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<   No. 3366   2015-01-11   >

Comic #3366

1 {drawing of an AK-47 assault rifle}
1 Caption: Ceci n'est pas une liberté
2 {drawing of a pencil}
2 Caption: Ceci est une liberté

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I wasn't going to write this for today. I have another annotation all done, and had it uploaded and ready to go at the automatic update time.

Until, less than four hours before the update, I ran across this article, an interview with cartoonist Robert Crumb about his reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings which occurred in Paris this week.

I was, as anyone might reasonably expect, shocked and appalled at the attack, and the cold-blooded murders of so many people. With several of the victims being cartoonists, the shock was, for me, even more profound. Some people had decided to carry out a calculated and deadly attack on some other people, because those other people do a thing that I like to do.

I like to make comics and cartoons. Most of them are simple gags or humorous stories, but sprinkled amongst my output there are some biting satires as well. Satirical comedy is very much a branch of comedy, and I am happy to use it.

As I said, I wasn't going to make any comments about the Charlie Hebdo attack here. I don't want this channel of communication to you, my audience, to turn into a soapbox (I explained why here). But a few things in the interview comments by Robert Crumb prompted me to prove my rule.[1] Excerpting:

Interviewer: We don't have a context for this tradition here [the USA], merciless, political satire. One thing I keep noticing is commentators here are pointing out that the cartoons were very offensive and insulting. It's as if we don't understand that was by design. Very intentionally offensive, and very clear about why that couldn't be compromised. That's the part we don't get, as Americans. It's like, "Why did they have to be so mean?"

Crumb: It's a French thing, yeah, and they value that very highly here, which is why there's like a huge amount of sympathy for the killing of those guys. [...]

Interviewer: These guys were not trying not to offend, and that's what an American media-conditioned mind cannot understand. The idea that yes, you offend those who abuse power.

Crumb: All the big newspapers and magazines in American had all agreed, mutually agreed, not to print those offensive cartoons that were in that Charlie Hebdo magazine. They all agreed that they were not going to print those, because they were too insulting to the Prophet. Charlie Hedbo, it didn't have a big circulation. A lot of French people said, "Yes, it was tasteless, but I defend their right to freedom of speech." Yeah, it was tasteless, that's what they say. And perhaps it was. [...] Charlie Hebdo, they print so many insulting cartoons about Muslim extremists, you know, geez, they just kept at it, you know... but that wasn't the only people they insulted, they insulted everybody. The Pope, the President of the country, everybody! They were merciless, to everybody. It was a really funny magazine. They just didn't hold back towards anybody. You know, they didn't let anybody off the hook, which was good.

And this is something I think needs to be said more: You should be allowed to offend people.

Everyone should be allowed to offend anyone they want to. That's freedom of speech. Nobody, and nothing, and no topic, should be so precious or revered or "holy" that you're not allowed to offend people over it.

On the other side of the coin, you can be offended by anything you want. Don't like something? Fine, be offended. You have my blessing.

What you cannot do, is threaten violence against people who offend you. You can't beat them up. You can't firebomb their houses. You can't frickin' kill them! You can't restrict their freedoms because they say or do something you don't like. If someone says or does something you don't like, something that offends you - as long as it's not hurting anyone (and this is a very important point which I'll come back to in a second) - you don't get carte blanche to do anything whatsoever to them, except express your own freedom of speech by saying that you find it offensive.

(Coming back to that important point: If someone is saying something that harms other people, then they do not get "freedom of speech" on that issue. If someone wants to preach their pseudo-science anti-vaccination bullcrap - something which will kill innocent children if people start listening to it too much - sorry, you just lost your freedom of speech on that topic. Governments are perfectly justified in shutting your lying, murderous face the crap up. Yeah, I'm not pulling any punches today. Deal with it.)

But.

Nobody should be shutting anybody up for merely offending people. The American media mentioned by the Crumb interviewer above, and everybody else, needs to stop being so damn precious about not offending people. Freedom of speech is freedom to be offensive if you want.

Why would we want to be deliberately offensive? Shouldn't we all be nice to one another? In an ideal world, yes, that'd be lovely, and I'd support it in an instant.

But in case you hadn't noticed, we don't live in an ideal world. We live in a world where cartoonists get fricking shot in the head for drawing cartoons. They didn't eat babies, they didn't sell drugs, they didn't starve a dog or mug people. They drew cartoons.

People who would do senseless acts of violence like this, people who oppress women, people who treat others as inferior because of their skin colour or who they want to marry, people who push political agendas at the cost of lives or the environmental health of the planet we share - all of these people need to be ridiculed and lampooned. We need to show how stupid their actions are, so that we, as a society, can identify and deal with the things which harm us, now and in the future. They need to be offended, because, frankly, not offending them is unconscionable.

If you think I'm going too far here, if I'm offending your sensibilities on this issue, well, sorry. I have no desire to offend people - it pains me to do so. It's part of why I severely restrict my satirical commentary in this comic.

But, speaking of comics, have a think about what the world of comics would be without satire, and potentially offending people. Here are just a few of the comic artists who who have done potentially offensive satire: Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr Seuss), René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (Asterix), Hergé (Tintin), Gary Larson (The Far Side), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County), Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), Al Capp (Li'l Abner), Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts). Not to mention all of the purely editorial cartoonists out there. And I'm surely missing some other vastly significant names as well. Imagine comics without satire and you imagine it without those people.

Je suis Charlie.

I'll get off my soapbox now. Normal transmission will resume next week.


[1] The saying "The exception [that] proves the rule" always needs explanation in English, to point out that it's not supposed to mean that an exception proves a rule is true (which is patently silly), but that it uses an archaic meaning of the word "prove", meaning "test". The saying really means that "the exception tests the rule" - an exception provides a test case for determining if the rule is really true or not.

Many of you no doubt already know this, but I'm prompted to spend time on it now because I realised just the other day that this saying can help me to remember one of my Italian verbs (I am currently learning Italian). The Italian verb provare, as in the sentence "Io provo la torta," does not mean "prove" - it means "test" or "try". "Io provo la torta," means "I test/try the cake", not "I prove the cake".

This is almost certainly no coincidence. The archaic English meaning of "prove" as a synonym of "test" or "try" must be related to the Italian verb provare. And a quick check of the etymology confirms this. The English word "prove" comes from the Latin probare (meaning to test), via the Old French prover. (The Italian of course is a direct descendent of the Latin, thus establishing the link.)

So, one more Italian verb I can now never forget again!

EDIT: Readers have pointed out the archaic meaning of "prove" is also present in the English term "proving ground" and the idiom "the proof of the pudding is in the eating".

Meanwhile, and somewhat confusingly, other readers have pointed out that other languages have sayings analogous to English's "the exception that proves the rule". In the case of Dutch, for example, the saying is "De uitzondering die de regel bevestigt", which, oddly enough, means quite literally "the exception that confirms the rule", and not "the exception that tests the rule".

Confusing....!

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