Wednesday, January 14, 2015

“Many people are surprised to hear that we have comedians in Russia, but they are there," he wrote. "They are dead, but they are there.”


Why People Kill People Over Satire

A gathering in New York in memory of the people murdered in the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris this week.
Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images
A gathering in New York in memory of the people murdered in the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris this week.
Many thousands of generations ago, the alpha male in a roaming band of pre-humans felt threatened by a beta male. He picked up a heavy stone to warn the beta away from his fresh kill. Then he turned his back to feast on the carcass.
The beta mocked the warning gesture to his companions, earning laughs, and then a fatal stone to the skull. In that moment, we became people. 
The coldblooded slaughter at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris this week -- now compounded by slain hostages and reports of more hostage-taking -- wasn't as surprising as it was repulsive. We've seen such responses to satire before, and we know the fascist impulse to murder free thought when we see it. 
It wasn't surprising, but of course it should be. And as these attacks increase, they raise a basic but compelling question: 
Why would anybody actually kill anybody over mockery? 
The easy answer is that the killer is violent, self-aggrandizing, depraved. All true, but it skirts the question. The reality goes much deeper. 
There are three basic traits involved here, which transcend nationality and ideology and touch the very core of who we all are. 

They are violence, religion and satire. 
Violence was baked in at the beginning. Similar murderous impulses in humans and chimpanzees suggest that exterminating other bands to protect territory or food supply is an old instinct common to both. 
“What is the chance of such tendencies evolving independently in two closely related mammals?” says Frans de Waal, professor of primate behavior at Emory University, in his 2006 book, "Our Inner Ape." He observes that “the human pattern most similar to that of the apes is known as ‘lethal raiding.’ Raids consist of a group of men launching a surprise attack when they have the upper hand -- hence when there’s little chance that they will suffer themselves.” 
As for religion, the sociobiologists make a compelling case that faith has been central to human survival. Not because one or another faith holds the secrets to the universe, but because religion bound individuals together into tribes and communities against external threats, raising everybody's chance of survival to child-rearing age. It's not for nothing that the "lig" in "religion" is the same as in "ligament." They are ties that bind. 
If reverence is essential to our evolution, how did irreverence come to play such a powerful role in the way we relate to each other? 
We're told we respond to threats in one of two ways: fight or flight. 

There is a third response: the laughter reflex. That's our way of standing down without running away, or of standing up without really fighting. Greece had Aristophanes. Kings had their fools. France has Charlie Hebdo. 
Charlie Hebdo does satire, and satire is weaponized humor. It's an evolutionary tool that people who are neither in power nor armed can use to reduce the stature of the mighty -- or, like radical Islam, the grandiose. It identifies something undignified, corrupt or otherwise low-status about the powerful or sacred, says Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of several popular science books. 
As soon as that happens, laughter automatically ripples through those in the crowd who agree. Simply by hearing and reflexively understanding the joke, a listener acknowledges that the satirist's target is asking for it. 
And that laughter doesn't mean just that the listeners understand the satire, Pinker says. It means they understand that everyone else understands it. 
So it's an epiphany, instantly transforming the common knowledge that holds communities together, the foundation of social order. In a blink, the emperor has no clothes. 
“That’s why satire is not always such funny business,” Pinker says. 
In fact, good satire is funny because it can be read in two ways, as a joke or as a statement with a darker purpose. That’s what puts a small, vital part of the mind eternally out of the reach of dictators, torturers and zealots. 
The dead of Charlie Hebdo join a tragic pantheon of writers martyred for humor, including, notably, the writers of the Soviet Union. They come to mind now, in connection with this week's mayhem, as Russian President Vladimir Putin tightens his own iron fist over dissent
Daniil Kharms, whose absurdist prose became influential once the world was allowed to see it in the 1970s, dropped it and moved on to writing children's books before he was imprisoned and starved to death in the early 1940s. Isaac Babel chronicled life in the military and in Jewish Odessa in his stories, infused with ironies, and was executed by a firing squad at the start of that decade. 
And then there's the comedian Yakov Smirnoff, who emigrated to the U.S. For his Reagan-era stand-up act, Smirnoff crafted an exquisitely funny, haunting joke  about those natural counterparts, tyranny and comedy. 
“Many people are surprised to hear that we have comedians in Russia, but they are there," he wrote. "They are dead, but they are there.”