PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
When I was a teenager, there were few inviolate principles among my friends, but this was one of them: as long as you express yourself in the form of a joke, you can be as tasteless as your imagination or your memory allows. Bathroom humor? The best! Racist humor? A close second. Gay jokes? Talk about mother’s milk.
How about Holocaust jokes? Yes, my friends and I were aficionados of those too – the sicker the jokes, the harder we laughed. (And no, this isn’t something that makes me proud.) There was a point where I couldn’t think of a pizza without hearing the line in my head about what makes a pizza different from a Jew -- it doesn’t scream when you put it into the oven. And then there was that line about how many Jews you can fit in a Volkswagen – four in the seats and six million in the ashtray. That one was told on a number of occasions.
Yeah, I remember those days. Funny, but as an adult, I don’t hear that trash so much any more. I guess that’s what growing up is all about – we learn not only that there’s more to life than off-color jokes, but we’re thankful for that fact. And this is precisely why we all need to reflect a bit before taking on the topic that so many people are talking about this week – South Park’s decision to edit out scenes depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a bear mascot costume.
You’ve presumably heard the story by now. A website called Revolutionmuslim.com posted a statement saying “We have to warn Matt and Trey [South Park’s creators] that what they are doing is stupid. They will probably end up like Theo Van Gogh [the murdered Dutch filmmaker] for airing this show.” And what happened as a result of this thinly-veiled threat? The suits at the Comedy Central network, valuing the lives of their employees, decided to cut the scene at issue.
So what was the general media reaction? First of all, it is de rigueur to point out that only a savage would threaten violence to someone merely for poking fun at religion in the form of a cartoon. Secondly, some have complained that by removing the references to Muhammad, Comedy Central is guilty of encouraging terrorism; once people know that this kind of threat can be effective, why shouldn’t terrorists threaten violence whenever they want to get their way about something? But the reaction that I found most interesting was the one presented on what is probably my favorite current TV program: Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. While the segment will derive its notoriety primarily from its ending, a choir singing “Go Fuck Yourselves” to Revolutionmuslim.com, what I found most notable was the way the segment began. Stewart, in one of his self-congratulatory moments, played a montage of Daily Show jokes at the expense of religion – jokes aimed at Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists … even the Amish – with the point being that making fun of religion on TV is itself a holy enterprise, and who the F are these “Revolutionsmuslim” people to tell us that we have to stop.
My take on this situation is different than Stewart’s in some respects, and similar in others. Obviously, the folks at Revolutionmuslim.com are indeed savages. Violence is NEVER an appropriate response to humor, however tasteless that humor might be. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist, or Jon Stewart for that matter, to figure that out.
In addition, Stewart is surely correct that there is something sacred about the ability to use humor to take on even the most sacred of cows. It’s called freedom of speech. And it, perhaps more than any other principle, is what has made America great over these past 2 1/4 centuries – and why censorship dens like the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, or Plato’s Republic are so offensive to us. Those of us who appreciate freedom of speech are going to have to understand that, like all liberties, this one comes with a price: no matter who you are, there’s going to be some speech you’re not going to like. In other words, to live in a free society, everyone is going to have to be offended now and then.
Still, when I watched Stewart’s glib montage of religious jokes, I couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t missing a major part of this story. I’m referring to the following: not all religious jokes are equally offensive, some are simply off-limits when it comes to a nationally televised program, and the creators of South Park really are pushing the envelope a bit too far.
It’s one thing for Stewart to get on TV, feign a Yiddish accent, and tell some lame joke about a circumcised penis. It’s another to tell the one about the Jew and the pizza or the number of Jews in the Volkswagen. Somehow, I don’t see Stewart having the balls – or the insensitivity – to laugh about mass genocide at the expense of his fellow Tribesmen. And what do you bet that the creators of South Park also know not to head too far in that direction?
I also don’t see any of these comedians being stupid enough to depict the Virgin Mary having anal sex, or the Buddha having 69 with a snaggle-toothed prostitute. Do you like those images? Just think about what they’d look like, uncensored, on national TV. Even the creators of South Park know that such “jokes” would legitimately enrage their audience.
As in sports, so as in comedy: we all operate within boundaries. Teenagers may not appreciate that fact, but adults understand that there SHOULD be boundaries, because some things truly are sacred, and once they become the butt of jokes, you remove what little sense of the holy is left from our society.
Now I can imagine what you’re thinking. “Is this guy crazy? Is he actually equating a pornographic depiction of the Virgin Mary or the Buddha having kinky sex with a cartoon showing Muhammad simply talking?” Yes I am, at least in the sense that all three are simply beyond the pale as a subject for a television program. If Jon Stewart doesn’t appreciate this point, perhaps he needs to spend more time studying Islam, and less time chuckling at the brilliance of his own humor.
Harsh? Perhaps. But just because I wouldn’t threaten violence about this topic doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. And this is because I have spent some time thinking about precisely why people are not permitted to depict Muhammad. Stated simply, he didn’t want to be deified -- he didn’t want to be treated as a “Son” or “incarnation” of God, and he was afraid that if people could depict him visually, or mimic the way he spoke, he would turn into another deity. Frankly, he had a pretty darned good point, if you ask me.
If Islam stands for one thing, it is that the people of Abraham need to reclaim their monotheism. They need to revere not merely the Name but also the Unity. This isn’t to say that Trinitarianism is pointless, for there is a lot to say in support of it, but worshiping a concrete human being isn’t one of them – that is one of the central points of agreement between Jews and Muslims.
In Christianity, by contrast, it’s not such a faux pas to depict God the Father – Michelangelo depicted part of his hand on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. And as for depicting Jesus, there isn’t a person in America who doesn’t know exactly what he is supposed to look like and doesn’t have a pretty good idea of how he spoke. (I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t like a professional wrestling promoter.) But when it comes to Muhammad, we haven’t a clue. That is because, at least until now, non-Muslims have had the class to respect Muhammad’s request not to turn into another Jesus.
Jon Stewart wouldn’t dare start depicting Muhammad. He knows that he would immediately be cited for extreme insensitivity toward the Islamic faith, and he would have no possible response but to apologize for his ignorance. So if it’s not OK for Stewart, the comedian, to do it, what makes it so tolerable for South Park? It’s either within the bounds of adult comedy (like the difference between a Jew and a canoe – a canoe tips) or not (like the difference between a Jew and a pizza).
In short, before a person can understand how insensitive a joke is to a particular group, they have to understand the sense of the sacred adopted by that group, and not merely the conventional mores of their own (secular) society. If South Park’s creators understood that point and spent some time learning about Islam, they would realize that what they were trying to do went too far. The shame of it is that had terrorists not entered the equation, nobody would have stopped them.
Thus, the real problem here is not that the suits at Comedy Central didn’t have the balls or the wisdom to stand up to terrorists, but that they didn’t have the balls or the wisdom to stand up to the creators of South Park. It’s fine if those guys want to mock Islam in the privacy of their own homes, but we don’t need them to supply the nation with a perspective on how Muhammad spoke or looked. Let’s keep that a mystery … and more importantly, let’s remind ourselves WHY Muhammad needed to make it a mystery. Like everything else in that faith – and I’m talking about true Islam here, not the pseudo-Islam that has been hijacked by terrorists – the real point is not to teach us to revere Muhammad, but to teach us to revere Allah.