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Monday, April 15, 2024

Charlie: of cultures and humour

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You could go to jail, even if you don’t mean it…a quote from the 1993 hit political thriller ‘In The Line Of Fire’ as secret service agent Frank Horrigan played by Clint Eastwood warns would-be assassin John Malkovich’s Mitch Leary after the latter announces his intention to assassinate the President of the United States.



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Clearly the security of the American President is of such importance that it cannot be trivialised in jest or humor. So, if such reverence is accorded to the safety and security of the big man in the White House to the extent that one cannot even joke about it, why do Seth Rogen and James Franco feel that making a comedy about the assassination of a foreign leader like North Korean president, Kim Jong-un, constitutes entertainment that can be filed under the freedom of expression cabinet? The issue of humour and satire can also be filed under the concept of cultural relativism. It however becomes cultural imperialism when one side imposes its understanding of humour on the other.


Rogen and Franco may find their movie’s storyline less humorous if the character at the end of their satirical jab was the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Canada which has been registered as the official homeland of Seth Rogen. Freedom of expression and the right to free speech may have their merits as long as they remain restricted to personalities, characters and events indigenous to a particular geographical locality.

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A North Korean cannot make a movie inciting violence against the White House and call it a right to free speech. It is likely to be construed as an act of provocation. A lot of attention has been given to the Paris massacre which took away the lives of cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine.


The events were indeed tragic and the arguments sanctifying free speech and freedom of expression that have followed the shootings have been splendid and inspiring but is anybody wondering why the western media does not make it a habit of satirizing tragic events such as the holocaust or 9/11?


Obviously certain subject matters are sacred and are therefore inappropriate for ridicule.


The sensibilities of Western journalists may permit the parody of foreign cultural elements that have no meaning to the west, but that does not mitigate the sensitive nature of these subject matters. Clearly there is a western media fallacy, which presumes that the rest of the world embraces the West’s version of humour. Care must be taken not to confuse a joke with an insult and entertainment with disrespect.


The fact that Charlie Hebdo won’t make cartoons about the Holocaust nor would an American director joke about the assassination of his President shows that as sacred as freedom of expression may be it still has its limits.

Humour is culturally relative, what the French reader regards as funny could be offensive to a non-French.


The satirist therefore becomes more effective and responsible when he limits his satire to a specific cultural milieu endeavoring to render satirical humor more suitable and less harmful. Resorting to killing, torture or physical harm to make a point, on the other hand, is a cowardly act perpetrated by the most despicable of men.


By William Manful


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