Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The forces of cultural evolution push hard on political humor

Posted 07 Jan 2015 / 0

To most Americans, it sounds crazy. In response to a satirical movie, a country mobilizes its strategic hackers to attack the website of a major movie studio and threatens violence on any movie theater that shows said satirical movie. A newspaper famous for poking fun at extreme religions becomes the scene of horrific slaughter. How could media become the justification for threat of violence, much less the inspiration for actual killing?

When North Korea decided to take revenge on Sony Pictures for putting out The Interview, the real and the absurd seemed to have traded places. The premise of the movie — that a pair of American trash-TV producers become the would-be assassins of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — seems no more unlikely than the government of North Korea launching a cyber attack on a movie studio. But the absurd was made real, forcing what I can only imagine is a mediocre movie into a form of cinematic hiding.

The tribulations faced by Sony and The Interview seem trivial compared to what happened today at the French satirical periodical Charlie Hebdo (1, 2). In response to the magazine’s satirical depiction of extremist terrorists, masked gunman killed 12 people and wounded 11 more before driving away in broad daylight. To satirize is now to put one’s life in jeopardy.

These events seem absolutely crazy to me.

Beyond crazy, they are abhorrent.

People ought not to be killed for simply making a movie or drawing a cartoon, even if that media cruelly satirizes the culture of someone else. There is really never a situation in which insult to one’s culture should be justification for killing. I cannot imagine being provoked to such acts of brutality.

At least, that’s what my culture says…

Despite how abhorrent I find these events, they are not hard for me to understand, because I see these events in the context of cultural evolution. As an evolutionary biologist I have been trained to look for the “what is of things rather than the “what ought to be”. And one can see these events in an evolutionary context if you accept (which I do) that cultures mutate, spread, compete with each other, and have the potential to go extinct. When one culture threatens another, it should not be surprising to see the threatened culture fight back. That is what is, whether you think it ought to be or not.

Clearly there are major conflicts between the ideas held by the cultures that produced The Interview or Charlie Hebdo and the cultures that produced the North Korean regime or the various factions of extremist Islam. At issue in both of these current events is whether it is acceptable to mock a major political or religious figure. The Interview and Charlie Hebdo suggest that it is, and the North Korean government and extremist Islamists suggest that it is not. There is no right or wrong here, just a battle between ideas. Two cultures hold very different values, and there is a “struggle for survival” of idea versus idea: which cultural ideas will emerge better adapted to their environment, better able to vanquish competing cultural ideas?

What is curious here is the cultural adaptation at issue: humor. Our culture has it in abundance, and these extremist cultures seem not to have it at all, which makes them even more vulnerable to satire. Think about it: imagine if Al-Queda made a movie about killing George Bush (which I am sure they have) or Barrack Obama (which I am sure they have). Would this be a funny movie? Undoubtedly not, as satire does not seem to be a weapon employed by these cultures. We would interpret such media depictions as a simple threat and provocation. But when we make a very absurd (but not totally absurd… has the CIA visited Dennis Rodman?) movie about killing the leader of North Korea under the pretense of being satirical, we do not expect said movie to be considered a threat or a provocation. That is precisely because we are playing by our cultural rules, and the cultures we mock clearly have not signed onto our “mockery is not a credible threat” idea.

And should they? What I find fascinating about these recent attacks on western media is that they have focused on satire and not just regular old cultural propaganda. There is plenty of non-satirical media out there that promotes the ideas that Kim Jong-un is a lunatic and that extremist Islamists are overly-protective of the image of the prophet Mohammed. So why go after the satirists?

I would suggest that satire is a special cultural adaptation, and that it is particularly threatening to these extremist cultures. Humor and satire are used as cultural levelers: in mocking someone, we frequently seek to displace a person who has become too powerful. Satire erodes a potent culture currency, the reputation of a person or cultural institution. These “extremist” cultures are premised on the absolute reverence of a superior figure (a “supreme leader” or the “sole prophet”), and the superiority of these figures is threatened by mockery. I do not think that Kim Jong-un is really worried that The Interview makes him more vulnerable to actual assassination. Instead, I think that he rightly concludes that the existence of this movie has the potential to alter the global cultural environment in a way that makes the survival of North Korean political culture even less likely than it was before the movie was released. What The Interview and Charlie Hebdo produce really is culturally threatening, because humor is a potent weapon in the war between cultural ideas. The Interview and Charlie Hebdo wage a kind of cultural war, whether our culture sees it that way or not.

Ideas are not the only weapons in the culture war. Actual weapons can also be used to wage war against another culture. While our society has worked hard to make such violence in response to cultural expression “not allowed”, in competitive evolutionary struggles everything is allowed. We have to expect that cultures who feel threatened will use whatever means they have at their disposal to avoid being over-ridden by their cultural competitors.

And that is why I think that media — in particular satirical media — has garnered so much attention from various “extreme and marginalized” cultures. Media is the power base of the dominant cultures of the world. American media has tremendous influence across the world, shaping the attitudes and values of people worldwide, and thereby puts a lot of pressure on other cultures. One could argue that global media threatens a lot of cultures with extinction: many cultures — including a few that I value — have been wholly over-ridden by foreign media. Some more powerful “marginal” cultural institutions have attempted to resist foreign cultural competition by walling themselves off from foreign media (China, North Korea, Cuba), but in the war of cultures sometimes a good defense is not enough. In a battle for cultural survival, there is no right or wrong, and one is foolish to be surprised that any culture might employ any tactic to ensure its own survival.

If we want our culture to remain extant, we had better be ready to satirize out of existence competing cultures with very different ideas about satire. For us, satire remains a potent weapon in the culture wars.

A Major Post, Belief, Cultural Evolution, Ethics, Memetic Fitness, Philosophy, Political Science, Religion, Reputation, Social Norms

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