Can We Just Laugh?

64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals

The Saudi Arabian government has cracked down on freedom of expression. Those who speak against the government often find themselves being questioned, jailed or worse. One noted journalist left his birth nation out of fear and then felt compelled to write about the events that he saw unfolding with his fellow countrymen who voiced their concerns. His wife became so afraid of what might happen to her because of her husband’s views that she asked for a divorce to protect herself and her children. The man nonetheless continued to speak out about abuses of freedom and ill treatment of dissidents. Eventually he found new love and decided to remarry. When he visited the Saudi embassy in Turkey to complete the necessary paperwork he was never again seen alive. Eventually his dismembered body was found, leading many to believe that he had been silenced by the government that he had been criticizing as a warning to those who dared to speak their minds.

In Hong Kong citizens have been protesting the prohibitive excesses of the Chinese government. The once democratic and free city that operated under the wing of Great Britain now struggles under the excessively restrictive rules of China. Those who dare to defy the government are being publicly beaten into submission. While here in the United States those who dare to side with the demonstrators in Hong Kong are finding that doing so can bring unexpected consequences. 

It’s seemingly unthinkable for those of us who live in the United States to imagine living in a place where we have to watch every word that we utter or write lest we be chastised or ostracized or imprisoned. We live under the assurances of our Constitution and the free speech that our Founding Fathers thought essential to a healthy democracy, and yet there is a kind of shadow hovering over our public interactions that is ruled by mobs intent on controlling what we believe. In the world of tweets and social media comments those who stray from conformance with certain opinions are sometimes figuratively pilloried in the public square.

Much that occurs on the platforms of social media worries me. I am appalled by the rush to judgement that occurs with the flick of  the fingers on a keyboard. The anonymity that we believe we have often leads to cruel and bullying behaviors from perfect strangers who somehow delight in raising our ire with the things that they do and say. Luckily a true hero emerges now and again from the sound and fury of the ether.

I have been an avid fan of Ellen DeGeneres from the time that she first emerged as a talented comedian. I find her to be an honest and loving person with a heart of gold. She’s also quite funny which makes her daily program a fun way to spend a bit of time escaping from the stresses of the world. She is lighthearted and one of those people who mostly stays away from controversy which I appreciate because I have grown weary of encountering everyone else’s political commentaries wherever I seem to go.

On a recent weekend Ellen was invited by her friend, Jerry Jones, to attend a Dallas Cowboys football game where she shared Mr. Jones’ private box with former president George W. Bush and his wife Laura. Ellen admitted that she had a good time even though she is more of a Green Bay Packers fan and to her delight her team actually won. Like any average person being treated to such a grand afternoon she took selfies of herself cutting up and laughing with President Bush and posted them proudly on Twitter.

What should have been an innocent bit of fun turned into a controversy as people excoriated her for daring to even talk to someone like Bush much less have a good time with him. The process of raking Ellen over the coals went berserk despite the fact that she had done nothing wrong other than be polite and appreciative of the hospitality that she received at the game. She behaved in a perfectly respectful manner but so many thought she should have instead ignored the Bushes or even expressed her disdain for having to be with them.

To her credit Ellen used the platform of her television program to clarify her feelings. She courageously told her audience and those who had criticized her that her friends do not have to agree with all of her views to be embraced by her. She admitted that she actually likes George Bush and that his beliefs have nothing to do with their relationship. Once again she proved her mettle in standing up to her detractors and in the process she demonstrated the content of her character. In that moment she became a role model for all of us who are weary of the often illogical and violent divisiveness that is tearing our society apart.

This is not Saudi Arabia nor is it Hong Kong. It is the United States of America and heretofore our nation has mostly been tolerant of different ideas. Sadly many among us more and more often choose sides and steadfastly ignore and despise any thoughts that diverge from their own to the point of insulting and even ostracizing those with whom they disagree. There is so much anger in the public square that many American citizens have grown wary of expressing themselves and often rightfully so because there are extremist groups who actually believe that certain ways of thinking should be illegal.

Our country is treading a very thin line that must never lead to the muting of individual opinions and actions. We must always be free to associate with whomever we desire and to freely state our points of view. It would be wise for everyone to remember that it is never a good idea to strive to be of one voice. We need our dissenters and our revolutionaries. Who knew that one day we would also realize that we sometimes need a brave comedian to remind us of the importance of respect and tolerance and the power of a good laugh?