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VOL. 39 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 13, 2015

Where to draw the boundary for appropriateness?

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Charlie Hebdo promotes itself as having a viewpoint that reflects “all components of left wing pluralism.” Its business is satire. It skewers Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. It has twice been attacked by terrorists. The attack in 2011 didn’t kill anyone.

From Webster’s Revised Unabridged, I learned that the “Pasquino” was a tarnished old statue that was dug up in ancient Rome next to the shop of a “witty cobbler or tailor.” The local custom, it is said, was to post satire on this statue. From this statue, apparently, we get the word pasquin – one who satirizes.

John Dryden wrote: “The Grecian wits, who satire first began/ Were pleasant pasquins on the life of man.”

The Romans made fun of life. Pleasantly. I know of no wars in the ancient world that were waged over satire.

The French co-opted this little word from the Greeks, adding their “ade” ending.

In my little dictionary, I find “pasquinade,” one who satirizes. I like to think of Charlie Hebdo, though, as a place full of pasquins.

Satire is regarded as an art form in which the vices and follies of people are “held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody, caricature, or other methods.”

The quoted language is from Robert C. Elliott, in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The intent of the satirist – the pasquin – often is to change that which is pasquinaded, lampooned, satirized.

When I disconnect from all vestiges of intellectualism (not terribly difficult, since that part of my load is pretty light), I tend to focus on two concepts where satire is concerned: (1) someone is making fun of someone else; and (2) often, the one being made fun of “can’t take it.”

Not being able to take being lampooned manifests in different ways, ranging from suffering embarrassment in silence to leaving in disgust (the crowd, the company, the town, the country) to enlisting abettors with a view toward revenge.

The last option, presumably, is aimed at a perceived wrongness of the pasquinade.

In eulogy mode, Scott Simon of NPR News recently commented, “Satire is tricky business. … The same people who laugh at one joke can get offended by the next.”

I say eulogy, because the January attack on Charlie Hebdo left 12 of its employees dead. The attack is widely attributed to extreme Islamists, who were offended by cartoons lampooning, pasquinading, their faith, its symbols, and key characters.

I’m reminded of the playgrounds of my youth. There was always someone who could not take satire and who responded with violence. A punch in the nose, perhaps, a full-speed football tackle or worse.

This topic raises the question “What’re you gonna do?” Ban the satire and “they” win. Leave it alone and “they” keep attacking.

Try to regulate it? Well, bring a shovel to collect the leftover smoke.

Freedom of expression is a liberty that comes with responsibilities and costs. Always has been. Always will be.

Wherever one draws the boundary of appropriateness, the risk is others will disagree. The idea, though, that, under any aegis, someone would kill another over a cartoon offends me, and then some.

You?

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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