January 9, 2015

Ridiculing, Mocking, and Satirizing Religion

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day - Mohammed by Hlkolaya
Everybody Draw Mohammed Day - Mohammed by Hlkolaya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Philosopher Stephen Law (The Outer Limits with Stephen Law) wrote an informative post following the Charlie Hebdo murders in which he explains the point of making fun of religion. While he is understandably focused on Islam, I believe that what he says applies to all religious traditions, figures, and institutions. For this reason, I encourage anyone who has questioned the utility of mockery, ridicule, or satire directed at religion to read his post.

Law begins by explaining that the point of mocking, ridiculing, and/or satirizing religious figures, traditions, institutions, or beliefs is not usually to offend religious believers. Such content certainly may produce offense among believers; however, this is not usually the primary goal.

This is an interesting point and sure to be controversial. If offending Muslims is not the aim of mocking Mohammad, then what is? If someone's primary goal is not to provoke outrage or offense among the religious, then why would use ridicule, mockery, or satire? Law offers two reasons:
  1. Through laughter, people may be helped to recognize the truth about the subject matter.
  2. Ridicule, mockery, and satire are all forms of free expression that are under assault (e.g., blasphemy laws). When more of us use them, we make their use safer for everyone, protecting the right to free expression from those who seek to destroy it.
On the role of laughter in helping us realize the truth, Law writes:
The Hans Christian Anderson story The Emperor’s New Clothes ends with much mocking of the Emperor as he parades pompously around town while stark naked. The hilarity begins with that small boy who points and laughs. His laughter has a revelatory effect on those around him. Suddenly, as a result of that one boy pointing and laughing, everyone else realizes they’ve been duped. The spell that held them captive is broken. They recognize the truth.
He explains that mockery and satire are tools that can be used to undermine the "attitudes of immense reverence and deference" that protect religious figures, traditions, and institutions. And while he acknowledges that mockery, ridicule, and satire certainly can be used merely to offend religious believers, he suggests that the more common goal is one of disrupting the protective shield that often seems to surround religion. I think he's right. Ridicule, mockery, and satire can be useful in putting religious ideas on the same level playing field as all other ideas.

In support of the second reason, Law refers to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's statement about how exercising our right to mock, ridicule, and satirize religion helps "spread the risk." If one person draws Mohammed, that person is an easy target. If we all draw Mohammed...you get the idea. By exercising our rights and joining with those who exercise theirs, we signal that we will not give in to fear or resort to self-censorship. And since free speech seems to be under attack these days, it is important that we affirm such a basic right.

Law concludes his post with a nod to the many reasonable Muslims out there who are equally horrified by what happened in Paris as the rest of us.
There are a number of sensible and thoughtful Muslims prepared bravely to stand up and do just this: to themselves commit the 'offence' of showing a cartoon of Mohammad, and so begin to take back a freedom that’s increasingly being lost to fear and self-censorship . We should applaud them. Their reason for repeating the ‘offence’ is very clearly not ‘to upset Muslims’.
I think this is an important point, one which is easy to lose amidst all our outrage. These Muslims are our friends, our neighbors, our allies. They too reject the violence of religious extremism. They too stand up for free speech.
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