A colleague of mine, Theo, has the one of the most delicious turns of phrase (usually delivered just prior to doing something…risqué) - “fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke”. Which, as far as distilled bon mots go, is just about perfect.
Fuck 'em if they can’t take a joke.
Something that most people don’t realise is that you don’t get to go through life without being offended. You have no sacred right to sail along without ever being presented with something that might upset you. That’s just…well life.
One of my favourite interactions in my time as a comedian came when I was doing a show at a pub in a blue-collar Sydney pub. I’d done a particularly cutting line about the idiocy of then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott which had about 90% of the crowd laughing and clapping. After the show a woman approached me and said “you shouldn’t do that Tony Abbott line”. To which I replied with “why not?”. “Because I found it offensive”.
“So you’re telling me that a line that I do in my show, which you saw the vast majority of the crowd enjoy, should be cut from my act because you, just one person, found it offensive? What makes you so special?” I cut her deeply with that one. She literally had no comeback. She just huffed and walked away. She was so sure of herself, of her world views and the supreme rightness of every value she held, that she could not countenance someone disagreeing with her. More to the point, and the part that I found scary, was that she was obviously so unused to being challenged on this myopic and entitled view of the world that she had nothing to retort with.
Fuck 'em if they can’t take a joke.
This is my own personal little tale, so insignificant in the grander scheme of things that it barely rates a mention. Or it would be if it were not replicated in a much larger and infinitely more tragic scale in Paris earlier this week.
Charlie Hebdo, for all the criticisms leveled against them, were only telling jokes. They were telling the jokes that needed to be told - challenging the institutions that thought themselves above reproach, that take themselves far too seriously. And Charlie Hebdo, in that sacred duty that all comedians are bound by, that so many comedians fail to heed, the Charlie Hedbo staff took those institutions to task. And for that they paid a terrible price, when ANY price would have been far too high.
Your beliefs are your own thing. They’re an internal thing - the little rules that you use to plot your own course through this crazy little journey we all call “life”. You can’t foist them on anyone else.
No one else has to subscribe to your beliefs. Certainly no one else has to respect them either - at least insofar as because they are your beliefs.
“You have to respect other people’s beliefs” Why? Your beliefs are to be respected only as far as you can rationally debate them. As you can advocate them and prove, with reason and discourse, that they are worthy.
Personally I believe in equity. I believe that all men and women are born equal. I believe in socialism and taxation and big government. I believe in abortion and euthanasia. I believe that there is no god, no afterlife, no great spirituality to the universe and that we are nothing more and certainly nothing less than a sustained chemical reaction that for the briefest of moments walked one planet in trillions in a universe so vast as to escape comprehension and that this is intensely liberating and infinitely inspiring.
And when questioned on my beliefs I am able to argue my position with knowledge and experience and eloquence such that I have convinced others of my views at best and at worst resolved to agree to disagree in civic amicability.
That is the measure of my belief. I have never felt the need to threaten or hurt someone for not sharing my views on life, the universe and everything. Because if I did I’d be forced to confront the fact that maybe my convictions, if someone else could not reach them organically, just maybe they might be wrong. And when someone else presents a view to me that I am not able to rebut, that I can’t find any compelling evidence against, likewise I start to question my own convictions. Being open to new ideas, to adapt to new evidence as it presents itself, is how we grow as a species. The opposite is how we die.
If you feel the need to murder someone because you feel they have offended your beliefs, then you need to start with questioning yourself. Because it is your faith that is being called into question, not anyone else’s. If you feel that your belief system can be undermined by someone writing an article, or drawing a cartoon or making a joke, then it is your faith that is misplaced. How can your religion be the complete, unassailable truth and the answer to everything if you feel the need to punish someone for making a joke about it? If your religion was so right, if it was the divine will of “God”, then surely these sinners would see that they had it all wrong and would repent on their own wouldn’t they?
If an institution is threatened by jokes about it, then it is flawed and worthy of ridicule. If an institution is so fragile that it can be undone by satire, then it deserves to be. If it is strong enough, if it is worthy of reverence then it will endure such jokes and be made all the stronger for them. But so often such institutions cannot, and rather than face the reality that that which they’ve given their lives to - the unalienable truth and reason for the universe - is flawed and wrong, people will instead lash out with hatred and violence.
If you’re offended by something then the first place to look is within yourself. Because that offense is a sign of a chink in the armour of your faith and a sign that it may not be as strong as you tell yourself.
And that is why it is so important that we, as comedians, continue to make such jokes. We think differently to the herd, that’s why we’re comedians. We’re so often unbound by faith and dogma and any form of “-ism” that it is incumbent upon us to bring attention to it when we see it. Anything else is a dereliction of duty. Charlie Hebdo understands this, we should all be Charlie.
Because fuck 'em if they can’t take a joke.