Student paper bites at censorship

by Anthony Berteaux, Assistant Opinion Editor

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The senseless terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in the wake of the new year forced many people to ask legitimate questions about the price we pay for freedom of expression in a western secular society.

However, the phenomena of “Je suis Charlie,” directly following the debacle of the comedy film “The Interview,” isn’t a narrative that speaks as broadly as freedom of expression in the face of terrorism, but rather it specifically addresses the price and power of comedy.

In retrospect, comedy has always been risky business. Famous and successful comedians such as David Letterman, Russel Brand and Sascha Baron Cohen have received numerous death threats from jihadi groups, radical Christians and radical Palestinian militants in the name of offensive comedy. Edgy comedienne, Kathy Griffin, recounts an incident in her best-selling memoir “Official Book Club Selection,” in which an offended member of a Muslim group threatened to kill her during her act.

Such is the spirit of a provocateur I suppose. However, the question posed by many during the Charlie Hebdo tragedy was simply: Were they asking for it?

While a majority condemned the massacre as an act of senseless terrorism, others attempted to rationalize the attacks by using Charlie Hebdo’s provocative cartoons as a pretext for the violence.

Henri Roussel, co-founder of the French satirical paper, has condemned the late editor Stephane Charbonnier’s decision to continuously run the offensive cartoons of Islam’s holy Prophet Muhammad. He stated that Charbonnier’s decisions to run such provocative material dragged the team to their demise.

The rhetoric was this: if anyone were to truly practice freedom of speech, people who abuse it should be prepared to experience the consequences of it — even if that leads to massacre.

I beg to differ.

No matter how offensive, no display of free speech justifies terrorism. To even state so undermines the value and intention of expression, and it’s the adherence to the freedom of speech that entails even the most provocative forms of comedy must be protected and respected.

No matter how offensive, no display of free speech justifies terrorism. ”

It’s not enough to look at this on a global scale. To understand this broad concept, one must consider a local perspective: Let’s take The Koala.

If you’ve been on campus long enough, you would know that the satirical newspaper, The Koala, is an equal offender to all minorities. Filled to the brim with phallic imagery, racist jokes and stereotypes, the Koala has never been for the faint-of-heart. For some it’s hilarious, but others it’s offensive.

In a New York Times piece about The Koala, reporter Kyle Spencer offers an introspective look at the trials and tribulations of the publication, detailing the harassment Koala distributors face: Alleged on-campus verbal threats, spitting and even professor retaliation. Tantamount to its offensive nature, the Koala has dealt with detractors who wish for nothing but its censorship.

It was during fall of 2013 when students rallied to send a letter to San Diego State’s Freedom of Expression Committee calling for an end of the publications distribution on campus. Clearly, as we see today the motion failed. However it failed for good reason. In SDSU’s freedom of expression policy, it states the school, as an institution of higher education, “…defends the expressions we abhor, as well as the expressions we support.”

The existence of provocative media, such as the Koala and Charlie Hebdo, needs to persist in the face of those who wish to censor. Provocative expression needs to exist to maintain intellectual integrity and foster dialogue

Even some comedians argue there is even intellectual value in pursing provocative expression and stereotypes. During an interview for the comedy podcast “You Made it Weird,”  hosted by comedian Pete Holmes, American-Jewish comedian Moshe Kasher has said he finds inherent value in up-playing racist stereotypes.

“I’ve been criticized at points for digging into these stereotypes (about Jews) in my jokes but I believe that there is power in digging into (them) because they are that ridiculous,” Kasher said, “I think it’s helpful because it shows in full repose how ridiculous and absurd they are.”

While satirical publications walk the fine line between what’s appropriate and inappropriate, its provocative nature in publishing stereotypes and horribly offensive humor initiate dialogue that would otherwise remain stagnant. It calls into question the truth behind the reason of offense. What does a racist joke say about public misconceptions about a certain race? What does it say about society? These are one of the many questions we could be asking ourselves.

If you’re offended by The Koala, be offended. If you’re offended by Charlie Hebdo, be offended. We take for granted that to even be offended is both the blessing and the curse of living in a democracy based on the foundation of free speech and expression. Maybe if we analyzed offensive comedy, we’d find that we’re not so much offended by the joke itself, but we’re shocked by the harsh sliver of truth that lies behind the thin veil of comedy.

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