The first rule of satire in the U.S.: Do not offend

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

When you preach a doctrine of tolerance, it’s sometimes hard to know what to do with satire.

Not the easy stuff — the cartoons, literature and comedy that take down celebrity culture, corporate heartlessness, a squabbling government — but the trickier topics: gender, class, personal politics, religion.

The country that helped invent the notion of universal free speech has learned to tread carefully. Words and images are parsed, protested and often apologized for.


And it isn’t blue-blood conservatives deciding that it’s impolite to discuss money, politics and religion in public; it’s mostly f-bomb dropping liberals. While deploring the terrorist attacks on Sony and Charlie Hebdo, many Americans seem alarmed to discover that inclusive democratic idealism is not a warm fuzzy blanket but a blade with two deadly edges.

On one side is freedom of speech and expression, which must be protected, because without it we are nothing. The other edge guards the many groups that are or have been victims of stereotype and oppression: Free speech isn’t really free if it attempts to endanger others’ personal safety or deny them social equality.

It is a difficult blade to wield, particularly when dealing with satire and political provocation.

Many of the images published by the Parisian satirical magazine were indeed deeply offensive, so offensive, in fact, that American news outlets, including this one, chose not to publish them even as part of the reporting. Some decried this collective decision as censorship or capitulation to political correctness.

But the images were well outside the boundaries of most newspapers’ general guidelines, and this country does not have France’s tradition of satirically scathing stereotype or its comfort level with attacks on religion of any sort.

Charlie Hebdo is a self-described liberal publication, which in France implies among other things a general disdain for organized religion, including Islam.

By contrast, in America, most liberals currently disdain disdain.

Though coming out of the same sort of protest movements that created Charlie Hebdo, American liberalism is based far more on acceptance than mockery or even confrontation. Although swings are taken at certain laws, leaders and incidents, the preservation and more importantly the respect of multiple viewpoints remain the ultimate goal.

So much so that “political correctness,” shorthand for any perceived pandering to tolerance and inclusion, is considered by conservatives and indeed many liberals to be a bigger danger to creative expression than terrorism. Last year Stephen Colbert found himself having to explain that a joke referencing the fictional character Ching-Chong Ding-Dong had been taken out of context on Twitter. Even Margaret Cho’s specific satirical takedown of an inarguably fascist North Korean regime at this year’s Golden Globes was viewed by some as racist.

There are exceptions. Bill Maher, a self-defined liberal, preaches hard-line anti-religion. “The Simpsons” gently pilloried American smugness and the American family while leading the way to the more outrageous satire of “South Park” and “Family Guy,” both of which have had episodes pulled or changed when network executives found the content too offensive.

But most popular satirical comedians — Colbert, Jon Stewart, John Oliver — are more comfortable targeting policy and conservative provocateurs than groups of citizens. By contrast, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, though more the target of satire than practitioners, have built careers on offensiveness, gleefully flying in the face of liberal America’s most sacred cows — including its devotion to tolerance.

Provocative speech provokes and what emerges can be ugly and dangerous, but in most cases the ugliness and danger were existing preconditions. Likewise, certain words and images have been stricken from acceptable lexicon because they represent and incite prejudice, but living in a free society does not guarantee freedom from being offended.

Quite the opposite. Most of us are offended each and every day — by pornography or graphic violence, by evangelism or atheism, by regional snobbery, political hypocrisy, reality television or a chance remark by a public figure.

What offends us often defines us, as individuals and a society. In expressing our outrage, we clarify what we value and what we deplore; sometimes, listening to others, we even change our minds. Democracy is built on many revolutionary notions, but none is more important than that people have all manner of crazy views and beliefs, and they all deserve the same protection.

Until, that is, they impinge on the personal safety, social opportunities and access to justice by others.

Deciding where one freedom endangers another is where it gets sticky. We’re the only ones who can work it out, all of us, in a conversation loud and long with as many voices and as much passion, humor and mutual respect as humanly possible.

That’s not political correctness. That’s evolution.