In Praise of Ridicule

September and November of 2011 saw  the West celebrate success in preventing further terrorist attacks following 9/11. However, we have no real victory over terror. Rather, as the case of Molly Norris shows, in art, in comedy and in speech we have forfeited much. We live in a society where artists cannot speak freely for fear of their lives.

While the media commentariat has obsessed over the possible effects on freedom of anti-terror laws – effects that have not emerged – it has remained silent over the real and chilling effects Islamists have had on free speech.

And, apart a few conservative exceptions, it has remained silent on how our governments have legitimised similar restrictions; and on how it has tried to justify even more wide-ranging ones.

Ms Norris was the cartoonist who instigated Everybody Draw Mohammed Day in May 2010 as an attempt to defend freedom of expression and conscience.  She was responding to Comedy Central’s decision to withdraw a South Park episode that depicted the Prophet Mohammed, after Islamists had threatened the show’s creators.

On the basis of emerging threats to her life, the FBI then advised Ms Norris to change her name and go into hiding.

Her case –  and those of Theo Van Gogh, Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others – shows that despite the laws and constitutions of our democracies, in the developed West we have an informal regime of punishment for blasphemy. Of only one religion.

Over the past 20 years we have seen sirens running from one bombed Parisian bookshop to another, the murder of a filmmaker, threats to authors and Ms Norris’ forced repudiation of her life, relationships and career. These attacks on artistic expression all show that totalitarian terror is indeed present in our lives, and that now, we have internalised its demands.

What we see every time Comedy Central pulls an episode of South Park dealing with Mohammed, but allows unfettered satire of Christians, Jews, gays and Mormons, is a victory for terror. Every time a comedian approaches a joke about Islam and backs off, it is a victory for terror.

Every time a social commentator changes what they write to avoid the possibility of violent retribution, and every time Andres Serrano portrays Christ in a box of urine but is too afraid to portray Mohammed at all, they are victories for terror.

This is the case regardless of your view of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. It may have been, like much contemporary art, a tasteless or gratuitously offensive project. Whatever it was, it was free expression within our laws, supporting our free expression, and it didn’t warrant a death sentence.

What is concerning is the way in which our governments, media, academics and human rights institutions have watched and supported this. Ms Norris, perhaps naively, had the right idea. In the face of threats against comedians the right response was a strong, united front that stood for the freedom of comedians and cartoonists to ridicule and satirise no matter the topic.

But Ms Norris was abandoned by those people charged by our society to protect our rights. At a time when those agents should have taken a stand against threats, they failed.

Not only did they fail, but they actively support restricting those rights. In Australia we have made ridicule and giving subjectively-defined offence illegal under the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act, and the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. This is deeply worrying despite vague protections for comedy.

Our acquiescence to Islamist threats that silence us, and government tribunals that criminalise ridicule and offence, shows that as a society we have not learnt from our own history.

Comedy works by taking us to the edge, forcing us to reflect on the absurdity of our passions, and the power of all those things we suppress, and it does so by surprising, by shocking, and often by causing offence.

In pamphlets, drama, speech and even nursery rhymes, comedy was at the frontline of 500 years of hard-fought victories for freedom of religion, expression and conscience.

Most importantly, freedom of expression is the greatest protection available to those without power, or access to a journalist’s phone number. Comedy in all its forms – satire, cartooning, stand-up, ridicule in publication and in conversation – allows ordinary people to puncture the self-serving cant of those in privileged inner circles.

That is as true in the stand-up and South Park of today as it was in the Reformation pamphlets of the 1500s. You may not agree with every occurrence, but it helps keep all the political, academic and religious bastards honest.

This is even more important in a society where cultural and religious norms are contentious policy issues.

Whether or not that expression causes subjective offence is irrelevant. Indeed, offending those with a monopoly of public speech is essential for a functioning democracy. The moment we allow any political, social or religious class to define offending speech is the moment they will define anything they disagree with as offensive.

Equally, we cannot allow minority status to elevate one form of subjective offence above another, or allow it to trump long-standing institutions central to the unprecedented freedom and prosperity of our society.

If terrorists or government tribunals (see Finkelstein) can determine what is legitimate comment, whether comic or not, then we accept limits on the one tool every marginalised individual has to hold the privileged to account: their voice.

Which is even more reason for ordinary people to fight for complete freedom from threats for our cartoonists and comedians. It’s not too much to say that freedom will falter when the laughing stops.

When comedians and authors cannot say what they want about religion for fear of their lives, and columnists and bloggers can’t speak reasonably about identity, race or religion without the weight of the bureaucracy falling upon them, then not only has terror won, but we have made its values part of our values.

Despite the great achievement of avoiding another 9/11 or Bali, we will only know we are free from terror when our comedians, satirists and cartoonists can ridicule all religions with equal impunity. The tragedy of Molly Norris’ life is evidence of that.

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