Wednesday 21 January 2015

Give it 500 years and it will all be fine

Be honest: had you ever heard of Charlie Hebdo before the murder of so many of its staff?

No, me neither. Suggesting that those who plotted the massacre paid scant attention to the Streisand effect.

So named in honour of the singer, after her efforts to suppress photographs of her Californian home led to them being viewed by more than 400,000 people, compared with the six who had bothered to look at them before she took legal action.

And two of those six were Streisand’s own lawyers.

The same thing happens nearly every time someone seeks to divert attention from a story or image they do not like. All PR practitioners knows that demanding a correction from a newspaper is the surest way to increase awareness of the claims made in the original, inaccurate article.

Despite the timidity of the British media, the internet has treated me to a reasonably good look at those French cartoons that were apparently so offensive as to justify mass murder.

My main personal objection to them was that I didn’t find them the slightest bit funny. This strikes me as a pretty critical failing in a humorous journal. Satire should surely make us laugh, not cringe.

The boundaries determining what we find acceptable and amusing are individual and mobile. I can remember turning Spitting Image off in disgust the first time I saw it, like a stereotypical angry old buffer, but I gradually came round to it as one of the highlights of my TV viewing week.

If it were on air now, I wonder to what extent militant Islam would feature as the butt of its humour? Not much at all, I suspect. We are all, to use Mrs Thatcher’s word, frit.

Somehow I cannot see adherents to Islamic State or Al-Qaeda coming to see the funny side of anything any time soon, either.

Despite those apologists endlessly parroting on the news that “Islam is a religion of peace”, the historical fact is that it has a pretty dismal record of being spread and imposed by force.

But then so, too, does Christianity. Witness the Crusades and the conquistadors. BBC2’s serialisation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, beginning tonight, should provide a timely reminder that in the 1530s religion in England was literally a matter of life and death.

The difference is that we calmed down and moved on from the horror of beheadings and burnings at the stake some centuries ago – though the notion of “progress” in history is equally old-fashioned and discredited. So let us merely observe as a fact that it is 2015 in the Christian calendar adopted by the secular West, but only 1436 in the Islamic one.

What is completely clear is that there is an unbridgeable “them” and “us” divide between those who regard religion as a decorative incidental and those who truly believe that this life is but a brief diversion on the way to eternal bliss.

The extent to which even our full-time religious practitioners actually believe this was well illustrated by the reaction to Basil Hume’s letter to his clergy advising them of his advanced cancer. This apparently elicited hundreds of letters of sympathy and just one congratulating him on his luck and wishing that he could join him.

As a very occasional churchgoer, the only temptations in religion for me are its associated art, architecture and music, along with the faint hope that it might make me slightly nicer to other people and better able to face the inevitability of death.

While satirical magazines only tempt me to buy them if I think they are likely to make me laugh. 

Humour and religion should both be instruments to make our lives more bearable: to uplift, to bring us joy, to comfort us when we have good reasons for sadness. As Barbra Streisand surely realised quite quickly, it is far better to send in the clowns than the lawyers.

However, the world would be a safer place if the clowns focused on being genuinely funny rather than provocatively offensive, at least until all believers come to adopt the same relaxed perspective most of us in Britain have acquired.

I reckon around 500 years should do it nicely.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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