Not funny ha-ha. Funny strange.
I used to coauthor a humor blog, and I know that no matter what you write, no matter how funny you think it is, no matter how funny a lot of people think it is, someone, somewhere is going to be offended. It is the nature of humor, and it is a risk you take. Sometimes, no one gets it, and you fall flat on your face. You have to get up, straighten your nose and keep on thumbing it.
Once, I wrote a very funny post (I thought) on my blog about needing to collect a variety of flowers to pose for a floral still life I was painting. I mentioned in the post that no park and no yard was safe from my exploits. Regular readers of the blog knew that everything my coauthor and I wrote was a tall tale—an exaggeration, often so outlandish it couldn’t possibly be true, written for the sake of embellishing the story.
That post got a scathing comment from a plant rights activist, informing me that I was breaking the law by picking flowers in parks and that I was perpetrating a moral and ethical sin by stealing from my neighbor’s yard.
Of course, in character, I did not dignify the rebuke with a straight defense to explain that I was joking about ravaging parks and instead replied with, “Yeah, but it made a great painting, and the flowers will live forever this way.”
My coauthor and I then worried that the postal plant rights activist might stalk us.
My first foray into the risky business of humor and political correctness was in my third year of college. I had drawn a cartoon of the students with whom I went to film school and placed it on the bulletin board in what we lovingly called the film shack at the University of Miami. The next day, I was asked by a higher-up film student who was the equivalent of president of the student council, to remove it, as some of the students depicted (himself included) might take offense.
I certainly questioned the censorship of his request but only briefly, because I had not intended to hurt feelings. I removed the cartoon. My future as a cartoonist went out the window, which might have saved my life because I may have morphed into a word-slinging deity-basher.
I was reminded of these two events after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. When an attempt to humor some people enrages others, the question of political correctness of humor boils to the surface.
Of course, the freedom of speech horn that we toot so loudly does have bounds. In America and other democracies, while we usually do not prosecute for speaking one’s mind, we do vilify, ostracize and socially assassinate for doing so. Just ask Caucasian Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld, and in 2006 used the “N”word during a stand-up act. If you can find him. I think he’s living in a cave somewhere, eating berries.
Nobody gets away with using the “N” word except African- American people, and even then it’s offensive. Let’s say I decided to use the word in a column someday, I can assure you the editor and the publisher would not allow it.
In other words, moral boundaries make certain things off-limits. We don’t poke fun at the handicapped, children, even minorities, and those treading dangerous waters should do so knowing that, along with getting a few laughs, you are going to anger people and as we now know, possibly risk your life.
What if North Korea made a movie with a plot about the assassination of President Obama? What if that movie went viral, and America found itself playing whack-a-mole with inspired assassins? The Secret Service would need to stop snoozing. (Think the Secret Service would find that funny?)
As newspaper and magazine editors around the world struggle with the dilemma of whether or not to stand next to France and publish the cartoons that not only inflamed Muslim extremists but that are now actually newsworthy because of the events they triggered, a global, agonizing reappraisal of censorship and ethical responsibility is taking place.
Maybe the terrorists will win this argument. Is that all they want? Will they leave the world alone if we all agree not to draw funny cartoons about their prophet?
Nobody likes to have their holy figures lampooned. Maybe prophets and deities should be off-limits—as long as they are not used as political pawns. Add to the list world leaders. Oh, and kids, the handicapped, and all minorities. And columnists. Definitely columnists.