“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 16 January 2015

Trying to Make Sense Of It All

Recent events, such as the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, which was orchestrated by Al Qaeda, and the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria, have made me feel a profound need to try to make sense of it all.

The thing that started me thinking was my perception of the widely different reactions of the Western media to these events. We were swamped with coverage of the Charlie Hebdo story when it broke on 7th January, and the subsequent Je Suis Charlie campaign. It was only too easy to be swept up in the media storm, and I too shared some cartoons on Facebook on the Je Suis Charlie theme. Freedom of belief? Freedom of speech? Of course they're important! As are the untimely deaths of seventeen people.

A few short days later, while the media were still obsessing over every tiny detail of the Charlie Hebdo story and its aftermath, more than two thousand people were massacred in the North East of Nigeria, in and around the city of Baga. They were murdered by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Most of the dead were women, children and the elderly, who could not flee in time. It made the news alright, but the sense of outrage just wasn't there.

And I was shocked. So what I want to muse about today are the issues of how far freedom of speech should be paramount, and how dualistic our Western world vision is. You may not agree with me, and that itself is a cherished freedom, not available to all.

Let's start with Charlie Hebdo. It is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes. According to Wikipaedia, it is "Irreverent and stridently non-conformist in tone, [and] describes itself as strongly anti-racist and left wing, publishing articles on the extreme right, religion (Catholicism, Islam, Judaism), politics, culture, etc." A bit like our own Private Eye, in fact.

There is no doubt that satire is a useful political and sociological tool, pointing out injustices and hypocrisies in our societies. The question is: where should the line be drawn, between what is 'fair game' for the satirist's pen, and what is vicious and harmful and inciting hatred? For example, I personally found the comedian Dave Allen to be very funny, but he regularly received death threats from the IRA for his sketches mocking the Roman Catholic Church. And I find most political cartoons funny, although I think that some sometimes cross that line. I think that very few people would find cartoons about certain subjects, such as the Holocaust, or slavery, funny. My other point is that, particularly since 9/11, Muslims have been in danger of becoming the West's go-to scapegoats, as the Jews were in 1930s Germany. 

Just saying.

Each of us has a duty to think this stuff through, and to decide where our own line should be drawn. I also believe that while freedom of speech is very important, respecting others' beliefs is also very important. Think of the Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not like done unto you. I wonder how being satirical and disrespectful about the dearly-held beliefs of others fits into this. And whether, ultimately, the world is a better place because of satire? OK, it has an important role in highlighting injustices. But I believe we need to be careful that we aren't making judgements from a position of Western non-understanding and privilege. There are at least two sides to most issues, and it is very easy only to see one, because that is the only one portrayed in the Western media.

Which brings me on to the second issue which is troubling me - the privileged viewpoint of the Western media. It is only too easy to take it for granted that the view of the white, Christian, straight majority is the right one. But it ain't necessarily so. The satirical stories and cartoons printed in magazines such as Charlie Hebdo and Private Eye can be very amusing if you are a member of the privileged class / race / gender. Perhaps not so much otherwise. It's worth thinking about.

In the few days after the Charlie Hebdo killings, there were fifteen attacks on Muslim communities all around France. And after the death of Private Lee Rigby in this country, innocent Muslims were attacked, just for being Muslim. And I think the comparative lack of reaction to the more than 2000 deaths of innocent women, elders and children in Nigeria is another symptom - "after all, that's just what happens in Africa." It's "over there" and hence not our problem.

But we are all human beings. We were all made in God's image. Whether we are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist, or even Unitarian. I totally condemn the murders in France. I totally condemn the murders in Nigeria. I totally condemn every killing of one human being by another. And I totally condemn the evil people who have chosen to turn their backs on God, and to preach hatred and put weapons into the hands of young men who know no better, or no different. 

We each only have one precious life, which we should be allowed to live, in peace.

In trying to make sense of it all, I have to reluctantly conclude that I cannot support absolute freedom of speech in all circumstances, especially if its purpose is solely to mock and satirise the dearly-held beliefs of others. Respect for others is also important. I have to prioritise the values of the Charter for Compassion, which asks us to walk a mile in the other person's shoes, before commenting on their actions. And to avoid deliberately causing pain to another, at all costs.

I do not condone unnecessary deaths, but neither to I condone stirring up hatred and intolerance, through the publication of articles or cartoons, on the one hand, or through indoctrination and radicalisation, on the other. We are all unique, precious, sons and daughters of God, and we need to respect that of God in each other. And I believe what I was taught as a child, that two wrongs do not make a right, and that revenge killings and attacks just make matters worse.

In the words of Gandhi: "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." Amen

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