The World as Satire?

You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.
– Art Buchwald

I’ve been laid up all week with a sore knee – actually, sore is not the word for it, more like pain to the nth degree – and as a result, haven’t done much other than read and watch TV. And think.

I keep mulling over the questions about free speech and censorship raised by the tragic Charlie Hebdo incident. And this will probably be my last word on that subject for a while. I think the bottom line on this issue was stated succinctly the other day by none other than Riss, head of publication for Charlie Hebdo, who was injured during the attack. He said, “If you don’t like the magazine, you don’t read it, you push it aside.”

This echoes the approach laid out by the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BCE: “If you do not wish to have your heart disturbed by desire, then do not look at objects of desire.” So, if you do not wish to be offended, do not look at things you find offensive. Don’t like that a certain film has nudity, don’t watch the film. Don’t like what someone is saying on TV, change the channel.

At the same time, there can be a fine line between what is satirical and what is offensive. The legendary comedian Lenny Bruce once used the N-word 22 times in short piece of shtick that lasted about 30 seconds. He said at the end of the routine, “Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He went on to say that if you used the word repeatedly until it “didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” I’m not sure Lenny was right about that, but nonetheless, he was hailed as a genius.

Decades later when Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) repeatedly used the N-word at the Laugh Factory, it didn’t work and he was labeled a racist. What was the difference? Simply that Richard, whom I don’t believe intended to be racist, didn’t have a point. He was merely trying to shock, entertain. And he ended up being offensive.

Still, making fun of things just for the fun of it is, well, fun. I guess it comes down to how it’s done . . .

I’ve also been thinking about how Islam is not the only religion that is sensitive about images of its founder. During Buddhism’s first six centuries, no images of Buddha were ever made. Instead, he was represented by a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf. We have long passed that era but today in certain Asian countries where the more fundamentalist branch of Theravada is the predominate form of Buddhism, folks can be touchy about how Buddha is portrayed.

The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.
The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals are facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. In August, a Canadian tourist was expelled for having a Buddha tattoo and a Spanish tourist was expelled in September for his Buddhist tattoo.

Last April, A British tourist was arrested as she arrived at the airport in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo after authorities spotted a traditional, non-satiric tattoo of Buddha sitting atop a Lotus flower on her right arm.

It’s a fine line, all right. You can err by being offensive, you can also be overly sensitive. I don’t find the Buddha with headphones image offensive, but then I’ve been guilty of creating some less than traditional images of Buddha myself . . . just for the fun of it . . .

From a 2010 post, here is a scene from the Dairyvatara or “Sutra of the Decent to Dairy Queen”:

buddha-dq

In 2011, I wondered what the stereotypical American Buddhist looked like . . .

Not content to insult the original Buddha, I’ve also lampooned the “Second Buddha”:

badass-nagarjuna2

I’ve even had to audacity to depict The Marx Brothers as iconic Bodhisattvas – here’s their statues in Guru Hall at Whyaduck Temple:

Guru-Hall

Well, whaddya expect from a guy who doesn’t even take himself very seriously?

I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.
– Stephen Colbert

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Free Speech, Right Speech: Teetering on a Razor’s Edge

I support the principle of free speech and stand in solidarity with the French in the aftermath of yesterday’s terror attack. I am sure most all of you do as well. But today I am not inclined to give myself over to expressions of outrage and defiance, which seem to me right now as little more than mere emotionalism and sloganeering. I have seen too many news reports of terror attacks in my years to be outraged. I am too weary to be very defiant. Instead, I have questions.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri articulated the questions in my mind rather well at the opening of the 83rd session of The U. N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year in Geneva:

Where does the right of expression, which we all want to respect, stop and the need to sanction and prevent hate speech begin? What is the point in time when one right has to recognize that it cannot be exercised if it implies the violation of another one?”

Does free speech go too far if it is harmful to others? It’s a rather old question, actually. It was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a hundred years ago in Schenck v. United States, (1919), a case that revolved around free speech during World War I. The court concluded that the defendant (Schenck) had no First Amendment right to express freedom of speech against the draft during the war. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion that included this line, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic . . .”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Thus, it was Holmes who gave us the famous metaphor of “Shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I don’t get how he reasoned that to express one’s opinion on the morality of a wartime draft presented a “clear and present danger,” but that is another discussion.

In a free society, everyone should have a right to hold and express any opinion. Justice Holmes qualified his decision with the word “falsely.” So, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, does opinion need to have a factual basis? Usually, no. But that does not mean it is wise to offer opinions that are based solely on supposition, assuming facts not verified.

The second question might be does the right to free speech include a right to offend? In this most recent case, the alleged offense is against religious sensibilities and beliefs. What we see in the West as relatively harmless satire is to many Muslims, even moderate ones, hate speech.

Yesterday’s attack was against Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper. The cover of a 2011 issue depicted a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammed and teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad. This religious dictum does not justify the savage murder of 12 people. But it does provoke questions about whether journalists, even those engaged in the business of satire, should be more sensitive to religious beliefs. In the global public sphere, does the sacred dictum of the West that “nothing is sacred” trump Islam’s sacred dictum regarding images of the Prophet? Just because we have the right to free speech, is it always wise and/or proper to exercise it?

Religion was often the target of Charlie Hebdo’s satire.  Religion isn’t as popular these days as it once was. Even those of us who are “spiritual” may have little use for “religion.”  In being dismissive, need we be disrespectful?

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but wonder how we might strike a balance between free speech and “right speech,” an ideal found in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

The Dasabhumaka Sutra says,

“Whatever speech is unpleasant, whatever hurts one’s own nature or others, that is speech the bodhisattva avoids . . .”

What hurts one’s own nature or others can take many forms, and can be born from misunderstanding and thoughtlessness as well as hate and prejudice. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to simply dismiss Muslims as thin-skinned, denounce their violence, and leave it at that.  Nowadays, disgusted as I am, having been a witness to these unrelenting cycles of violence for so long, I am more interested in how concepts such as right speech and deep listening might be pathways to solutions. I am more interested in trying to understand the other side than I am in placing blame and demanding accountability.

Writing now, something else occurs to me, about to what extent religious sensibilities are used as political weapons. Muslims seem to be a devout people; yet many of them have no problem using their religion a propaganda tool. Arab Nations like to cast themselves as spiritual warriors righteously fighting a religious war against “infidels”, and they use this same ideology to agitate believers against the West. We do much the same thing, only we are the champions of democracy and free speech.

Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?

Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?

– The Moody Blues

I don’t have the answers. Just suggestions, what ifs.

Je suis Charlie. I, you, we are all Charlie but if the world is ever going to change at some point we must also be Abdul and Fareed and Rabiya. I wrote above that I wanted to avoid sloganeering. But here I go. Not afraid. Without a doubt, we should not be afraid in the face of terrorism, never forsake our liberty of expression. Fear, though, can be a double-edge sword. Not afraid should also mean not fearing to use our liberty to express right speech, kind speech, and to open our hearts to the concerns of others. Why is it that when responsible leaders suggest offering an olive branch of understanding to Islam and the Middle East they are vilified for it and labeled as weak? It seems to me that kindness and understanding and empathy are strategies that have not yet been employed in this long, long war between our two cultures. Not afraid? I wonder  . . .

Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph)
Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/The Telegraph)
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