An understanding of the power and concomitant danger of humor has never been as necessary as it is today. Humor was the impetus for the brutal slaying of 12 employees of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and for threats of violence from North Korea over the release of the U.S. comedy movie “The Interview,” but these recent events are far from unique in humor’s complex history.
The fear of the weapon of humor was alive and well in Nazi Germany. The legal code of the time reflected Goebbels’s interpretation of the political joke as “a remnant of liberalism” that threatened the Nazi state. Not only was joke-telling made illegal, but those who told jokes were labeled “asocial” — a segment of society frequently sent to concentration camps.
Hitler’s second in command, Hermann Goering, referred to anti-Nazi humor as “an act against the will of the Fuehrer … and against the State and the Nazi Government,” and the crime was punishable by death.
Among those executed for anti-Nazi humor was a Catholic priest named Josef Müller. Müller received a death sentence for sharing the following joke:
A fatally wounded German soldier asked his chaplain to grant one final wish. “Place a picture of Hitler on one side of me, and a picture of Goering on the other side. That way I can die like Jesus, between two thieves.”
This joke was said to be “A betrayal of the people, the Führer and the Reich.” In 1943, SS Commander Heinrich Himmler went even further in the fight against comical assaults on Nazi authority when he issued an order making it a criminal act to name domesticated animals “Adolf.”
When he rose to power in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte had serious concerns about comedic references to his personage. He immediately ordered the closure of all satirical papers in Paris and let it be known that cartoonists who toyed with his image would be dealt with severely. In 1802, he attempted to insert a clause into the Treaty of Amiens with England stipulating that any British cartoonists or caricaturists who used his image in their art should be treated in the manner of murderers and forgers. The English rejected the unusual amendment.
In 1830, a young French caricaturist named Charles Philipon, founder of the satirical magazine La Caricature, graphically depicted King Louis-Philippe’s head in the shape of a pear. It was no mere coincidence that the French word for pear, poiré, also means “fathead,” as Philipon believed the king to be both corrupt and incompetent.
King Louis-Philippe responded by buying all unsold copies in Paris and ordering production of the magazine to cease. In 1831, Louis-Philippe ordered prosecutors to charge Philipon with having “caused offense to the person of the king,” and the artist spent two years in prison for merely drawing His Majesty in a comedic, fruitlike fashion.
When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten Morgenavisen published twelve cartoons portraying the Muslim prophet Muhammad in 2005, a worldwide controversy exploded. Danish flags and embassies were set on fire, riots broke out in Muslim communities and more than 100 people died in protests. Referred to as the most significant crisis in Danish international relations since World War II, the “cartoon controversy” was depicted as a clash between the civilizations of the West and the Islamic world.
The fact that something comical, a cartoon, could cause multinational unrest and lead to multiple deaths is indicative of the power of humor at its core. Satire is familiar to all cultures, as is the understanding that in addition to its humorous aspect, it also contains elements of aggression and ridicule. The Hebdo attackers and the protesters who threatened the lives of the Danish cartoonists were responding in much the same way, and for many of the same reasons, as dictators in totalitarian societies who imprison artists for depicting them in a comical manner. The Italian saying, “It will be a laugh that buries you,” is a sentiment that is not lost on rulers and extremists who understand the threat that humor can pose to their authority.
It is important to remember, however, that the rules regarding acceptable forms of humor vary from country to country and culture to culture. Religious satire is commonplace in Western society, dating at least back to Voltaire, but it is unfamiliar (or very well hidden) in Islamic societies. Whereas Westerners have become desensitized to such humor through repeated exposure, Muslims have not; and many of them cannot comprehend what is funny about ridiculing the sacred.
Anyone who has ever been on a playground knows that those who react in anger when made the butt of jokes typically become ostracized and elicit more teasing, while those who laugh along when they are targeted receive less ridicule and more respect. This is commonly understood in most of the Western world, but it is a counterintuitive concept that extremist groups and regimes fail to understand. That is why you will see George W. Bush laughing at jokes at his own expense on The Late Show with David Letterman and Hillary Clinton participating in a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch, but you will never see a member of ISIS or Kim Jong-Un doing the same. Clinging to their fear of not being taken seriously, they unwittingly lose more authority than they gain by failing to recognize and use humor as the powerful tool it is.