Do you recall the January 2015 shootings in France, at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and how, in response, people worldwide rallied to the cause of free speech, and its defining place in what many of us call Western culture, and thus the right of the French cartoonists to lampoon pretty much anything? Including the Prophet Mohammad — whether others liked it or not?
Well, have you seen this commercial from a San Antonio mattress store (that has since closed, apparently)?
Those of us interested in the study of religion — that is, those who are interested in how social groups define themselves by exercising strict control over boundaries and limits (a control that might go so far as to classify certain things as sacred, set apart, and inviolable) — would do well to mull over reactions to both of these cultural artifacts.
For the latter violates what many viewers might take as familiar and obviously set apart whereas the former violated only what others, elsewhere, largely unknown to many of us, seem to recognize as distinct and significant.
So will the mattress commercial elicit strong support for the store’s unfettered right to lampoon pretty much anything (while perhaps noting other people’s right not to shop there, to be sure) or, instead, will they be pretty much universally condemned for their crass insensitivity? Did they cross a line that’s too near to their prospective customers? And what constitutes the proper target of parody? For in the case of the Hebdo cartoons many of us agreed that pretty much anything goes. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — or so wrote Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
So what, if anything, makes the mattress commercial different? For my sense is that we will not see its parody so generously as we did Hebdo’s, and that we will not portray the principles involved in selling mattresses as being the very bedrock of freedom and democracy, as we did in the case of selling magazines.
Simply put, WWDS? (What would Durkheim say?)