I was busy doing work stuff last week, mostly end of term conferences, student meetings, and faculty meetings. I didn’t get a chance to write a regular blog post, but I made sure to collect some links along the way.
First up, a terrific column by Caleb Crain on the debate over American PEN’s decision to honor the Charlie Hebdo staff (there is a shorter version at the LA Times as well). There has been much heated conversation on both sides, completed with high-minded and not so high-minded rhetoric. Crain cuts to what I think is a crucial point of departure for the two sides:
The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were captioned in French, and they depended for their meaning on memes that won’t be familiar to anyone who isn’t a regular reader of French newspapers and watcher of French television. I can read French, but I don’t keep up on French domestic politics, and I draw a complete blank when I first look at most Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the past week, many people have said they aren’t funny, and yeah, I have to agree. They aren’t funny. I think there are two reasons. First, they’re puerile—pitched at roughly a Mad Magazine level of sophistication—and in the American ecosystem, editorial cartoons are usually a little more tony, and don’t seem to have as broad a permission to engage with racial imagery as movies and comics do. Taste is to a great extent learned, and I’m afraid that an American reader of my ilk just isn’t likely to find vulgar and puerile cartoons about politics much to his taste. But second, and more globally, Americans can’t find these cartoons funny simply because the cartoons always have to be explained to us. We don’t recognize the political figures being caricatured; we don’t know the political slogans being tampered with; and we haven’t surfed the particular waves of enthusiasm and disgust that have been flooding French political life lately, and on the surge of whose waves these cartoons sprang into being. In America the waves that flooded us were a little different.
By this point, I’ve probably tipped my hand, and I’ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table: I don’t happen to think Charlie Hebdo is racist or bigoted, and I think that some of the American writers who have condemned it must have had the subtitles off while they were trying to make a determination that can be tricky to make even about an American message designed for American consumption. More than three million French citizens rallied in solidarity withCharlie Hebdo a few days after the January murders. Were those marchers complicit with racism or bigotry at the newspaper, or unwilling or unable to recognize them? Maybe, but I doubt it. There’s a debate worth having about whether the French policy oflaïcité is a sufficiently merciful and flexible way for a democracy to handle the separation of church and state, but I strongly doubt that there would have been such a broad outpouring of support forCharlie Hebdo in France if it had been a French analog of the Westboro Baptist Church. When it comes to telling whether a French newspaper smells sweet or sour, I think the French are likely to have the more discerning noses.
While we all recognize aspects of humor that are universal, we are often less aware of how cultural contextualized humor can be, and especially how much the boundaries of what is funny (as opposed to offensive) are set by cultural norms. I find that USians in general are less comfortable with satire than some other cultures, and many of us don’t do discomfort in humor well. Many comics will tell you that comedy has its roots in anger, but I’m not sure how many audience members fully appreciate that.