Friday, January 16, 2015

In the Defense of Humor: on the Margins of Charie Hebdo

As a kid I grew up learning to cherish humor as one of the most important things in life. I quickly learned that all things are temporary, and good things fade and sh*t happens as often as not. Being able to laugh at it all can save you from bitterness, depression and even ill health. It gives you the power to get up and fight for the thousandth time, when all others have long given up. It helps you to win where nobody expects you to. It helps you dream, fight, endure and not be broken by the things life throws at you. Humor's a skill, a treasure, but also a basic right. One that I cherish even above freedom of speech.

Events following last week's tragedy have transformed that act of violence into a battleground where thousands of people have since been marching and protesting for that most basic of rights. I've read different accounts of the situation, and there are numerous iterations making it essentially a worldwide fight for  freedom of speech. But many forget that this fight is not a religious war. Its aim is not to simply defend critical views of a certain religion, or even all religions. The attack on Charlie Hebdo and the events that followed also have another message, but I've rarely seen humor mentioned in commentaries. It is therefore this other most basic right I wish to make a case for.

Because humor IS essential. I know the attackers were fanatics of one religion, but let's face it, numerous religions and even political orientations have spawned such criminals in the past. Fanaticism is nothing new and one of its main enemies has always been satire. For the first step toward such extreme thinking always lies in establishing and barring off the 'unthinkable' and the 'unspeakable'. It all starts with marking topics that one cannot speak or laugh about. It all starts with losing one's sense of humor.

Because humor also allows you to approach and confront your fears. It enables you to think of the unthinkable and empowers you to laugh at the unspeakable. And, through all that thinking and laughing, it makes you stronger and smarter. I grew up learning the virtues of humor and, in turn, I learned a lot about the world.

I remember as a kid, to the outrage of some adults, I used to love satirical tales. You know, the ones where you laugh at the dumb and rejoice with the smart. Where you learn to trick death and misfortune and opponents can't but acknowledge the wit and humor of the protagonist. The tales where wits and a good sense of humor, instead of valor and law, can get you through life and more. I've been chastised, looked down and frowned on for my attitude, but let's face it. It's been a truer compass and a fairer guide than many religions I know. I owe a lot to my sense of humor.

Later on with some friends we took turns buying our local satirical paper every second week. We read it at school and in the afternoons, commenting on and debating some of the issues it addressed. Through it's cartoons I learned about politics and legal and international affairs. But most importantly I learned that there are no taboos and that points of view are just that. You can argue with anyone and anything, just as there's nothing you cannot talk about or laugh at. I also had to realize that you have to be sensitive to the views of others around you. Yes, you're free to think and laugh (in silence), but expressing all your thoughts might actually offend people you don't wish to.

So I learned to keep silent on certain matters with certain people, and humor was my only solace on these occasions. A smirk on my lips or a joke no one got was the only expression of my free spirit, but they were very important and precious to me. While my freedom of speech is often limited by good manners and a wish to be on good terms with people (many of whom I love and admire), my sense of humor has been undaunted. It is important for me to emphasize here that I don't mean anything malicious by this. I simply want to explain why I think the freedom to laugh is just as powerful a human right as that of speech. I don't mean to imply that we should give up the fight for the latter. I merely wish to point out that the former deserves some defending too.

Laughter's taught me so many things. In moments of complete despair, humorous aspects of my misery made me smile, stand up and go on. It also helped me understand things and see them in a different light: find solutions for impossible problems, because, really, every joke is half truth. But only half, and that makes it possible for me and many others to talk, half jokingly, about very serious things.

It's an ancient method of conquering one's fears. You have to be able to laugh at them. Imagining a horrifying teacher/boss wearing a Santa hat or a large audience with ruffled hair and pajamas on... And, believe me, most things are laughable if you really think about it. I simply refuse to give that power up. And nobody should. Humor, that most fundamental of rights, lives on. In all of us.


  1. It is very interesting and important story. Thanks for sharing it. I totally agree with you. Humor really gives the power to "fight, dream, endure and not be broken by the things life throws at you". Moreover, it is really a skill. Some people have in their nature, but any body can try to possess it.

  2. Wow, really love this phrase: "Humor, that most fundamental of rights, lives on. In all of us."