I was doing a thought for the day this morning on Radio Scotland, and as ever, I wished I had ten minutes, instead of two, so here’s what I would have said if I had time.
There was a great headline the other day – Pope throws punch on plane.
It wasn’t as exciting as it first sounded. I’d imagined that the Pope had somehow had one too many of those wee bottles that they give you after take off, but it turns out Pope Francis was talking about the right to free speech and how people react when you insult their religion “You insult my mother, and expect a punch” he said, demonstrating this in a way that was perilously close to the person standing next to him.
It’s an interesting question – what are the limits to free speech? The reception that the Pope got in Manilla – six million people attending Mass, makes him more popular than any pop star or personality, and shows the huge pull that religion has, and how deeply it is felt. It’s sort of reassuring that the most popular man in the world is popular neither because of his fashion nor his sexual attraction. I know, I’m making assumptions…
I think it’s easy to forget that in the West, and even more specifically in Britain, we’ve always had a very healthy lack of respect for institutions, religions in particular. So it’s confusing for us when people take offence so readily and so strongly. Not that in Britain we haven’t had strong feelings about religion and politics, Howeverit’s that, however strongly we’ve felt about our religion, since the reformation it’s been seen as rude to opens criticise other people’s views, and boorish to trumpet on about your own. Churchill said that the definition of a fanatic is someone who cannot change their mind, and will not change the subject, and that certainly chimes with my experience of the British attitude to faith. That is why I think that even the most ardent atheists are uneasy at the loud and brash way that American Atheism has translated to our shores, primarily through Richard Dawkins. Not that they disagree with the message, but rather the means of delivery.
But the question the Pope asked is an important one – does everyone have an inalienable right to insult, to offend, to criticise? I would hope, in reality of course, that the Pope wouldn’t actually hit someone if they insulted his mother. His subsequent comments made the point that, just as one person has the right to free speech, so the other has a right to be offended. No-one has a right to resort to violence. There is a world of difference between saying “you shouldn’t have said that” and “you shouldn’t have the right to say that”.
Does everyone have a right to insult, offence, criticise? Well the answer has to be yes in any democracy where free speech is valued. If we stop commenting on a religion, because of the violence of terrorists, then the terrorists have won. But if also, as a result of the violence of terrorists, we set out to be more cruel and unkind in our comments than we were before, well then I think they’ve won also. If we lose our moderation, our hesitancy to offend, and above all our sense of humour, then they have succeeded in making us just a little more like them.
One of the things that really moved me after the Charlie Hebdo attack, was the response of cartoonists throughout the world. They responded not with anger, not with violence of word or action, but with humour. There is a great tradition in the West of using humour and satire to prick pomposity, to “keep it real” to refuse to inflate our own opinion and make things heavy and serious.
Humour is a deep business, it really is. I place a huge value on humour, on making people laugh. It can enable people to look at themselves (myself included) in a way which doesn’t offend. It can show us truths about the world and about ourselves in a way that serious words can’t. And more than that, humour shows us the ridiculousness of the world, it keeps us in proportion. In Britain we have a glorious tradition of pomposity-pricking humour, right from Shakespeare, Johnston, Dryden and Etheridge, Sterne and Fielding, through to WS Gilbert, Sellers and Yeatman, Wodehouse and the Goons onwards. Much of it savage in it’s satire, some far more gentle, but still gently poking at the pomposity of others.
The gift of humour here is not simply that it is a means of delivering satirical “truths” – it is that, certainly within the British tradition, the desire to make people laugh has always been more important than the desire to wound or to make caustic fun of others. As long as that desire is paramount, it acts as a moderator of content, when being funny is more important than being cruel. Even in the most extreme of comedians, there is always a generosity in humour, a desire to lift spirits. That means that no satire is without some element of lightness.
Humphrey Lyttleton, the jazz trumpeter and also cartoonist, once said “as we go through life discarding baggage on the way, we must keep an iron grip, right to the very end, on our capacity for silliness. It is what saves the soul from desiccation”. And I believe humour is as profound as that – the soul, devoid of lightness, of silliness, of frivolity, is a dense and heavy thing. Every chocolate needs it’s mousse, every cake needs a raising agent.
It’s terribly easy to regard that as “mere frivolity”, but the response to the French killings, in their humour and their forgiveness, shows us that it actually takes a great deal of courage to keep that iron grip on silliness. But it remains true that, if there is one thing that separates us from extremists and fanatics, it is this – fanatics can scare us, intimidate us, stir our resolve. They have never been able to make anyone laugh.