What kind of society touts free speech and then shuns dissenters who dare to speak about “sensitive” issues?
In today’s politically correct environment one is expected to be at ease with genders, races, religions, and political viewpoints other than their own. Yet there are certain hypersensitive no-go areas that people are obliged to avoid as a matter of course. It’s important that we share each other’s experiences and resolve our differences, but how do you expect anyone to be comfortable with foreign people or ideas if they cannot be made light of or spoken about freely? When in history has making people uptight served to relax them?
Humor is a time-honored way of broaching a delicate subject. But somehow we’ve come to a point where humor is forbidden when it comes to serious topics such as the Holocaust or Muhammad. It is hard to imagine why someone would want to make jokes about the extermination of any great number of people, but sometimes humor is the only means we have to process an unconscionable idea like genocide or to deal with a religion we do not understand.
In today’s often hostile environment, a quick glance at the daily headlines reads like a page from the diary of an exceedingly disturbed individual, so why admonish people for trying to make light of things? Nonetheless, it happens constantly. Obviously, a normal person should have no trouble avoiding a Mel Gibson-styled meltdown. Only an inebriated fool carrying a giant cross on his back would start railing about Jews in the heart of Malibu. Gibson’s crackup might be funny to some people, but tirades like his don’t amuse anyone for very long. What I don’t understand is why anyone took him seriously. We cannot take everything to heart. Stupid people say stupid things, and it’s stupid for smart people to get upset about it.
In a less-deranged pronouncement, last week the film director Lars von Trier jokingly called himself a Nazi sympathizer and was expelled from the Cannes Film Festival as a result. I will assume he was using the term to refer to something other than a desire to see Jewish people exterminated. He was making a joke—obviously, a bad one. Nevertheless, expelling him from Cannes seems excessive. He’s nothing more than a second-rate film director. Making an example out of him makes the Cannes Film Festival look more like an award show for kindergarteners than a symposium for serious filmmakers. Making a big deal out of a flippant comment is just as silly as making such a comment. Furthermore, shunning someone for a few misspoken words goes against our culture of empathy and sends a message of intolerance, which is everything we are fighting against in the West.
Finding common ground between ourselves and our neighbors is one of the biggest issues of our time. Creating an environment where the ability to speak freely is considered taboo creates a dismal and counterproductive atmosphere. Christians, Muslims, and Jews are different. We do not often abide by the same values or share common practices in the way we approach life. But we all are prone to reacting emotionally when it comes to our race or religion. Without our senses of humor intact we certainly won’t come close to settling our differences.
Some groups have a greater number of reactionary and intolerant individuals than others. Unfortunately, they will always threaten those who are inclined to avoid brute force. Since there isn’t much we can do get rid of these killjoys, at the very least shouldn’t we be allowed to make fun of them without the threat of death or banishment? After the controversies in Sweden and Denmark regarding cartoons depicting Muhammad, I guess the answer is a resounding NO. Muslims do not have a sense of humor when it come to their religion, and neither do Jews when it comes to Israel. These days, their relentless defensiveness is verging on tyrannical, and I am tired of this ongoing war that has spilled over into my territory.
I wonder if a shrink would think that people who overreact to essentially harmless comments are projecting their own deep-seated biases onto others? They cast their own problems onto scapegoats instead of facing them personally. I’m no analyst but I am certain that talking freely about our issues is a good way toward understanding them. I believe the only way to deal with a thorny situation is calmly and head-on. Pussyfooting around the cultural and religious wars between Muslims, Jews, and Christians is no way forward. When race, religion, and politics come into play, folks can become ridiculously sensitive and immature. Individuals with radically different points of view often feel they are at war with each other and make it very difficult to maintain a composed dialogue. Agreeing not to talk about something doesn’t create a bridge to common ground, and common ground is what we need.
Since violence, fundamentalism, and profound distrust of others seem to be all the rage, why isn’t a little quip here and there more welcome? Just because someone refers to himself as a Nazi doesn’t necessarily mean he hates Jews or wants to kill them. Neither does a cartoon hold the power to actually diminish what’s sacred. The ability to control our impulses is the mark of civility. Perhaps we should afford people a little more slack when it comes to discussing these issues, because a joke is not a gateway drug to violence; to the contrary. But censoring wisecrackers will surely lead us to the doldrums—if we are not there already.
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