…resumed

10 October, 2009

After that lengthy bout of Pig Lung, I’m back to writing stuff that’s longer then 140 characters. Feels good.

A few things to catch up on…

One of my perennial points of incomprehension is why people with ‘deeply-held’ religious beliefs find it so very difficult to step away from them, to consider that other possibilities are worth considering. A recent study may explain this – evidence is appearing that the brain processes fact and belief in the same place. Of course there are other studies which seems to show the complete opposite

Perhaps the most fun I had while in downtime (that didn’t involve watching all of Lost – which I thoroughly enjoyed) was Twittering my little heart out on the inaugural International Blasphemy Day. Those who’ve been reading me for a while know that I consider taking the piss out of belief not only to be funny but also a necessary tool, even a human right. I think I managed to take the piss out of every major creed and belief system in there at one point or another… my favourite post being:

My god fucked your god. Your god loved it, the little slut.

Amusingly, the only direct responses I got complaining about my doubting their deeply-held beliefs came from atheists…

Also, downtime allowed me to get to grips with what was perhaps an inevitable tech upgrade… an iPhone. This solved 99% of my portable comms needs for the foreseeable future – excellent Twitter and RSS apps especially. Now if they’d come up with GPG encryption for mail, I’d be sorted.

Next up – a Guttershaman piece for the Halloween season, various rants and raves…  and maybe, just maybe, a little fun.

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Mocking the king, not the subjects

4 April, 2009

I’ve made it clear before that though I think that mockery and satire are a good and necessary thing, but only when applied upwards – by the relatively powerless to the powerful. Mockery by the strong of the weak is merely cruelty. Fred Clark gets this, completely. In this weeks installment of his deconstruction of the Dominionist Xtian apocalyptic wankfest Left Behind series, he posts on the Slacktivist blog, he sinks his teeth into a scene where the born-again protagonist wields his not-so-scathing wit at a woman who is not his boss. The mysogyny and stink of entitlement in the scene are palpable. Fred says:

Comedy is essentially revolutionary. This scene is counter-revolutionary. That’s never funny. Everything in these pages is about reasserting hierarchy and punishing anyone who challenges it. That’s never funny either.

Buck Williams isn’t the court jester, he’s the sycophantic court prophet. The court prophet isn’t funny. (Nor is he really a prophet.)

The jester is funny because he mocks the king. He deflates the over-inflated and humbles the proud. This is what comedy does. It’s what comedy is for. It brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; it fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

..That’s what makes it funny. That’s what makes us laugh.

Everything that Buck does in the Chicago bureau of Global Weekly is intended to tear down the lowly and lift the powerful onto their thrones, to fill the rich with good things and send the hungry away empty.

That’s not funny. That’s the opposite of funny.

Making a mockery

11 February, 2009

“Censorship, like charity, should begin at home. Unlike charity, it should stay there.” – Dorothy Parker

So the new song by Amanda Palmer has been refused air play by every TV and radio network in the UK.
It’s been described as “making light of rape, religion and abortion”. Here it is.

Understandably, Ms. Palmer had a few things to say about this
She says, in part;
i’d be HAPPY to know that the song out there is going to offend some people….not because i have any interest in making people upset, but because i think it’s better
to talk about these things, argue about them, be upset about them, push them out into the open air, stir the pot around. better that, always, than to sweep them under the rug.

These days that’s a pretty controversial position to take. There’s a real trend towards people declaring their being offended by another’s point of view and using this as justification for censorship.

It makes me wonder, as so many things do, just where the line is drawn – and who decides that. Where is the distinction – if there is one – between humour and cruelty, being genuinely hurt by something said or written and just being annoyed. Why someone can be truly hurt by something they perceive as an insult to their beliefs, and how they react to this. And the difference, if there is one, between doing this and deliberate racism, sexism, homophobic speech and so on.

Are there things which should never be looked at lightly, humorously?
How about Nazis?

Does ‘getting offended’ have a basis in one’s culture, one’s class, one’s political and religious views? Unquestionably.
Consider, for example, the Gay Daleks:

That’s full of quite offensive stereotyping. I am sure some queer folk were offended. But most of the gay and bi people I know find it pant-wettingly funny. Or get creeped out by the “WHITE!! WEE-WEE!!” bit – but still laugh.

How about race? White men in blackface is considered offensive now, certainly. But is Papa Lazarou ? Is it acceptable to have blackface if the thing being mocked isn’t black people but white people in blackface? Or do I only think that because I find The League of Gentlemen funny? Or because I’m white? Is Papa Lazarou more or less acceptable than Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled‘? And if so, is it because Spike Lee is black? Or that the actors in blackface are also?


How about murder? Drug addiction? Paedophilia? Chris Morris had plenty to say about all these, most of it hilarious (and some of it playing non-white people).

…these killings are obviously ironic“.

