Satire, Tact and Provocative Thought

Three days ago, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo. Two days ago, I learned about the terrorist attack that killed 12 people, and, ever since, my news feeds have been filled with articles about the push to end blasphemy laws, the controversy over media censorship, and instances of Muslim groups condemning the attack.

There have also been conversations about the value of provocative satire in a healthy society. While the other topics are worth discussing, I find myself mostly thinking about the difference between satire and hate speech, particularly when it involves religion.

As an atheist, I often feel like I'm walking a fine line between honestly discussing my views and unintentionally offending other people's beliefs.

Let's face it, there are many weird religious beliefs that sound pretty absurd to people outside of the faith. Even the more reasonable tenets can raise some eyebrows, especially when they influence behaviors that affect others.

In a New York Times Op Ed piece, I Am Not Charlie Hebdo, columnist David Brooks describes satire and free speech in a way that really resonates with me. On one hand, he looks at provocative satire as something that people leave behind as they mature and "move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others."

Yet, Brooks also recognizes the value of provocative satire, particularly as a response to fundamentalism. In perhaps my favorite line of the piece he says, "Satirists expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us that we probably should."

Brooks also goes on to discuss the delicate balance needed to keep satire from devolving into hate speech. To me, good satire can poke fun at religion (or politics, etc.) but it must also be thought-provoking and designed to make a point (beyond mere mocking).

While it's a clear challenge in satire, that balance can also be difficult to achieve when simply discussing hot-button issues like religion. I've found that, no matter how tactful I try to be, there will always be some people who are offended just because my point of view opposes their beliefs.

I don't think I've ever had the blind faith that some people display. I've always been skeptical, I've always seen multiple sides of any issue, and I've always questioned my own position to better understand what I truly believe.

In short, I like provocative thoughts. I like being challenged. But I also know that other people do not. And that's okay, too, except when beliefs are used to restrict or oppress others. There are some beliefs that need to be challenged in any society where many different people coexist.

If we can't laugh at ourselves, if we can't accept and consider outside criticism, how can we ever evolve? How can we learn from our experiences, gain maturity or create a better world?

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