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Can Humor Go Too Far?

The watchwords “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” displayed during a Brussels rally in support of the Charlie Hebdo shooting victims. (Courtesy Photo)

By now, we’ve all heard about the attacks on the popular French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Enraged because editorial cartoonists printed an image of the prophet Mohammed, Islamic fundamentalists stormed the magazine’s headquarters in Paris, killing several cartoon editorialists.

This event is just one of many that sparked discussions around free speech, censorship, and satire. Are we infringing on someone’s right to free speech when we criticize a racist joke, cartoon, or film? Does censorship inherently violate this right?

In no way were the events in Paris justified. The death of twelve creative souls was tragic, as is any senseless murder of a fellow human. But, after hearing about the attack, I looked up past covers of the magazine and saw a blatantly Islamophobic and anti-Semitic publication. In a country where Muslims are already a marginalized group, constantly mistreated by a movement that uses the notion of free speech to justify its actions, it begs the question of whether or not Charlie Hebdo also had a part to play.

I do, however, want to say that I write this article from a place of privilege. I will never experience racial or religious discrimination during my lifetime, and I can’t possibly understand the pain and frustration such discrimination can cause. Because of this, my perception and opinions about Charlie Hebdo are skewed.

There’s a common rule in comedy, whether you’re doing stand-up or writing. “Punching up,” or using comedy to take down oppression and oppressors, is accepted. “Punching down,” or using tired stereotypes for comedic effect, is not.

It’s lazy comedy when someone “punches down.” Satire is good when it makes fun of parties in power, systems of power, and institutions. In this case, Charlie Hebdo didn’t do the right thing. The tragic deaths of twelve journalists are overlooked by the bigger picture here. While there are some who are legitimately upset about the tragedy, and say “Je suis Charlie” with the intention of good, there are others who don’t act this way. Free speech and humor is used to defend what people see as a “right” to publish racist and homophobic material.

In a way, Charlie Hebdo has now become a martyr and a villain. Of course no one should have to fear for their lives when they write, blog, or voice their opinion in any way. But freedom of speech doesn’t just mean “I can say what I want, it doesn’t matter if what I say is offensive.” Free speech isn’t a cover for being offensive. Charlie Hebdo may have become a beacon for anti-censorship advocates, but not everyone carries a halo above their heads.

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Can Humor Go Too Far?