Is finding something funny an excuse for insulting someone? Is doing so ironically a justification? How about if a group of predominantly white, middle class people dress in Klu Klux Klan robes to protest a perceived injustice? Does their outrage trump the outrage they use as a symbol?

Does it matter if the person making the mockery is a victim of what they mock or not? Amanda Palmer doesn’t think so:

i could try to win points by talking about how i’ve been date raped (i have been, when i was 20) or how I have every right to joke about this if i want to because i’ve had an abortion myself (i have, when i was 17), but i actually DON’T believe those experiences should lend me any credibility, any more so than i believe the director of “life is beautiful” had to have been an auschwitz victim in order to direct that film.
i should be allowed to write about, sing about, joke about anything that moves me.
so should you. so should everyone.

an artist’s (and a human being’s) freedom to do that, without fear of retribution, is the cornerstone of what keeps the world moving forward, not backwards, not standing still.

Is the important difference whether you are trying to give offence or take it?

Is it just about bad taste? Who decides what bad taste is – and is that enough reason not to say something? Isn’t most comedy about bad taste, crossing lines of taboo?

Definitions of acceptable subject matter change. Like most Brits of a certain age, I can remember when the racist, sexist, homophobic comedy stylings of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, TV shows like Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrel Show, were acceptable prime time entertainment. Fun for all the family.

We’re getting perilously close to that horrible phrase “Political Correctness” here. (Take a look at this post – and the comments – for a very good perspective on the term.) I don’t think it’s a good thing to force people into linguistic strait-jackets wantonly. But neither do I think that casual or deliberate insult is a good or acceptable thing – and sometimes there’s damn good reason for objecting to the things someone says.

But also there is the inevitable point that as soon as something is declared taboo… artists and writers will be irresistably drawn to that idea.

In an ideal world, the good and worthwhile ideas would just outcompete the bad and damaging ones. Unfortunately, ideas don’t seem to work that way. Often a bad idea – such as that women, non-white people and those not considered sexually ‘normal’ deserve to be treated as inferior – becomes hardened, enculturated. Fighting this matters – mockery and irony are vital tools in doing so. But any tool can become a trap.

I’m rambling here because I really don’t have an answer. I think that using humour and irony to mock is a necessary thing – but one best used by the less powerful against the status quo. When used by the powerful against the relatively powerless it’s just cruelty – and, as far as I can see, not funny (witness the po-faced results when right-wing satire is attempted). Mockery also works when the participants are roughly on an equal level (as in playing the dozens). But as to who deserves to be mocked and by whom… that’s tricky.

I’m fine with mocking those I dislike – I think that’s true of most of us. Those are, for me, mostly the powerful forces of politics, wealth and religous orthodoxy. I don’t usually find racial or sexual mockery either funny or acceptable. (Except, as noted above, Papa Lazarou and Gay Daleks.) I do find some mockery of people who are like me (mystical types, geeks) funny when it’s accurate, when it’s a well-aimed jibe at the cliches. But not just mocking because, for example, I’m fat and wear glasses.

I’d rather see humour that subverts stereotypes instead of reinforcing them, because the former is a tool of change and the latter is a tool of control. When used to deflate pompousness, arrogance and self-righteous behaviour, it works. When it’s just an expression of “you’re different from me, so I hate you” or just crass sneering at the Other, it doesn’t.

That modern tendency to treat someone with a different perspective than yours as giving you insult is overshadowing so much, perhaps the very things that need to be mocked or resisted. Especially when those complaining about the mockery are in the majority, or wield far more power than those doing the mocking. There is something ludicrous about white middle class Christians picketing a musical they don’t like, or Muslims in a Muslim-majority country holding mass-burnings of a cartoon. It seems to me a sign of very weak faith – if their beliefs are so flimsy that a joke or a book or a story can stir such rage, it does not speak well of them.

I’ve said it before – some things deserve scorn. Some things are best dealt with by laughing at them, because that’s the only thing that works. Nothing scares a monolithic power structure more than someone pointing and laughing at it. But at the same time, a bully teasing someone they overpower is only funny to the bully and their pals.

These days, there are certain groups who wield enormous power over what we are allowed to say and do, which ideas are acceptable and which are taboo. But no matter what they say or do, whether they scream “that’s blasphemy!” or “that’s hate speech!” or “I’ll sue you! I’ll sue you in England!!” or threaten new laws or restrictions or even murder, there will always be those who will (in the other meaning of the phrase) take the piss. Because it’s necessary. Because sometimes it’s the only weapon we have.

Because sometimes, you gotta laugh, ain’t you?

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“When you cannot joke about the darkness of life, that’s when the darkness takes over” – Amanda Palmer

(Thanks to my esteemed colleagues Daniel Peacock and Jon Swabey for their perspectives.)


God and pasta, stoning and scorn

24 January, 2009

“They’re just your beliefs. They’re not real.” – Bill Hicks

“Death to all fanatics!” – Old Discordian saying.

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What people believe and how they act on the basis of their beliefs fascinates me. Consider the Flying Spaghetti Monster .

