The Preconditions of Society

Orlando Verde is member of the staff of Kif Kif, a Belgian platform for dialogue and against racism.

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There are requirements to be met in order to achieve humour. In the same way, we must think about the requirements to be met to live in society.

We like to think that in humour everything is allowed, but that’s not true, any comedian will laugh at such a statement. You’re free to say anything within the boundaries of the law and the law provides a wide margin to play with. But that you’re allowed to say something doesn’t mean it’s going to be funny. And if it’s not funny, is it still humour? The reasons why something becomes funny are more interesting than the legal details that surround it.

There are requirements to be met in order to achieve humour. Knowledge, for instance. Knowing what people might find amusing, having an idea about what people do know and what’s an otherwise obscure reference. Knowing what’s funny and what isn’t, a certain acquaintance with the limits of humour, limits that are constantly shifting: sometimes it’s too early to joke about something. Charlie Hebdo, known for its constant exploration of the boundaries of humour, published a cartoon after the Brussels attacks in March in which internationally acclaimed pop-star Stromae sings his hit Papaoutai (Where are you, dad?), and human limbs around him answer ‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘there too’. With the Belgian flag as wallpaper, the cover of the weekly issue was already insulting enough for the families of the victims. But then we got to know that Stromae’s father had died during the Rwandan genocide. Chopped into pieces, some say.

There’s a boundary between humour and tasteless insult, and that boundary was experienced by many Belgians after that cartoon. There weren’t many Charlies that day. Sadly enough, the insult came too late for those who were accused of supporting terrorism when declaring not to be Charlies after the Paris attack of January 2015. Nobody understood then that you can’t ‘be’ something that has systematically insulted you for a long time, not even out of solidarity. Although you do strongly condemn the use of violence as an answer to a lack of respect. No, not everything is allowed in humour because not everything is funny.

Besides knowledge, a certain degree of trust is also required. The audience has to trust the comedian to a certain level. To trust that what is being said is a joke and not an opinion, for instance. That an expression has been used ironically, that the one standing in front of us isn’t the person but the character. That’s why shocking jokes make us laugh, because we trust the comedian and allow them to go beyond our civic limits. We understand an otherwise insulting declaration as sarcasm or criticism, we understand silence as a sharp parody. Somehow, after a necessary moment of doubt, it becomes clear that laughter is the intention, besides the eventual side-effects of reflection and action.

That’s why politicians are seldom funny. Because the intention of a politician isn’t to make you laugh and because political trust has become a scarce good. That’s why politicians so often need to rectify their jokes and make sure they didn’t mean this or that. Some politicians aren’t even good at smiling. We, humans, are very good at identifying an honest smile.

Most politicians play safe and remain within the boundaries of debate and administration, which of course doesn’t liberate them from compliance restrictions. But in an increasingly interconnected world, every citizen is potentially entitled to a public opinion and a certain degree of influence over the lives of others. Doesn’t this mean that we all need to meet elementary requisites whenever we want to criticise, command, complain, debate or, say, live in society?

The need for such requisites seems to be quite clear when we consider the increasing presence of refugees in European countries. The Belgian Secretary of State for Migration and Asylum proposed a mandatory ‘nieuwkomersverklaring’ (newly arrived declaration), to be signed by any refugee expecting support from the Belgian government. The declaration would be a way to make refugees accept and respect ‘our norms and values’, in the light of events such as the massive assault of women on new year’s eve in Cologne. Now, that assumes in the first place that what happened in Cologne is an expression of a foreign culture. It also suggests that refugees are bound to do such practices. And, because European citizens wouldn’t be forced to sign such a declaration, that Europeans don’t do such things. Three statements that have afterwards been proven wrong: Cologne was an organised robbery strategy, used by a gang of thugs to strip young women of their valuables, where almost no recently arrived refugees were involved, and sexually assaulting women actually isn’t an uncommon practice in mass-events anywhere in the world.

Yet, we consider ourselves empowered to impose the signature of a declaration as a precondition to participate in a society. Even though such imposition is based on false premises and it self-evidently results in the stigmatisation of refugees. But is such a declaration, a list of ideals ranging from gender equality to rejection of crime, the blueprint for the requisites to share our society? Smart people already noted that such a declaration is superfluous, because we are already bound to a document that dictates the rules to live in our society: the constitution. And it would make sense to present the constitution to every refugee and show them what the society expects of them, next to the rights they are entitled to. They would see that they have the right to wear a burkini at the beach, for instance.

But most interestingly, that would mean that all citizens can be asked in the same way to declare their respect to the constitution. And that wouldn’t be so absurd, given the many intentions to strip citizens of their rights or to ignore international commitments to help those fleeing war and other calamities. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to remind everyone of those guidelines for our civic coexistence. But that would be incomplete.

The Belgian constitution, for instance, doesn’t imply an acknowledgement of gender equality. That’s one of the arguments of ruling Belgian politicians in defence of their ‘verklaring’. But then again, the Belgian constitution doesn’t imply acknowledgement of racial equality either. So the same argument used for one declaration, could be used to envision other, equally useful declarations, given the atmosphere of racial, ethnic and cultural tensions that affect the entire continent. So if we start doing the job, let’s do it properly: let’s sum up all the conditions that are essential to live together, as a society.

We will rapidly add a recognition of equality to the list. An equality that’s being attacked by politicians and intellectuals who openly state that western societies are superior to, say, the Arabic world. Knowledge, would also need to be included immediately, knowledge of each other, in a context driven by ignorance. In a context where decisions are taken with stereotypes and assumptions in mind, rather than knowledge. Respect, in a situation where identities are being treated with contempt. Self-criticism, in times of blind, one-sided discussions, only aimed at proving oneself right. Self-knowledge, as a requirement for self-criticism. Recognition for each other and for each other’s problems and how we have contributed to that fear and grief. Willingness to listen to each other, with honest consideration, and self-awareness. Criticism, because that’s the only way to make each other grow, once again, based upon respect for the other. Humbleness, as opposite to the arrogance that characterises every debate right now. But at the same time enough assertiveness to stand for what we think is right and consider valuable, because yes, that’s where the richness of a society lies. There must be a will to change, because our society is evolving and will always be. And it’s pointless to make rules for a society that doesn’t exist anymore: we, all of us, need to create a new place together. As opposed to those who want to avoid any change and don’t even feel the need to argue about it, considering the other a ‘guest’ or a ‘visitor’, and not a full-fledged member of society.

There are, certainly, requirements to be met in order to achieve a harmonious society, and the most important is that it’s a set of requirements. That there’s no point in only being assertive and forget about self-criticism, for instance. It’s time to consider the possibility that we’ll need to change ourselves. That we don’t meet all the preconditions to live in society and that we will need to make an effort. That we don’t know enough, that we don’t know anymore where the limits are located. That we might not be as funny as we think we are.

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