Choice of Targets: Drones and Humor

In theory, the use of drones (UCAV or Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) allows the U.S. Military to better “target” terrorists, without the need for large quantities of ground troops and billions of dollars more of Federal Debt.  Although the use of drones sometimes succeeds, it is fraught with the possibility of “collateral damage”.  In other words, killing innocent people (like the wedding party in Yemen), either by them being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or via faulty military intelligence or targeting.  Collateral damage creates risk for “blowback”, in the form of future terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, a previously little known publication outside of France, known as Charlie Hebdo, takes potshots at terrorists, the Muslim religion, and other “targets”, including French politicians, political parties, and other religious groups or leaders.  I have not been a reader of Charlie Hebdo, so I can’t accurately describe or critique their cartoons.  But apparently, rather than choosing a specific target (a terrorist leader or organization), Charlie Hebdo instead chooses to symbolically target or depict the prophet Mohammed, from whom the Muslim faith emerged.  By doing so, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists and editors may have knowingly or unknowingly caused “collateral damage” by targeting the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims, not to mention subsequent “blowback”.  As there are some so-called “Moderate Muslims”, and some Muslim leaders have condemned the recent murders by terrorists in France, why make the “target” too broad?  That would seem to be like dropping a nuclear joke instead of deploying a properly targeted humor drone.

I happen to enjoy reading editorial cartoons, in English and in U.S. publications.  But I don’t speak French or know much about French humor, so I can’t speak specifically about Charlie Hebdo’s style of humor.  But in reading editorial cartoons, viewing Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, or Stephen Colbert, or reading the quotes of Will Rogers or Samuel Clemens, you become aware of who the “targets” are.  The question is whether a given target was properly chosen or not.

A couple decades ago, I read the book, “Comedy Writing Secrets” by Melvin Helitzer.  I was taking an evening college course at Michigan State University on comedy, and preparing for the final class at Connxtions Comedy Club in Lansing, MI.  I read that book again in 2013, in preparation to be a contestant in the Vermont Comedy Club contest.  I didn’t win, but I am proud to say that I was probably the only contestant on that night’s event that didn’t rely on the use of the F-Bomb “crutch”, as I call it.

In Chapter Three of Helitzer’s book, “The Anatomy of Humor: The THREES Formula”, it lists these six elements of humor: Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion and Surprise.  Under the Target heading, Helitzer writes:

“Our instinctive perception is that humor is fun.  It isn’t!  Humor is criticism, cloaked as entertainment, directed at a specific target.”

The author lists four possible targets.  The first is People.  Helitzer opens that section with:

“You can’t target an entire audience any more than you can shame the entire world.”

The suggested “target” categories in Helitzer’s book are People, Places, Things and Ideas.  Under the category of Targeting Ideas, that would include the idea of “terrorism” itself.  Should Charlie Hebdo surgically target the leaders of terrorist organizations and their ideas (ideology), rather then the prophet representing all Muslims?

By regularly depicting the prophet Mohammed, did Charlie Hebdo pick too big of a target, instead of the “bad apples” otherwise known as the “radical jihadists”?  Had Charlie Hebdo’s writers and cartoonists pinpointed the terrorists more accurately, they might have found that there are other Muslims who don’t like their religion being hijacked or terrible atrocities being committed in the name of their religion.  Charlie Hebdo may have found some in this group who may have shared the publication’s criticisms of terrorists.  It would surely have been a challenging needle to thread, but it might have been more effective then easy and cheap shots at an entire religious faith.

In Chapter Twelve of Helitzer’s book, “Stay in Character: Speak Softly But Carry a Big Shtick”, the author describes the Twenty Masks of Comedy, which are essentially styles or genres of comedy.  Mask #6 on the list is the “Political and Social Satirist”.  According to Helitzer:

“Satire attacks political and social targets and, therefore, is very controversial for very large, mixed audiences.  Satirist Will Rogers felt that if he could score a 50 percent “laugh rate” he was doing well.”

For various reasons, Muslims do not like visual depiction of the prophet Mohammed.  One reason is that prior to Mohammed there was idol worship, which Mohammed rejected.  Thus, a depiction of Mohammed is considered to be an “idol”, and Muslim believers are not supposed to worship an idol.  Right or wrong, that is their belief, and maybe we would more effectively combat terrorism if we paid attention to this detail.

In the Jewish faith tradition, Jews do not casually write any Name of God.  In order to avoid directly writing the Name of God, they use the unique spelling of G-d, according to the Jew FAQ website.

I am a Christian, and I don’t know of any specific edict regarding visual depictions of Jesus or God.  But in Exodus 20 there is the Commandment about “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, …”, and the next Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain …”.  There have also been differences in belief between Protestant and Catholic denominations regarding the depiction of Saints.

I have seen editorial cartoons which portray Jesus.  I have also seen other cartoons, where a “voice” appears from heaven, but a visual depiction of God is not rendered.  In the cases I’ve seen, the “target” of the humor was not Jesus or God, but rather another “targeted” person or organization is being critiqued.  The target can be a TV Preacher, or a self-righteous politician, each misusing religion for political or financial gain, or some other form of religious hypocrisy.

Christians and Jews share the same story of Moses and the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue).  The Quran (or Koran) makes reference to the Decalogue and that believers should follow these laws, but it does not explicitly list them as a group.  However, the Quran does list other verses or phrases which are similar to one of the Commandments, in various locations in the text.

So within these three major world religions there is care taken in how a given “Higher Being” or Prophet is depicted or referred to.  Likewise, these religions share the same Decalogue or have similar statements or laws within the text.

Therefore, if done carefully, editorial cartoonists, satirists, comedy writers, screen writers and other humorists could take aim at the proper “target” without carpet bombing an entire set of believers in a given faith or religion.

By taking more careful aim and proper targeting of humor, we might find that people of different faiths together can find some comic relief in their disgust with terrorism.  It would not matter who is committing such atrocities, be it the so-called Islamic State or the Klu Klux Klan.  As long as the humor is targeted at these bad actors and not potential audience members — the good, decent and faithful people — it would give them a better way to call out terrorists and criminals who do bad things in the name of their religion.

While I like the icon of the “pencil” used in the recent march in Paris, and support free speech, I am not sure I would say that “I am Charlie Hebdo”.  After 9/11, people around the world said “We are New Yorkers” or “We are Americans”.  We could say that “We are Parisians” or “We are French”, to show solidarity with the victims, their families and fellow citizens.  France is more than just political cartoons or even free speech.  France gave us the Statue of Liberty standing in New York’s harbor.  I contend that saying, “We are Parisians” or “We are French” is a more “targeted” and accurate statement of solidarity than “Je Suis Charlie”.

“Close enough” is okay for horseshoes and hand grenades.  But for drone strikes and political cartoons, better “targeting” should be considered.  Ready, Aim, Fire (in that order).


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