Saturday, January 10, 2015

Holy Mirth

Some thoughts inspired by the recent slaughter of French cartoonists responsible for the comic Charlie Hebdo, a slaughter perpetuated by Muslim extremists angered by the comic's crude mockery of Islam.

When I put myself in the public sphere, with an agenda that I want you to accept (or at least grapple with in some way), then I become fair game for ridicule.

When I was younger, I served an LDS (Mormon) mission to northern Spain. As a result of being out and about talking to people regarding religion, their own and mine (which I was available to offer those who wanted it), I was fair game for ridicule--and I was ridiculed. While this experience was not always pleasant, I think it was valuable--and I did my best (succeeding for the most part, I hope) to "roll with the punches" (which I knew that my position invited, and even required). I learned that people often use humor to facilitate friendly relations with outsiders whom they might otherwise hate (and perhaps physically injure, even to the point of death). I would much rather be mocked than beaten (let alone killed). But we do not all tolerate mockery the same way. I think we learn to deal with it better, as a population, when we must endure it without the means of an escalating retaliation: as a Mormon missionary, I had neither the friends, the time, nor the resources to plan a violent strike against the people who mocked me (some kindly, some viciously, all with some kind of moral justification that I respected and still respect). I might go home and cry, or get mad on the street and make some aggressive gestures, but there was no such thing as declaring war on society. (There really isn't for the jihadis, either. As a result of their activity in Paris, most of them are dead--right?--and more people will die. Even if society falls apart, the people of France are not going to rise up and convert to Islam en masse. Even if they did, they would promptly divide into separate Muslim factions--such as exist already in dar al-Islam--and commence hostilities with one another. If they were lucky, these hostilities would involve lots of mockery and little actual violence. If not, France becomes another Syria or Iraq.)

I think mockery is actually an important human art, a liberal art that people generally need more practice giving and receiving. The art of laughing at others without losing sight of one's own absurdity is really one of the most civilized--and civilizing--arts available to us. Too many people study how to laugh at others without learning to laugh at themselves. Too few among us are brave enough to face our own absurdity and laugh (instead of crying or becoming very angry and wanting to make someone else suffer because we appear weak, foolish, or stupid at some point--as we all do). Thus, when I teach humanities today in the classroom and tell my students, in a jesting tone, that I see my role as that of a professional clown, I am actually being serious. Seriously silly. I am teaching humanity to laugh, at itself and the world--to laugh and let the little things (a cartoon here, an insult there) go, without rancor.

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