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Tabatha Southey. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Tabatha Southey. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Tabatha Southey

Don’t tell me I can’t joke about rape. I’m serious Add to ...

That, within hours of the killings, the merits of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were being weighed against the crime of murdering 12 members of the magazine’s staff was disturbing to me – but then, I’ve a vested interest in people not being killed for failing to be funny.

Various rationales as to why this wasn’t such a tragedy for free speech were tossed about; cartoons are a legitimate tool only in the hands of the most earnest, deadpan, certified-oppressed people, it was said – by those apparently confusing the tradition of satire with the singing of folk songs.

Humour, I read this week, is a weapon reserved exclusively for those “punching up.” Charlie Hebdo, it was judged, didn’t fit that criterion because the magazine ridiculed a vulnerable minority – Muslims.

Muslims, it was insinuated by a few non-Muslims, are pretty much powerless not to kill in the face of offensive jokes about their prophet, and racism. This, although racism is something Muslims encounter frequently in France and elsewhere, and meet with eye rolls, not violence, and despite the fact that violence committed by Islamic extremists is something being endured by and, in the main fought against, by Muslims.

Similarly, the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag embraced by many was critiqued by those apparently under the impression that when, to protest the fatwa against him, people wore “I am Salman Rushdie” buttons, they meant “I wrote Midnight’s Children. Contact me for a copy to review.”

I used the #JeSuisCharlie tag – not without ambivalence, but now isn’t the time for literal interpretations of any texts, nor the time to drop “freedom of speech” for “licence to speak” as something we defend.

Carry on, morons everywhere, I say, speak your minds – and not because your right to say, for example, that black people are lazy should be protected because it’s balanced by the right of black people to say that white people can’t dance.

That’s a false equivalency that fails to take into account the power differential – loaded overwhelmingly on the side of white people. Nor does it consider the potentially negative effects of such a slur – few people are looking for employment in the dance sector.

No, your right to say those things is balanced by the rights of non-stupid, horrible, racist people to judge you out loud for saying stupid, horrible, racist things. A fair trade, provided everyone gets to speak.

Can you make jokes about people more disadvantaged than you? Sure, you should be able to make jokes about anything there are no bad subjects for jokes, only bad jokes, lots of them, and it would be great if that weren’t the case.

However, this trend – in no way limited to Muslim extremists – toward cordoning off whole subject matters as too sacred, dreadful or sensitive to be joked about should be checked, brusquely, and here’s an example of why:

Several days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler co-hosted the Golden Globe Awards. In their opening, they joked about Bill Cosby drugging, as he’s alleged to have done, many women, in order to rape them.

I won’t repeat their jokes here, not because they weren’t funny, they were, but because humour often loses much in the retelling, or reprinting. Humour removed from the context in which it’s produced – both the medium and the moment – often can’t be judged fairly. I’d say that’s also true of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

It was amusing to watch those at the Golden Globes laugh, then clearly wonder if they should be laughing – some appeared to stop just short of texting their publicists for advice on the matter.

They were, of course, laughing at jokes about rape, rape jokes – those jokes we’ve been told we cannot make because rape isn’t funny, and because, it’s said, even hearing about rape might “trigger” victims.

Although by that logic we shouldn’t cover rape stories in the news either – and, of course, to tell women comics they can’t joke about rape is to tell women they can’t talk about rape, something women have been told enough.

No comic worth her salt and salary would’ve stood up there and asked solemnly for two minutes of silence for Bill Cosby’s alleged victims. Judging from the anger the Fey-Poehler bit engendered, that’s apparently what some demanded.

Instead, these comics did something brave, subversive and funny, and we saw what happens when we don’t limit speech – what it is we’re allowed to joke about – but instead allow more diverse voices, those with perhaps a more informed understanding of the subjects at hand, to be heard.

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Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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