After critiquing the Paris protesters’ reliance on Descartes, as laughter was never critical to Cartesian “I think therefore I am”, he writes:
Where they seem somewhat deficient, by contrast, is in the activation of a certain human capacity in the fourth mode,** and here we need to look to another vein of French history than the one represented by Cartesian philosophy, in order to find some noble precedents. I am thinking in particular of the tradition of satire, extending back to François Rabelais in the Renaissance (for whom in turn we can find cross-Mediterranean Arabic anticipations), which has run in constant parallel throughout French history to the lofty ambitions of rationalist philosophy, balancing out the self-serious claims of the philosophers by demonstrating just how fundamental laughter is to human existence. Their demonstrations proceed not through arguments, but through examples: sexual, scatological, blasphemous examples, otherwise known as ‘jokes’.It is this aspect of human existence –no, of the human essence– that is most under threat at present, and the assault is being helped along by many Europeans and Americans who do not understand what is at stake, who foolishly suppose that the limits of the low, great art of satire can be set by non-satirists: by politicians, blunt-minded functionaries, and holy warriors, the natural enemies of satire, who do not understand it and are afraid of it.
…While I won’t defend them all, I believe it is crucial for society to provide what we might think of as ‘satirist insurance’, which would grant the people who play this vital role the freedom to misfire, and not to be thrown to the lions when they do. It is their job to explore the boundary between biting social commentary and offense. They are not politicians, and they should not be held up to the same standards.
We are now entirely unable to understand that a rag that specializes in satirical caricatures has different rules governing its representations than those governing, say, a glossy brochure issued by a political party, or, what is nearly the same thing, an advertisement for some corporate product. Charlie Hebdo wasn’t in that business, and it’s that business that stands to gain most from the elimination of satire as a viable form of opposition. Descartes will survive whatever darkness awaits us. I’m more concerned about the prospects for Rabelais.
When we shut down satire, it’s the establishment politicians that win. Make it impossible to tell a joke, like some campus activists try to do, and you wind up being the most conservative possible force in the world. Ridicule and satire, at least as much as rational critique, are what bring down corrupt establishments. Shut down the satirists and, big picture, you’re supporting the status quo.
I love his footnote:
Many North Americans, commenting from afar, are saying that “Can’t you take a joke?” is never an acceptable response to an oppressed person who takes offense, and that satire has abnegated its purpose when it targets the powerless instead of the powerful. I dispute the first of these claims, and I deny that the second is relevant. As to the first, which is by now a sort of orthodoxy among self-identified progressive academics, committed to the infallible ‘epistemic privilege’ of pretty much anyone who ever takes offense at anything, what is missed here is the strange and arbitrary changing of the rules when an attempt at humor misfires. From an expectation that the humorist, in exploring the boundary between the sayable and the unsayable, will take on different voices, will impersonate the person who says what can’t be said, we suddenly shift to the expectation that the humorist only say things that are straightforwardly acceptable as propositional units of public discourse. When jokes fail, we suddenly impose on the jokers the same strict rules of uprightness that we had previously reserved for politicians. This is contrary to the spirit and logic of gelastics, and I reject it.
The self-appointed defenders of the voiceless in North American academia, conservatives who don’t even know they’re conservative, have no idea what the people they’ve appointed themselves to defend actually feel. Many of them are not voiceless: they’re using their voices to laugh, and contrary to what Descartes said this is not just a physiological reaction of the hydraulico-mechanical contraptions that are our bodies. It is human, and it is essential. Il faut se moquer: il faut.
Read the whole thing. It’s the best I’ve seen so far. “…committed to the infallible ‘epistemic privilege’ of pretty much anyone who every takes offense at anything” is such a great summary.