Friday, January 09, 2015

The uselessness of mockery

What self-dramatizing murderers did to the staff of Charlie Hebdo was completely reprehensible. But it illustrates the limitations of satire as a tool of persuasion.

Terrorist gunmen opened fire on a room full of unarmed people in retaliation for cartoons the killers deemed offensive. People who will do such things are a direct result of the human belief that killing and dying are glorious and admirable ways to express the highest devotion to the best ideals. It's a perversion of the concept of genuine sacrifice. But lots of people are fooled by fakes. The belief is real. The death is real. Does it matter if the logic is flawed? If it FEELS like a blaze of glory to them you'll never convince them that it is really the explosion of a flaming asshole.

People who have no sense of humor cause most of the problems in the world. They are also frequently laughable. The more seriously they take themselves, the more they invite ridicule. They create their own hell by trying to demand respect. But how many people will give up a heartfelt belief because someone made fun of them?

Terrorism takes many forms. Almost none of them are true combat. The targets are undefended, for the most part. Terrorism is part performance art, part temper tantrum.

We used to laugh at the idiot who gets stuck holding the bomb when it goes off. No one wanted to be that idiot. Now it's a career path.

People who like to kill other people will not give it up because someone drew an insulting picture of them or got a roomful of people to laugh at jokes about them. They will seethe and simmer and stir up a bunch of similarly nasty people to inflict pain and damage to show how tough they are. How tough are they if they can't take a joke? It doesn't matter: they're armed and dangerous and totally into it.

Well-expressed ridicule of asinine ideas may help divert uncommitted people from them. And it's addictive. But it has to be a gateway to serious discussion. Continual mockery without mercy ends up feeding the problem more than fighting it, pretty much no matter what the problem is.

That being said, we need intelligent satirists making humorous critical observations. We need to be able to laugh at people in power to remind the people in power to laugh at themselves. We need to be able to laugh at them so we don't do something worse. We're better off with people who beat a joke to death than with people who beat other people to death. But the people who measure worth in terms of killing and dying are a tough audience, a stone cold room where you don't want to bomb, because they'll bomb you back.

You may say it takes courage to stand up to such people, and that it needs to be done. Unfortunately, the kind of people who shot up Charlie Hebdo are psychopaths who are completely unimpressed with philosophical arguments and noble gestures. Homicidally self-righteous people aren't just bullies to face down. And the bigger players who manipulate the actual perpetrators don't care about world opinion either. They're convinced they have a winning strategy. It certainly is a formidable one. They're using psychological handles that go back many thousands of years, to the dawn of consciousness and the first awareness that each and every one of us dies. Rather than find in this knowledge a sense of unity with all life, the manipulators have always seen a way to gain power by exploiting people's fear.

The cartoons and commentaries might give some of us a moment of relief from the craziness. We who are capable of laughing share a few as we shake our heads and go, "that's so true!" For a moment it seems like a universal truth.

The one universal truth is that someone will always disagree. When you discover another one, let me know.