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Triggered by Charlie Hebdo

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo left me pondering our attitudes towards religion, satire, and sacrilege.

I have never understood religious faith. One of my earliest childhood memories is of a routine my brother and I engaged in while living in a shelter after our parents’ arrest. As I wrote in An Execution in the Family, “We were supposed to pray at our bedside before going to sleep each night. I resisted this, but Michael told me I had to or I would go to hell. I knelt by the side of the bed, folded my hands together, and [prayed], but upset him by giggling and muttering, ‘Goddammit.’ ”

I still don’t “get” religion. However I’ve learned from working with many deeply religious people on a range of economic and social justice issues, how religion can move people to do important, good work.

On the other hand, I do enjoy ridicule and satire. I have always delighted in making up clever and derogatory nicknames that stick to my intended target like freshly discarded chewing gum.

Perhaps these juvenile propensities led me, as I got older, to revel in making fun of sacred cows. I don’t confine this practice to people I disagree with. During the light bulb joke craze, I remember waiting for Elli to return from her feminist discussion group so I could ask her, “How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb.” Her stony-faced “That’s not funny” reply, made me laugh. That, of course, was the punch line of the joke.

But the violence against Charlie Hebdo makes me realize that we need to take power into account when considering satire and parody. When oppressed people parody the elite it can be liberating, but when the powerful ridicule the oppressed, it can be deadly. So I was delighted with the cancelation of the racist television program, Amos ’n Andy. In the 1950’s, that program (in which the two white stars, in blackface, played African-Americans as lazy, boorish, ignoramuses) demeaned African-Americans. Such cultural stereotyping dehumanizes and enables hate crimes.

The concept of sacrilege – the violation or ridicule of something considered sacred – is especially dangerous. Individually, such violations often provoke violent responses. When coupled with political and/or economic power, this concept can become genocidal. People may scoff at others’ cherished beliefs while failing to recognize our own sacred cows. Americans who condemn a strong response to visual depictions of the Prophet Mohammed might be inclined to assault someone who was burning an American flag.

So while I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish their often offensive and sophomoric cartoons, I do criticize them for publishing cartoons that, for the most part, appear to single out and offend the sensibilities of an oppressed minority. And while I abhor the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, I find it profoundly ironic to see world leaders marching in Paris in support of the magazine, world leaders who have themselves caused or facilitated so much death, destruction, economic misery and censorship. Their self-righteous hypocrisy is more than I can bear. Read More 
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