You don’t need me to quote a whole load of stats and studies at you in relation to how laughter can be an exceptionally healing medium. For years I’ve been saying that the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon books should be made free on the NHS to all and sundry. Far cheaper for the state for those amongst us who might be suffering with a case of the old ‘black dogs.’
What shocked me the most about the recent brutal killing of the French journalists was not so much the utterly abhorrent and evil act itself – but the polarity of discourse in relation to what led to the attacks. I’m sure that there are some better examples than the ones that I’ve been exposed to but so far it seems to be either ‘an attack on democracy’ or ‘this is the fault of multiculturalism and pandering too much to the muslims.’ Where’s the context? Where’s the invitation for some proper plans and projects to unravel some of this horrible lack of understanding which has been allowed to develop between those members of the human species who seem to have been segregated into two camps – ‘muslims’ and ‘non muslims.’ Are we facing a new apartheid? Whatever religious (or non-religious) thought we happen to follow, do we really want to buy into this kind of rhetoric?
So here’s my own, personal context and a couple of examples. Regular readers of this blog may be aware that half of my family of origin are ‘muslims.’ But that my own background has also involved exposure to extremist religious thought. No – not those pesky muslims again whaddartheylike – but extremist christianity. I won’t bore you with what all of this entailed (and to be honest – it’s actually that juicy that I’m saving it for my autobiography) but suffice to say that there was a time when I had a lot more sympathy with those particular minority followers of Islam who get all sniffy (or murderous) about whether Mohammed was being dissed or not. You see, affluent christians in the west also got/get naffed off about New Age crystal-twirling, scientists who tell us that we are descendents of monkeys, Harry Potter and films that portray Jesus as being a bit racy. Some of these people nearly pee their pants over the line ‘He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!’
Yesterday I had a bit of a flashback to 1989. I remembered that when it came to Salman Rushdie and the fatwa, I had been thinking along these lines “Well of course the man should be able to write whatever he wants. This is a democracy! But come on… he was a bit daft…surely he should have realised what would happen…” I ran this dusty old memory past my other half too and his recollection of 1989 had been similar, but with a twist of; “and what will the cost to the taxpayer’s purse of his posh literary wibblings be now that he have to pay for his protection day and night…?” (sheesh – and people say Yorkshiremen are tight – you wanna meet a Brummie-born boy!)
The interesting point of all of this though – is that both of us have come to the same conclusion. Perhaps it’s been a result of the jobs that we’ve both done. Perhaps it’s having travelled the world and met zillions of different people with different religious persuasions and political opinions. Perhaps it’s maturity. Or perhaps it’s because I now believe much more in tackling the roots of where extremism comes from rather than heading off on a knee-jerk reaction – a witch hunt. For me there is a very real, close to home fear of a backlash against muslims whenever any kind of atrocity carried out by some sicko in the name of so-called Islam takes place. I remember just a couple of days after 9/11 when a friend of my sister in law – who also wears a hijab – was wandering down the frozen food aisle of Asda when she was suddenly approached by a skinhead who grabbed her, punched her in the face and spat “that’s for The Towers – paki bitch!”)
But perhaps it’s simply a matter of maturity. Either way – my sentiment these days towards Salman Rushdie and the french cartoonists and their equivalents is this – if someone else creates something – whether it be words, art, music or a cartoon – that makes you feel defensive, scared, angry or insulted about a set of beliefs that you happen to have about the way the world works, then the first port of call for judge n’ jury should be with yourself. Those extreme emotions are about you. Not the person who gave birth to an opinion or an act of creation.
There was an incident recently in a Derbyshire school where a headteacher was vilified for having copied the Roger McGough poem ‘The Lesson’ into her ‘welcome back to school’ newsletter. You can read a local news report about it here. http://bit.ly/1wYvm70
At the far end of the spectrum, many parents were horrified, were disgusted, cue newspaper headlines etc. At the other end of the scale, lots of us were thinking “well – that was a bit of an error of judgement on her part – I mean it IS an amusing poem but doesn’t the headteacher realise that lots of parents lack a sense of humour when it comes to their children and jokes about violence? Big miscalculation!” But there we have it, don’t we? Is this an act of creation (by Roger McGough, by the teacher wanting to share a funny poem with jaded parents) – that has fallen victim to another set of beliefs that folk are not allowed to offend or to produce anything a little bit quirky or non run-of-the-mill? Or what?
What do we think about that one? We live in a democracy, the headteacher didn’t joke about Islam… and the life of this excellent teacher hasn’t been threatened. But her job and standing in the community has been challenged because she said or did (or reproduced something) in a manner that offended some people. People get so upset… even about these comparatively small things…
But returning to challenging extremism of any kind. One of my favourite writers is a chap named Adrian Plass (he’s probably the most well known modern Christian writer in the world these days – sort of a more humourous version of CS Lewis.) Anyway, the folk that I used to hang out with during my hate-mail to Monty Python days felt that our Adrian was far too rude about christianity (even though his books unashamedly set out to teach your about it – I mean the guy’s hardly Aleister Crowley). They felt that he was too ‘irreverent’ and ‘disrespectful.’ But there was something in the fella’s writing that always touched me. Honesty and humour in relation to the human condition, I guess. But what offended the anti-Adrian folk the most was that he was poking fun at them (as well as himself, cause if you can’t do that… then you really need to get out a bit more eh?)
And back to the cartoons. As well as being the perfect antidote to a really crappy day, or a really bleak mood – I still swear by Bill Watterson’s stuff. But more than that. I began to read Calvin and Hobbes at the same time when I was plotting to block the entrances to shops that sold Halloween outfits. And thank the Good Lord that I did… because such dry wit and humour took the edge of my more fundy tendencies. I was introduced to new words, concepts, debates – as well as the wonders of having an imaginary tiger as a pet, of course. I learned that ‘Calvinism’ was actually something to be mocked – a group of people to feel sorry for – rather than something to aspire to (and yeah – I’m actually serious again with regards to that little comment…)
And this is what a clever artist – whether it be a painter, a film-maker, a cartoonist or a writer does. And it isn’t just about poking fun at the establishment, at an economic system or a religion. It’s about harnessing an element of the human condition and communicating it to others. Learning by stealth, perhaps. For me- it isn’t just about protecting the rights of those journalists to produce their work without fear of being attacked. It’s about sticking up for the teacher who might have dared to have said or done something slightly different than the norm and who has used an outlandish sense of humour. It’s about having some tolerance for those who have different beliefs from you and it’s about never – ever – thinking about using violence against someone for an act of creation.
(Unless of course it’s Russell Howard – because I find some of his jokes to be really offensive. And my other half going ‘JUST LEAVE THE ROOM THEN, YOU DAFT BINT’ simply doesn’t scratch my itch sufficiently…)
“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”-Luther
RIP Charlie B Guys.
IN MEMORY OF SIMON J BYRNE – THE BEST FRIEND, SATIRIST AND WRITER THAT THE WORLD NEVER KNEW.