Disclaimers and Stereotypes

I’m interested in disclaimers in comedy, as well as offensive language and its permutations more generally (see here and here). In general, I argue that the speaker doesn’t get to control whether or not something is offensive. The speaker only controls whether or not he/she cares.

Right now, I’ve got a piece working on comedy, disability, and disclaimers (see yesterday’s resource post).. Here’s a much more serious story on anti-Jewish hate in France. As you may know, there were riots in a suburb of Paris that damaged Jewish shops and a synagogue. For Jews, like me, as well as anyone who studies history, it raises the specter of historical mob violence against Jews and is very frightening. NPR had a piece this morning on French Jews moving to Israel despite the war there, because they no longer feel safe (in part due to anti-Islamic sentiment among French Jews, as well).

I want to focus on Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the comedian whose routines are all about the Jews. He’s mentioned in the NPR piece and has been in the news a lot, but here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post piece from June.

“I am not an anti-Semite,” French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala says with a devilish grin near the start of his hit show at this city’s Théâtre de la Main d’Or.

Then come the Jew jokes.

In front of a packed house, he apes Alain Jakubowicz, a French Jewish leader who calls the humor of Dieudonné tantamount to hate speech. While the comedian skewers Jakubowicz, Stars of David glow on screen and, as the audience guffaws, a soundtrack plays evoking the trains to Nazi death camps. In various other skits, he belittles the Holocaust, then mocks it as a gross exaggeration.

In a country where Jewish leaders are decrying the worst climate of anti-Semitism in decades, Dieudonné, a longtime comedian and erstwhile politician whose attacks on Jews have grown progressively worse, is a sign of the times. French authorities issued an effective ban on his latest show in January for inciting hate. So he reworked the material to get back on stage — cutting, for instance, one joke lamenting the lack of modern-day gas chambers.

But the Afro-French comedian, whose stage name is simply Dieudonné, managed to salvage other bits, including his signature “quenelle” salute. Across Europe, the downward-pointing arm gesture that looks like an inverted Nazi salute has now gone so viral that it has popped up on army bases, in parliaments, at weddings and at professional soccer matches. Neo-Nazis have used it in front of synagogues and Holocaust memorials. Earlier this year, bands of Dieudonné supporters flashed it during a street protest in Paris while shouting, “Jews, out of France!”

He starts with a disclaimer, then reinforces and promotes stereotypes. He finds the limits of hate speech, then slides just to the safe side. He reaps enormous publicity rewards, as the New Yorker puts it, “very little talent and a good deal of hate.”

A disclaimer means nothing except that you are aware that you are about to objectionable and don’t want to be punished for it. The cases I’m working on in regards to disability are NOTHING like the hate of Dieudonné, but I am a writer with a focus on epistemology and language, and the parallels are strong.This is an argument ad extremum. Does it work, do you think?

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