressing reckless speech.

As you probably know, Geller’s contest is just one of the more bizarre reactions to the murderous January assault on the Paris offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by two other Islamic extremists who were offended by the magazine’s depiction of Muhammad.

For the record, Charlie Hebdo cartoonists Jean-Baptiste Thoret and Gerard Biard declared there was “no comparison” between the “equal-opportunity offense” in their criticism of all religions and the Islamophobic slant of Geller’s stunt.

Yet Charlie Hebdo also has been sharply criticized by many who agree with its right to print what it prints but sharply dislike some of what it’s printing.

For example, after the writers’ organization PEN announced that it was giving an award to Charlie Hebdo, six writers who had earlier agreed to be table hosts at the gala backed out. While deploring censorship and violence, a letter signed by dissenting PEN members said in part, “in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.”

The letter echoed a criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s humor in a speech by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau at journalism’s prestigious George Polk Awards: “Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Moliere and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the nonprivileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”

Trudeau probes a central question in this debate: What is satire for? It is meant to be humorous, but it isn’t always. It should aim to “punch up, not down,” as the old saying goes, but sometimes even a seemingly disempowered minority group can exercise oppressive, lethal power when it runs amok with murderous fanaticism.

With this debate bubbling through the media community, I was not surprised to hear it pop up in a question to Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, editorial cartoonist at The Economist and The Baltimore Sun, asked as he accepted the 2015 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning at the Library of Congress in Washington: Would he enter the Texas contest?

No, Kal said, and he would not encourage any of his fellow cartoonists to do it either.

“It seemed to me to be a bit of a stunt.” Whatever the contest was trying to prove about freedom of expression, he said, it ended up “bordering on hate speech.”

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Categories: Americas, Free speach, Free Speech, Freedom

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