Friday 6 March 2009

Norway: policing humor ?

"This is ethics, not law. My opinion is that criticizing religion, politics and people in power is something else than criticizing groups of people. Jespersen’s approach was that of the worst genocide in modern history, the same approach which that genocide was based upon." (John Olav Egeland)

Source: Norway, Israel and the Jews blog

Background: Otto Jespersen condemned by peers

While other Norwegian newspapers are contracting, the weekly Morgenbladet is expanding. This week’s edition runs an interview with John Olav Egeland, the deputy leader of PFU (Norwegian association for media professionals), which condemned Otto Jespersen’s anti-semitic "Jew monologues".
You were deputy leader of PFU when you condemned Otto Jespersen’s "Jew monologues". Which expressions were decisive?

We looked at the entire picture. The most decisive moment, in my opinion, was the last monologue, where he directly addresses Norwegian jews as a group.

"With regards to you Norwegian Jews I don’t believe you benefit from throwing yourself into the competition about being the most persecuted minority in this country…" and so forth?

The point is that he addresses Norwegian Jews as a group, and uses Nazi arguments, such as usury, religious circumcision and the Jews’ responsibility for hanging Jesus on the cross. Here he steps over into anti-Semitic language and crosses an ethical border. Not a legal border, but an ethical border. He moves out of the satirical role, and becomes brutal and opinionated.

The General Secretary of The Norwegian Press Association (Norsk presseforbund), Per Edgar Kokkvold, states (Dagbladet, February 24th) that you have "plowed new media-ethical soil" and it says in the verdict that it was a "difficult" decision?

This was not new soil. Satire has always existed in the media, for instance as caricatures. Our committee has received complaints on drawings which draw lines between the state of Israel and the Holocaust. These complaints have been rejected, because they represent acceptable political criticism. We have also accepted the Mohammed-caricatures.

Which competencies do PFU members have in the evaluation of humor?

The same competence we all have to judge anything else in Norwegian media. It is news to me that any specific competence is required to evaluate satire.

Dagbladet quotes PFU member Ingeborg Moræus Hanssen: "I have rarely felt so unwell. I sat and though about how Monty Python would have done this. Their film "Life of Brian" had both warmth and humor. But here it is so horribly painful to experience these programs." Maybe she didn’t understand the humor? That it didn’t communicate with her generation?

-You have to ask her about that. But satire comes in different forms, and be directed at different groups. It is a demanding, brutal form, which twists expressions in order to pinpoint them. In a time with growing hatred in Norway, satirists must be ethically conscious. For what one is doing here is work with politics and ethical questions.

"Humor researcher" Lena-Christin Kalle states that the PFU has promoted itself to be a "humor police"?

If that is humor research, my laughter will be hollow. In our statement we say that satire is to have a higher degree of protection than other expressions, and that satire is a sphere we will move into only in exceptional cases.

Can you see that humorists now will become less brave?

Absolutely not. This is a decision made within an ethical framework. The Be-aware poster (Media code for responsibility) says that one is to be careful with regards to ethnic background, lifestyle and other issues. This is what we have to manage. That our decisions should result in anyone retreating, is a distant thought.

What is the difference between Finn Graff’s cartoon of Israel’s prime minister as a Gestapo-officer (not sentenced in the PFU) and Otto Jespersen’s Jew monologues?

Since I work in the same newspaper as Graff I didn’t participate in that decision. Generally speaking the cartoons were of a more political nature - against the politics and the religion. The difference here was that Jespersen digs into a small, vulnerable group, in an offensive manner.

The group in question is decisive?

This is ethics, not law. My opinion is that criticizing religion, politics and people in power is something else than criticizing groups of people. Jespersen’s approach was that of the worst genocide in modern history, the same approach which that genocide was based upon.

Given that the PFU calls the decision "difficult" and has "plowed new soil", can personal bias have played a role?

In any case there hasn’t been any negative bias, in my eyes. In my opinion Jespersen represents some of the best satire we have in this country.

In humor one often says the opposite of what one means. "Irony" is defined as "mockery in the guise of the opposite". Did you consider this issue?

I have to ask you if you have read the statement. It says: "The satirical approach is often demanding, because the form utilizes exaggeration, understating and distortion in order to express a statement… This means that satire may contain statements which in isolation may be judged as unethical, but nevertheless must be accepted."

Would the monologue be acceptable if it was entertaining?

It is not up to us to decide whether something is entertaining. But there were clearly many who found this amusing, they laughed. I found that laughter quite cold.

Does the offended party usually participate in the meetings? This one did, Imre Hercz, who has been in a concentration camp. Did that restrict the discussion?

There was an alteration of the protocols on this a year back. The meetings were opened. In open cases the parties have the right to be present, but not to express themselves. That the presence of a victim of the holocaust should be restrictive is alien to me.

You treat a "difficult" case and there is a victim of the Holocaust present. Won’t this affect one on an emotional level?

If that was to be decisive we would have to revise the entire Norwegian judicial system. Victims of violence sit there and follow their own cases. This is part of the principle of the involved parties being entitled to be present in order to see that their case is being fairly treated.

You have spoken out for allowing the Mohammed caricatures. How come they are acceptable, and Jespersen not?

Because the Mohammed caricatures are normal expressions of political and religious criticism. They do not target any vulnerable group, but a religion. One can not see this on an "Iislam and Judaism" axis.

Should Jews, because of the Holocaust, be given preferential treatment in the public arena?

Your question is insufficiently precise, too unclear. But I can sharpen it myself. We must take into consideration that the Jewish minority is small and vulnerable. This has to be an element by itself, also with regards to the fact that there are people who have survived the Holocaust, or who are marked by this. This does not mean that Holocaust is exempt from satirical expression.

To take a current example: would things be different if Siv Jensen this week had warned against "sneak-jewfication" instead of "sneak-islamification"?

I have to answer that as a political commentator, that it today is easier to claim there is a "sneak-islamification" rather that a "sneak-jewfication", because the last mentioned would not make any sense. There are maybe 1500 Norwegian Jews. But it is obvious that some segments of the Norwegian opinion are accepting harassment of people with an Islamic background.

In 2006 you wrote in Dagbladet that "fear of provocations has a price… opinions which are adjusted and correct - either for reasons of politeness, respect or fear - are in the long term poisonous to public debate if left unabated. Aggressive reactions against unpopular expressions will often severely restrict political debate. Above all they force the dark opinions underground where the muck may lodge itself and fester, in peace and quiet". This was valid for the Mohammed caricatures, but not for Jespersen’s statements?

It would be valid for Jespersen if he was a Nazi. But you are turning the problem upside down. What I am saying is that if we drive the extremist points of view underground, we lose sight of them. This is one of the central points of the enlightenment. It does not mean, in an ethical context, that any expression is acceptable. We have to see it in its context.

Could we have printed Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Morgenbladet without being condemned by the PFU?

Quite clearly.

And if yes, is Otto Jespersen worse than Hitler?

I will not compare Mein Kampf and Otto Jespersen, that’s just silly."

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