Why do the intolerant among us get so riled up by humor? This question has taken center stage again, after three suspects stormed the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning, and murdered 10 employees — screaming “God is great” in Arabic.
In some cases, the assassins screamed the name of the journalists before opening fire, as they did when they killed Stéphane Charbonier, a.k.a. Charb, the editor in chief. Two policemen were also murdered — one cowardly, as he lay on the ground in the video below — and 11 got injured, four of whom are struggling to stay alive.
NB: viewer discretion is advised.
Charb as well as the other employees, specifically the cartoonists, had received numerous threats for their mocking of Islam and its Prophet Muhammad. But the cartoonists hadn’t singled out the Islamic religion; Charlie Hebdo was equally iconoclastic towards politicians, the banking system (which they compared to Hitler once), and even Christianity.
But once the threats started pouring in, Charb and his team courageously doubled down on the Islamic satire — perhaps precisely because they lived in the land of Voltaire, who allegedly expressed, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The murdered French comedian once said, “I’ve defended the right to publish the Muhammad cartoons. If we cave in to self-censorship, the few extremists around the world and in France will have won.”
Charlie Hebdo‘s last tweet shows a cartoon making fun of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-anointed Islamic State leader. The outlet depicts him saying “Best wishes, by the way. To Al-Baghadi too. And especially good health!” The latest edition also mocked Submission, a novel by intellectual Michael Houllebecq that portrays a France ruled by a Muslim president.
Meilleurs vœux, au fait. pic.twitter.com/a2JOhqJZJM
— Charlie Hebdo (@Charlie_Hebdo_) January 7, 2015
Going back to our initial question, what is it that makes humor so dangerous for dogmatic groups, political and religious alike? One answer is that humor desacralizes what it attacks.
Humor says “don’t take this too seriously,” and this, for those who do take themselves seriously, is devastating.
Humor levels the playing field. When you mock the powerful, you bring them down to the commoners. Humor says “don’t take this too seriously,” and this, for those who do take themselves seriously, is devastating. As Albert Camus, another great French thinker, used to say, “people who pretend to know and control everything always end up as murderers.”
Some people also define humor as entertaining intelligence. My father, a simple man, used to admonish: “Beware of people without a sense of humor.” Those who have it all worked out, who’re so very sure of their convictions, are usually intolerant people. Humor hits them like a gut punch because it makes them doubt. And doubt, they say among the military, is the beginning of disobedience.
I live in Venezuela, a country with a sense of humor so intense that sometimes it gets in the way of taking anything seriously. So I can relate to the attack and understand this, because the Chavista regime has targeted humor in television and the press, censoring and legally harassing cartoonists and comedians. The strokes of a paintbrush are sometimes more powerful on public opinion than hours of smug, empty, pompous speeches from politicians who take upon themselves the role of interpreting “history.”
The worst outcome of Charb and his workmates’ murders is that the intolerant ones, those “few extremists,” have won — not because of the casualties, as Charb’s ideas will live on, but due to the voices that call for repressing and controlling all Muslims in Europe. Fascist-oriented, xenophobic politicians from all across the continent — one that has suffered enough unspeakable horrors stemming from xenophobia — are already saying, “See? We told you so.”
Today’s attack entrenches not only the intolerance of extremist Muslims, but that of those who oppose them. And it threatens thousands of people who have traveled miles to live in Europe, at times even running away from religious encroachment upon their private lives at home.
Those who died today surely wouldn’t approve of any kind of persecution. They fought and died in the name of tolerance and the sacred cause of freedom of speech. Like them, every journalist around the world has been attacked, murdered. Today we’re all Charlie Hebdo; we’re Charb and his coworkers.
Translation by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.