The recent tragic killing in Charlie Hebdo, Paris shook us all so much so that many world leaders joined together to march in support of Paris. The now viral saying “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) fills everyone’s Facebook wall. Meanwhile, you have people acting offended at Margaret Cho’s edgy humor at the Golden Globe. These are related events. Let me explain.
When people look at satire, they tend to have two distinct reactions. They might say that the satire offensive or perhaps non-offensive. These reactions are problematic mainly because it’s a judgment made on personal opinion. The Charlie Habdo case, or cases like The Interview, isn’t based on our personal opinion. These are public pieces gone wrong. We’re an individualistic culture with horrible blind spots. Sometimes we Americans don’t get why the world doesn’t find our humor funny. To expand to the West, sometimes people in the West don’t get why the rest of the world don’t have our sense of humor. The fact is, the problem is not merely about freedom of speech. If our freedom of speech is offensive to the rest of the world, why would they want our version of freedom of speech. The problem comes from somewhere else.
In an insightful article, a writer points out that we simply don’t lampoon 9/11 or Holocaust. How about THAT for a blind spot, huh? We can make fun of Muslims or Koreans or any other people group, but God forbid if anyone makes fun of our Twin Towers or the Holocaust. Why? It is because there’s something quite sacred about those towers and the horrible Holocaust. It’s because we consider our unique American (or Jewish) experience that no one else can speak into other than those who are directly affected by the disaster. So, if anyone wants to discuss the 9/11 situation, let him or her be American.
The problem of the whole Charlie Hebdo, Margaret Cho and the Interview situation is singular. The problem is this question, “Who is doing the humor?” If it is the West that doesn’t hold seriously the sacredness of Islam, of course the humor is offensive. Why would it not be? It would be like someone telling a dead baby joke with reference to 9/11. I’m not condoning violence as a solution. What happened in Paris was horrible. I’m also saying that there’s something beyond “let’s stop the violence” or “I am Charlie Hebdo” here. Margaret Cho could make fun of North Korea a bit more (though I’m unsure whether that’s necessarily the best idea) because she’s Korean. She’s in THAT culture. She can make fun of racist situations because she’s a minority who is constantly reminded of her place in society. For instance, “I” can make fun of China or the communists simply because I’ve lived in Hong Kong and have taught there a number of years. I’ve had family members who experienced communism first hand. My father participated in WWII in China and so on. I UNDERSTAND the situation. The fact people asked Cho to apologize shows that people completely miss the point.
Now, James Franco and Seth Rogen ought to apologize. You know what? It’s because they aren’t Korean. I don’t care if they eat kimchi or have Korean friends who aren’t offended. They were lampooning with Asian stereotypes to get his point across, and making money from it. We aren’t the punchline. If we want to have a punchline based on our own ethnicity, we’ll do it on our own term and in our own much more qualified way. In so doing, Franco and Rogen didn’t offend Kim Jong Un. He offended all Asians, especially his fellow American aka Asian-Americans. People like Franco, Rogen and all the people who march around self-righteously as world leaders need to learn one thing. Their privileged position doesn’t qualify them to make fun of stuff they have no business making fun of, least of all in the name of free speech, simply because they haven’t earned the right to. Humor and free speech aren’t the inalienable right of the privileged. Far from it! The privileged ought to use their position to do something more meaningful than to lampoon other cultures and cultural sore spots which they know nothing about. Whether YOU are offended is the least of OUR problem! Sometimes, humor is not the best channel to get a message across.
Many readers of this blog are ministers or at least Christians. I would say that this issue applies to Christian leaders who preach. Where does humor fit in pulpit ministries? I would say to stay away from humor we aren’t qualify to use. When we use lampooning humor, we always risk causing unnecessary offense. I believe we need to get away from the free speech fundamentalism of being Americans. As kingdom citizens, we need to be careful of our freedom, lest our freedom becomes a stumbling block to our true message. For so many of us, we worship humor. We think humor is as important as the Virgin Birth. Sometimes, not having a sense of humor in a sermon is not the worst offense. The worst offense is having the wrong humor. The damage would be irreparable.
Count me out! I’m not Charlie Hebdo. Anyone else who doesn’t want to be is fine by me, though we should all grieve for the victims of the shooting much like we should grieve for victims in the killing of Boko Haram or Central African Republic.