Satire, rhetoric, war and truth

If the pen is mightier than the sword, but words can never hurt you because only sticks and stones will break your bones, then the truth is that the power lies not in the weapon, but in the intentions of those who wield it.

As the late comedian, George Carlin, said in his 1972 monologue, Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television:

“I like to think that the same words that hurt can heal. It is a matter of how you pick them… [There are] no bad words, [there are] bad thoughts, bad intentions and words.”

There can be no doubt that the intention of the now infamous Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad continue to be used to hurt, to incite a negative reaction among the billion plus Muslims around the world. The French will tell you that it is precisely because the Muslims are offended that the cartoons must continue to be published. It is, after all, their right to poke fun at others whom they see as unenlightened. It also seems very French, and smacks of the worst elements of European colonialism, the prevailing attitude that European culture is superior to the savage tribal hordes’ visceral attachment to superstition and mythology.

Photo by Prose and Thorn
Photo by Prose and Thorn

In the ten days since the vicious attacks in Paris, I find myself reflecting on the way we showed support for the victims. When we march holding signs that say, “Je suis Charlie,” does it mean we are supporting the offensive content of the magazine, or merely the right of a satirical newspaper to publish that material? If I am Charlie, then I bear some of the responsibility for the mass demonstrations across the Arab world, no?

On the other hand, if by claiming to be Charlie – or Ahmed or a Jew, as some signs said – we are declaring that we are all potential victims of intolerance that can result in murder, that takes us to a much deeper place. There, we are both Charlie and the Muslim demonstrators, we are Jews and anti-Semitic journalists and jesters. We are Israel and Gaza. It’s really difficult to feel superior if we see ourselves as both the victims and the perpetrators.

Indeed, it creates an opportunity to experience the true brotherhood of humanity. We can hold tightly to isolationist notions of exclusivity and superiority based on faith or culture, or we can see that what we all really fear about each other is that we know the murderous depravity people are capable of.

Despite the perennial global discord that results in murder and rape for the sake of God and/or country, we have always found our way to peace. Always. Maybe that’s harder now, in a connected world where everyone has a voice, and every voice has a following, but history tells us that it is within our ability to start a different conversation, where the intention of our words allows for rehabilitation and promotes reconciliation and healing.

Good thoughts, good intentions and words.

“He smote his hands together a number of times in an absent sort of way; seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unconscious of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial.” – General Horace Porter, describing Gen. Robert E. Lee, after the surrender at Appomattox that concluded the American Civil War


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