Three-and-a-half million people rallied throughout France on January 12, 2015 to show unity and to show support for freedom of expression in the face of fanaticism and terrorism. What triggered the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo office? Humor.
Humor?? Yes. Political satire. So are we now going to characterize humor as a weapon? Something to wield and fear? C’mon, we’re more mature than that. (Aren’t we??) (Perhaps we had better warn the editors of Mad Magazine to tread lightly. “What, me worry?”)
Humor, like any form of expression, has a huge range—from the silliness of Teletubbies for toddlers to the “dead seriousness” of sharp political satire. All forms of communication can be used for comfort and connection, and also for influence and intimidation. Yes, humor can be used as a weapon. But it’s not a weapon of mass destruction! It’s a weapon of mass embarrassment.
Satire is one of the more edgy—and often purposely incendiary—types of humor. Satire can certainly sting—just ask the Pope or Donald Trump or any political leader—but mature people can handle it. Vocal and visual and written discourse is always better than violence.
Free societies are characterized by tolerance. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant.” Here in America we have a long history of political commentators who used humor, from Benjamin Franklin to Lenny Bruce to George Carlin to Stephen Colbert. They all pushed buttons and they pushed boundaries. Not everybody agreed with them. But nobody shot them! (No matter what you feel about Democrats vs. Republicans, at least they don’t shoot each other.)
Protecting free expression is fundamental. So is understanding what happened in Paris and why. Part of this conversation must center on the power, as well as the complexity, of humor. Humor can be healing. Humor can be hurtful. Humor can be entertainment. Humor can be a tool when used intentionally. And humor can be a weapon when used strategically. As you can see, humor is power.
It appears that terrorists are more frightened of cartoons than of cruise missiles. Perhaps the free world should change its tactics. I hear that Jay Leno’s writers might be looking for a little freelance work.
Neurohumorist Karyn Buxman’s mission in life is to enhance global business, improve global health, and achieve global peace through strategic humor. Her upcoming book is “Lead with Levity.” www.KarynBuxman.com.
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