You know the story, I’m sure… a silly alternative to Xtian creationist ideas is created as part of a reductio-ad-absurdam defence against same, resulting in a wildly successful internet meme, a book, and a new ‘religion’ along the Zen-comedy lines of Discordianism and the Church of the Sub-Genius.

One of the truly great things about the FSM website is that they regularly publish examples of their hate mail. Shockingly, the vast majority of such comes from people who identify as Christians – and these missives can be roughly split into two types.

First are the straightforward haters – either vicious or condescending, they implore/cajole/heap scorn on the very idea of the FSM, having apparently undergone a satire bypass at an early age. Here’s a good example:

this is the dumbissst thing i have ever heard……..you think this is ganna make fun of christians then you are a fool! cause the god we worship is real…. and we dont eat him… by the way well pray for you your ganna need it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -brittany (sic)

(It seems ‘brittany’ is unaware of that whole transsubstantiation thing…)

The rest mostly consist of reciting Bible quotes and concepts in attempt to refute the position of the FSM ‘believers’. Like this:

“For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.” (1 Chronicles 16:26). “You shall not make anything to be with Me – gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.” (Exodus 20:23). “What you have in your mind shall never be, when you say, ‘We will be like the Gentiles, like the families in other countries, serving wood and stone.’” (Ezekiel 20:32). “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:3 (Deuteronomy 5:7, Judges 6:10, Hosea 13:4″ -Jerry

(The comment threads on the hate mail are tremendous fun. Often the Xtian poster will attempt to defend their position, with high-larious consequences.)

Here’s the part I just don’t get… why do people think that quotes from their holy book will convince people who are not believers of that holy book? I know the theory – their holy book is The Truth and all those who deny The Truth can (and should, and will) be eventually convinced. The theological version of going to a foreign country and believing the natives will understand you as long as you speak English LOUDLY. I just don’t understand this mindset.

That sort of certainty about your beliefs might seem just funny, or naive. But it’s precisely that sort of fanatical certainty which leads to such ‘righteous’ actions as killing women’s health providers to ‘save’ foetuses. Or execution for apostasy.

Apostasy is a fascinating and horrible concept to me. Although it’s mostly known these days for quasi-judicial murders in Muslem (or Muslem-contested) countries, the less immediately fatal version – the outcasting and stigmatizing of those whose belief in the One True Truth of their family and culture slips – also has terrible effects.

(There seems to be a small spate of apostasy among the pagan community at the moment – several well-publicised examples of former pagan people converting either to Christianity or Atheism. I would note that the majority response of pagan commentators has been to respect these decisions and call for wider interfaith dialogue. No fatwas, no bombings. I prefer this.)

The entire idea of being punished for apostasy ignores (and condemns) the possibility that a person can have a genuine change of heart about what they believe. Of course those within the monolithic grasp of a single True Religion regard those whose personal beliefs change (and, dare I say, evolve) over time as having ‘weak faith’. I could get all Zen and say, “is the willow which bends in the wind weaker than the oak which breaks?” Or I could say, “fuck ’em”. Or both. Depends on the mood.

I have always thought the problem isn’t what you believe, but what you do about it. For instance, my-Beloved-the-ex-neuroscientist-shaman went to college with a Fundamentalist Discordian. Back in her college days, her email handle was ‘eris’. Another student complained that this disrespected his deeply held beliefs. (My Beloved’s reply was to send him occasional emails saying, “Hail Me, dammit!”.)

Dealing with fanaticism and the many differing ‘deeply held beliefs’ in modern society is not going so well. Rather than trying to find a middle ground where those of different beliefs (incluuding the belief that belief itself is wrong) can talk like grown-ups is being pushed aside in favour of a spate of governmental and international initiatives to classify expressing disbelief or satire of someone elses faith as a ‘hate crime’. Especially, by pure coincidence I am sure, those faiths where the believers in question has a habit of killing (or sueing or protesting) those who make fun of them.

Apostasy, criticism and satire are not hate crimes. They are part of a person trying to understand what they and others believe and why. Sometimes that means showing disrespect and scorn for another belief. For that matter, believing one monolithic system is automatically going to be blasphemy to a different belief.

Though I dislike scorn for no reason, or purely out of xenophobia, scorn of fanaticism is utterly justified. I even think it’s necessary. But it can also be a trap – it can easily lead to exactly the same level of fundamentalism as those one is scorning. The best route, I think, is to apply the same humerous and scathing approach to your own beliefs as much (or better, even more than) those you disagree with.

(Oh – and feel free to express scorn for my beliefs. Just don’t expect a free pass when we debate because you have The Truth.)

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“Our motto is: ‘Sincerity is not enough.’ We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it’s true doesn’t make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn’t mean you are not doing harm.” – The Unitarian Jihad

“Criticism is the only known antidote to error.” – David Brin

(Thanks to the Metapagan news service for some of the links.)