Where is the Funny Bone?

Oxford English Dictionary:

Satire (noun):  The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Coincidentally, the Oxford Dictionary goes on to say that the origin of the word is early 16th Century, French or from Latin satira. It’s ironic in light of the massacre at the offices of the news weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on the 7th of January 2015. The point of satire is basically to force the reader to re-look at themselves, their belief systems/political affiliations, in a humorous manner.

Satire like all writings or drawings comes under the right of freedom of speech and expression which in many democratic countries around the world is absolute or as near absolute as possible. Here in India, the Constitution provides for the freedom of speech and expression of all citizens under Article 19(1) a. Our problem with being an ostensibly secular but multi religious and multilingual society is that Article19 (2) had to be included in order to dilute 19(1) a. So, all rights of freedom of speech and expression are subject, inter alia, to the interests of decency or morality.

In western democracies the scope of freedom of expression may be even wider than ours because a restriction of ‘decency and morality’, subjective as it is, can only lead to banning of various types of books and articles, depending upon the politics of the government in power and the violence threatened by extremist organisations. And satire is particularly disliked because people who take themselves too seriously cannot bear to be laughed at. Take the example of Aseem Trivedi, the Mumbai cartoonist who was arrested in 2012 for anti-corruption cartoons and that too for simply sending up the political class and the mockery they had made of Parliament.

PS: The problem is that not many people are capable of seeing the humour in satire and they are uncomfortable with having a funny mirror held up to their foibles.

LL: Not everyone understands satire, and the people who don’t get it can only take offence.

PS: It is cultural to a very large extent. Some societies just do not have the concept of irreverence and certainly no tolerance for it.

LL: Well, in India we are incapable of laughing at ourselves. Everyone takes offence at everything over here.

PS: The restriction of decency and morality is in effect, our ‘blasphemy law’ which in a secular society is anathema. The problem over here is you can’t make fun of anyone, because it is not just religion but everything is somehow tied back to it, including politicians who think they are demi gods, political parties, dead and gone kings, cows, sometimes stones on the side of the road, peepal trees and cups of coffee (because coffee drinking is a religion).

LL: The pen is actually mightier than the sword because you can only effectively wield a sword only if you haven’t been poked in the eye by the pen.

PS: The vision of the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo’s office was obviously seriously impaired by the satirical pen of the newspaper. They couldn’t see that by killing, so brutally, they would provoke worldwide outrage and display their own inhumanity. But any organisation, media or otherwise, is more than the individuals employed by it.

LL: Although they have probably managed to cripple Charlie Hebdo’s operations for a while, what they have really succeeded in doing is bringing to the attention of the world a newspaper that was not much heard of outside of France. And now everyone is searching for the very cartoons they were unhappy about. The response of the gunmen makes the provocative nature of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons seem almost subtle.

PS: The whole problem of insisting on your idea of morality is that you make yourself that much more a subject of ridicule. And ultimately, despite the offensiveness of the satire, Charlie Hebdo was operating within the confines of the law in France. And that is surely the most important criteria.

We just hope that the Kalashnikovs have not blunted the pencil of Charlie Hebdo and that its satire will remain as sharp as ever.

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