Putting the fun back into fundamentalism


Anyone who seriously believes that there will be 72 virgins waiting for him in Paradise if he blows himself up in the name of Allah, cannot, in my opinion have a sense of humour. If he did, regardless of his own saintly conduct, he would have to wonder what on earth the poor virgins had done to warrant such an appalling fate in the afterlife.
Of course, a terrorist, religious fundamentalist, or fanatic may have the ability to ‘get’ a joke, or laugh at one, or even laugh cruelly at someone else’s misery, perhaps. But they won’t have a sense (in the real sense) of the humour implicit in any given situation, particularly in one’s own behaviour. A sense of humour, it seems to me, relies heavily on a sense of proportion, the
ability to see yourself and what you believe, in relation to the rest
of the world.

Fundamentalism is essentially narcissistic. Perhaps one of the reasons Australia is relatively free of fanaticism and fundamentalism is because Australians have such a strong tradition of humour, an inbuilt ability to prick pomposity.

Taking the piss is our national pastime. The famous cartoon of the two Aussies clinging to the flagpole of the skyscraper, one hanging onto the other’s trousers, which have descended to his ankles with the caption ‘Stop laughing, this is serious,’ sums up an attitude to life which has much to be admired.
It is hard to see that attitude being reflected quite as robustly these days amongst our politicians.

Where are the Jim Killens and Fred Dalys of today, for example? I do see glimpses of it in Barnaby Joyce — he strikes me as an old fashioned shit-stirrer. I miss Paul Keating’s darkly sardonic humour and though Peter Costello occasionally shows a glimmer of something similar, he holds himself firmly in check.

Bob Carr had a sense of humour, I think, but I’m not sure about Morris Iemma.

Julia Gillard appears to have a fine line in dry wit and I had hopes for Mark Latham, but illness and disillusion have drained the humour from him, and anyone who could take the opinions of a taxi driver so seriously as to break their arm was always at great risk of getting things out of proportion.
I think humour is often diverted anger that retains its energy and edge, but somehow diffuses its aggression and its violence. Perhaps that’s why we describe ourselves as ‘exploding with laughter’.

My industry (advertising) has a lot of difficulty with humour. Lost as we are in never-ending research, we make the classic left-brain error of trying to research the joke, or design it so it appeals to a particular demographic. As any stand-up comedian or comedy film producer will tell you, when an audience laughs at something, they laugh in unison.

By and large, people find the same things funny no matter what walk of life they come from.
Sadly, what we increasingly find funny, is the shock of recognition when someone states the plain, unvarnished truth. We laugh when someone voices what we have all been thinking, but haven’t dared to say out loud. So we laugh both in recognition of the speaker’s insight, and in admiration of their courage.

Humour is by its very nature, therefore, subversive. It does not accept accepted wisdom, it questions and doubts and points out the gaps between the rhetoric of the powerful and their actions. That’s why religion is rarely allowed to be funny. The kind of cosy patter indulged in by pastors at the pulpit does not qualify as humour because its intention (like many other forms of advertising and propaganda) is not to deflate but to inflate. It is fake humour, it is manipulative, it speaks the opposite of truth because it has a hidden agenda. The Life of Brian is funny, The Passion of the Christ is not.

This is not to say, however, that no-one with a religious belief can have a sense of humour. They can and do. There was a lovely story in a recent Sydney Morning Herald about an irreverent Christian website (www.shipoffools.com ), where they are currently running a competition to find the funniest religious joke. Here’s an example from the shortlist: ‘What do you give a paedophile who has everything? A bigger parish.’ Now, websites like that could almost convert me, laughter being the greatest and most civilised weapon of all.

There is a great deal of earnest fuss at the moment in the corridors of power about the failure of our culture to impress itself upon some more recently arrived members of our community. Currently the Prime Minister is fulminating about the rhetoric allegedly being taught in some Islamic schools — the fastest growing schools in the country. He has gone so far as to threaten to remove some of the funding from those schools that teach ‘hate-based’ philosophies. He should listen to some of the rhetoric being pushed in other taxpayer-funded religious schools.

A woman I know recently withdrew her daughter from a very respectable, Christian private school after the students were warned to avoid non-Christians and students at public schools because they would introduce them to drugs, crime and sexual deviancy! What’s more, we continue to generously fund fundamentalist Christian schools that teach creationism as science. Is this somebody’s idea of a joke?

We are also working ourselves into a lather about legislating against religious vilification, something the ‘Ship Of Fools’ website was specifically created to fight against, due to their sensible fear of the effect such legislation could have on humour. For God’s sake, without the safety valve of exploding with laughter we increase the danger of exploding for real, not the opposite.

Some of the other suggestions made to counteract fanaticism have included teaching Ethics in schools; the ubiquitous values poster; and pressure on Muslim leaders to condemn terrorism and violence. Worthy, perhaps, but what we are neglecting is the power of fun.

Why don’t we create compulsory ‘How not to take yourself too seriously’ classes in all schools as a condition of funding? Why isn’t ‘Stand-Up Comedy 1’ a compulsory subject in Years 11 and 12? Indeed, given the naturally subversive nature of most healthy adolescents we won’t need to make such classes compulsory, the kids would flock to them. The Simpsons, Kath and Kim and The Office are a great deal more effective at communicating Western culture than a whole raft of well-meaning lectures and courses.

My theory is that anyone who can laugh as they recognise their own part in the shared comedy that is humanity, could never strap a bunch of explosives to their chest and detonate themselves on a crowded train. A sense of humour insists that you step back from yourself and your sacred cows, be they your religious or political beliefs, or any other of your dearly held prejudices (we all have them) and look at them from a different perspective.

In fact, a sense of humour may be closely allied with a sense of humility, a good religious concept if ever there was one.
The ability to laugh at yourself, to listen to the little voice in your head that tells you when you are behaving like a prat should not be underestimated. Zealots, fanatics, terrorists, workaholics, true believers of all kinds either don’t have those voices or don’t listen to them. Which ought to make them very funny, if it didn’t make them so bloody dangerous.

Holy Website on a grin and a prayer, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15th August, 2005.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.