Friday, January 16, 2015

The Illiberal Liberals and Pope Francis on Freedom of Expression

Bill Maher: When Anger Dresses
Up as Humor it is no less toxic 

I am a fan of The Big Bang Theory and there probably isn’t an episode I haven’t seen at least once, but I still get a bit queasy and want to change the channel when I see Howard do his imitation of Stephen Hawking’s synthesized speech.   Professor Hawking has been on the show and almost certainly doesn’t mind, but I am not sure where the line is on making fun of a person with a disability or a challenge.  Just because the person being mocked doesn’t mind doesn’t make it right. 
I think we have, at least in the United States and at least among those of us who weren’t raised by wolves (or white trash), a social consensus that we don’t make fun of people with disabilities or with what we often call today “special needs.”  To make fun of a person with Down’s Syndrome or with Cerebral Palsy is called bullying.  We don’t do it; we don’t tolerate it.  Similarly the sort of mockery of people for distinctive racial or ethnic features that was the staple of cartoonists such as Thomas Nast or Friz Freleng would not be tolerated today.  Julius Streicher was the Nazi Cartoonist whose anti-Semitic drawings in Der Stürmer helped turn the German people against the Jews in Hitler’s Reich; we recognize the evils to which he made a significant contribution.   One certainly doesn’t denigrate women in today’s responsible press.  Nor is it acceptable to make broad statements or reinforce stereotypes of the LGBTQ community.  But isn’t it great fun to mock people for their religious beliefs? 
There are people who have reacted strenuously to Pope Francis for saying that people should not be mocked for their religious beliefs.  This is seen as an attack on “freedom of expression.”  What many people today do not realize is the difference between “freedom” and “license.”  Freedom recognizes that it carries along with it responsibility.  License is nothing more than the unbridled indulgence of self-willed egotists.  It refuses to be accountable to either objective truth or to the sensitivities and rights of others.  Those who make fun of others for their religious beliefs are simply schoolyard bullies on a larger scale.
Several weeks ago I saw Bill Maher on Conan.  Mr. Maher is one of religion’s most irresponsible critics and produced and starred in Religulous, the 2008 documentary that pretty much tarred all religion with the same choleric brush.  He also is not a nice man.  Anger, no, actually a discretely muffled rage, best described his performance on Conan.   Rage is no foundation for humor.  Anger in any and all forms, the Dalai Lama says, is poison.  And it is.  Nothing more; nothing less.  It destroys people from within like a cancer, spreading out from the gut into the whole person and becoming an obsession that distorts the individual’s power for healthy relationships and eats away their capacity for joy.  Anger or Rage is also highly contagious and spreads like a spiritual cholera from one person to another by even the most casual of contact.  Just look at how the bias against Muslims has spread in our society and in Western Europe, spread to the point where Duke University had to rescind its permission for the Adhān (the Call to Prayer) to be chanted from the chapel bell tower for fear of violence against the University and its campus.   Of course there are those who want to silence the bells in church towers as well or prohibit the display of crosses on the outside of church-owned buildings.  We must be careful because to undermine the freedom of public expression for one religion is potentially to undermine the public expression of any and all religion.
This is not to say that religion must be above criticism.  Rational argument is far different from mockery whether the mockery is in the form of cartoons, films, jokes, literature, or art.  Religion, like every other aspect in our lives, needs to be put under the microscope of free, rational, and responsible critique.  But the Pope is right.  It is no more legitimate to mock the religious beliefs of some or any or all than it is to bully the developmentally challenged, the transgendered, the economically disadvantaged, the ethnic minority, or the physically handicapped.  It is time we grew up and faced our biases rather than make them clever conceits that massage our egos into thinking that we are superior to others who are different from us.    


  1. So can comedians not make jokes about the institutional Church in the same way that they make jokes about politics? For instance, I would consider a cartoon of Burke in his laciest vestments yelling that the Church is too feminine to get incredibly funny but Burke's supporters would find that offensive. Where does legitimate criticism and satire end and offense begin?

  2. I think we can poke fun at individuals for their idiosyncrasies and that is different than attacking them for their convictions. Political cartoonists like to draw President Obama with large sticking-out ears. No one things that is offensive. It would be offensive to draw him with the features of an ape or a monkey or with a bone in his nose. (I shudder to even write this.)
    In the same vein, I would be a hypocrite if I said that it was off limits to joke about Cardinal Burke saying that men need to dress like men when he gets fancied up in the most outre of ecclesiastical finery. But that is different than attacking sincerely held beliefs and convictions. I think that religion and religious faith can be seriously critiqued but serious critique is a respectful process--it takes seriously that which it is examining. I believe that when it comes to their convictions, people should be treated with respect.