Why can’t tyrants take a joke?

Writing on the Al Jazeera website today, Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, asks why politicians and tyrants throughout the world can’t take a joke. ‘Why are powerful generals, murderous tyrants, and stuck-up theocrats so incensed when someone makes fun of them?’ He notes that a Malaysian cartoonist was charged with sedition last week in a move criticized as stifling freedom of expression. In Turkey, two cartoonists have been sentences to jail for insulting President Erdogan. And in Syria, cartoonist Ali Ferzat, winner of the European Union’s Sakharov Prize, was kidnapped outside his home by five gunmen, beaten, and told not to satirise Syria’s leaders. Despite have had his fingers broken in the attack, Ferzat managed to draw a picture of himself giving his middle one to Syrian President Assad. Professor Dabashi’s piece includes several other examples of cartoonists who have paid a high personal price for laughing at power. But he also draws attention to the sometimes problematic distinction between such political acts and mocking the powerless, of which he disapproves. The viciousness of the murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris, he writes, ‘does not and cannot conceal the fact that the satirist journal was in the nasty business of mocking and denigrating the ancestral faith of millons of Muslim immigrants suffering the indignity of frightened second-class citizenship in the vicinity of the European capitals of their former colonisers.’ What do you think of the distinction Dabashi makes, and how easy is it to make in practice? One way of approaching the question is to collect examples of different sorts of ‘mockery’, and think about which are acceptable, and on what grounds, and which are not.


Picture: Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, winner of the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for his ‘piercing irony and his sharp pencil’. Photo © European Union 2012 – European Parliament. 


Read more: ‘Why Are Tyrants Afraid of Laughter?‘ Al Jazeera, 13 April 2015


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