I am an old-time, completely unreconstructed Enlightenment kind of guy. Among other things, this means that I am a religious skeptic. I think David Hume was basically right about miracles. I thin Denis Diderot was basically right about materialism. And I think Voltaire was basically right about what happens whenever religions get their grubby hands on power.
As a direct result, I think that religion overwhelmingly deserves to be mocked. Particularly when a violent strain of religion adopts a pretense of holiness, one that it merits even less than most. Mockery is perhaps the most civilized response to violent, hate-filled bigots.
So while other people won’t go here, I will: I won’t just defend Charlie Hebdo in that grudging, disagree-with-what-you-say-but- kind of way. Oh no. When it mocked militant Islam, Charlie Hebdo mocked a very worthwhile target. They mocked an irrationalist, primitivist, utterly ugly movement, one that richly deserves the world’s contempt. Spare me your sanctimony about “punching down” – when someone brings a gun to the fight, punching down is a kindness.
Militant Islam is a movement that stands squarely at odds with modernity, democracy, free inquiry, women’s rights, the rights of gays and lesbians, and very much else that is good besides. Michel Houellbecq was wrong to say that Islam is the stupidest religion. Obviously. But if there is a stupidest part of Islam, I know exactly where to find it.
Now, let’s step back from this week’s events and state the principle as clearly as possible: We should cheerfully defend mockery. Not grudgingly, but cheerfully. Mockery is wonderful. It’s healthy and strengthening and humanizing. And if you really can’t take it, then you should in all seriousness ask what’s gone wrong with you as a person. Whatever it is, it’s not the mocker’s fault: If the mockery is worthless, then ignore it. If you find a kernel of truth, then learn it. But either way, suffer it to exist.
In a sentence that I dearly wish that I had written, Ian C. Storey writes: “One needs to resist the temptation that making fun of someone or something is the same as trying ‘to get’ that target.” Much more often, it isn’t. And, strange as it may sound, I don’t even want to “get” the militant Islamists. I just want them to get better, if they possibly can. And that is what the best mockery is for, after all. That’s why we do it. To get better.
It is written that Socrates was in the audience at the first performance of Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Its portrait of Socrates was anything but flattering. He was out of touch, incomprehensible, impractical, and often downright crooked. It is also written that the real Socrates stood and faced the crowd with good cheer afterward. The portrait of Socrates that emerges in Plato’s much later work is nothing at all like the crooked pedant of Aristophanes. Perhaps he learned a thing or two in the meantime.
And from at least that point on, mockery has been a part of the world’s intellectual heritage, a welcome corrective, one that all of us need from time to time. You want to mock my skepticism? My sacred cow? Do your worst. (“No! No! Not my sacred cow!“)
Not that I pride myself overmuch, but taking the mockery in stride is just a bit better than carping about my hurt feelings and then reaching for a gun.