Saturday, 10 January 2015

obligatory Charlie Hebdo post

I had no intention of writing about the Charlie Hebdo massacre until very recently (like, twenty minutes ago). In the beginning, I heard about it and didn't pay it much mind. Terrorism is a fact of life now. It's not the first terrorist attack in France, it's not unexpected, it wasn't even a particularly high loss of life. Days later two thousand (TWO THOUSAND) were slaughtered in Nigeria with a similar motive. In this case the victims were public figures, part of the establishment media in France, and doubtless the air of familiarity that carries has made people feel this more acutely than they otherwise would.

The second reason I didn't intend to write was because I didn't have a simple opinion about it, unlike most who have raised their voices. In fact it would be fair to say I didn't have an opinion at all until I started reading other peoples' and thinking "yeah you have a point there". So I wavered a lot and did some mulling and I think there's some things which I still haven't heard anyone say. I'm going to say those, along with some things that have already been said.

Let's get it clear: there's no absolutes in this. It's deceptively easy to invoke certain principles which our culture believes in an say that trumps all else. Free speech is an important principle and it's one that underpins liberal democracy - meaning Western European culture. But despite what many people say, in life our free speech is always subject to the censure of common sense. If I insult someone, mock them and make a fool of them, then they may turn violent. I have a legal right to do it, and short of slander I can say whatever I want to and about other people. But then I expect certain consequences if I go about it in the wrong way. If the victim responds violently then they have broken the law and may be punished, but me in hospital and them in prison doesn't seem a victory for anyone. For that reason, most of us do not exercise the extremes of free speech which we defend.

Charlie Hebdo did; knowing that it's a very sensitive subject they published cartoons mocking religions and religious beliefs. Islam wasn't the only religion they mocked - they also got their claws into Judaism and Christianity. They did this knowing - let's be honest - that they would face at most some mild criticism from conservative members of the latter two. It's an accepted part of our culture to offer criticism and outright mockery to religion, as much as it is to politics. It's in of the secular west's holy cows. The right to satire. Most of us believe it firmly. I'm certainly one of them. Some humour makes me uncomfortable but I deal with it. It's part of living in a freeish country, with all the benefits that entails. What is the difference between mocking Islam and mocking Christianity? Well, effectively none. And especially for those of us without religious faith, the post-religious in the West, all religious are equally archaic and distanced from our intellectual milieu as to be fitting targets. But secularism is located within a particular religious setting. It is not by accident that the secular world is basically synonymous with Christendom: It is essentially a post-Christian phenomenon - the secular world is the latest incarnation of Christendom. It is the stage that happens in our culture after the specific religious belief of Christianity is filtered out, but still our metaphysics, our cultural presumptions and intellectual baggage remain. We, in the West, the majority of us have grown up as Christian whether we practice or not - it is encoded in our culture. We know the gist of the New Testament, we know the festivals, we know the creation story and the basic soteriology of Christianity. In mocking Christianity we are mocking our own history. Judaism now is assimilated with varying degrees of comfort, to the extent that it too can be considered a part of the religious establishment of the West. Islam is not. It is still a religion - or better, a culture - which is outside the commonly conceived essence of Europe and the West.* It is not at all unusual for Western culture to hold fast the value of critique, of poking things even if it hurts as an objective value applicable to all, but then to reserve the harshest poking for that which is alien to it; the defense "hey, I do this to myself too" doesn't really cut it. Just because I punch myself in the face doesn't mean everyone else should let me do it to them.

*A large part of this is because it has external homelands where Muslims reside and from where they emigrate; Judaism does not have this to such a degree, the tiny state of Israel still being a nation effectively of refugees from other tragedies. Secondly, becasue Jewish life has been part of Europe for centuries.

There is a kind of cultural imperialism in the belief that satire is just fine, it can be pointed wherever we like and everyone should accept the insults. But then what is multiculturalism about? If Muslims live in the West, shouldn't they accept Western values as westerners would when leaving elsewhere? Yes. Simple answer. Just like immigrants to Britain should indeed learn English. It's bad for everyone if people don't attempt to integrate and grin and bear the challenges that brings to some degree. Part of living in these countries is accepting that people don't take religion too seriously, and will often take the piss quite cruelly.

Does freedom of speech mean the right to offend? Does it include hate speech? Does it include the right to incite others to violence? These are the difficult questions which free speech brings. Clearly if we're going to hold to some kind of free-speech principle we need to know exactly how far that freedom goes. There is a point at which ridicule does actually become psychological aggression. And while it is very easy for the mainstream of society to say "it's just words", words are experienced very differently by those who are oppressed by the mainstream, locked out of the warm embrace of social acceptance. It's all words to begin with, but words represent and help to form a social reality of discrimination and prejudice. Would it be different if the terrorists had targeted the offices of the Front National?

Now this makes it seem as if Muslims don't have self-control; autonomy. Everyone is essentially responsible for their own actions. It is never acceptable to say "they made me"; provocation can be an influence, but never a cause. It is worth reciting this: Jews in Europe and the Middle East (i.e., under Christianity and under Islam), in the face of centuries of oppression far worse than Muslims now face, never countenanced violent response. There has also been little evidence of retribution from Christian minorities in the Middle East who have faced severe (read: genocidal) difficulties. The black American civial rights movement had little truck with violence except in self-defence. The Roma have not committed a single act of terrorism. Oppression does not necessitate violence. People choose their own response, with a large helping hand from the peer pressure and way they interpret the culture they align with.

Is there a problem in Islam? Certainly. In Islam right now there is a huge problem. Terrorism - both within Islamic states and non-Islamic - is becoming synonymous with Islam. And it's particularly telling that this response occurs not just towards oppressive Western countries, but also within Islamic and African countries (though by no means all of them). Muslims are hardly an oppressed minority in Nigeria or Pakistan. This wasn't always the case - Islamic civilisation was for a long time much more peaceful and tolerant than Christendom. And let's be very honest - in terms of violence, in terms of numbers killed, the amount of Muslims which the modern West has killed either directly - through invasion, war, drones - or indirectly - through propping up dictatorships, quashing democratic revolutions, carrying out proxy wars - is far far more than the amount of Westerners Muslims have killed. It's a different kind of violence: either a war carried out where civilians are collateral damage, a war that is against a state often also abusive towards its citizens (and often helped into power by Western funds); or the subtle violence of sweatshops, natural resource plundering, all for the protection of Western interests and the quality of life in Europe. My point is, the West also has a problem. And it's a massive one. The urge to hold on to power, power for some, for the "free" people of the West, means subjugating and controlling those of the East who may otherwise pursue their own interests and privelige their own rights and freedoms over ours. Or at the very least compromise our total agency in the world, our right to do and say whatever we feel, with an alternative viewpoint, an Other which faces us as an equal. So, let's not kid ourselves. Western culture and Western governments have no more respect for life than Islamic ones do. Human lives are always collateral in the grand scheme of politics, a machine which chews up souls in a way nature could only imagine.

But there's no easy answers to this. There never are, are there? When we have to find a way of dealing with human relations its so attractive to say that one principle trumps all others. But we're all trying to live in this world together. If I want to do something and feel like I have every right to do something, it's still the case that I am not the final arbiter. I morally ought to think about other peoples' feelings and about how other people might interpret what I say.

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