Sunday, 11 January 2015

Responding to Paris: I am not Charlie but I shall Pray for Him

Like many people, I have been musing on events in Paris since they occurred and whilst it easy to condemn the actions of the terrorists involved, lament the tragic loss of human life and pray for all those affected, I have found it very difficult to formulate a coherent response to what the attacks represent. This may be partly due to the fact that I am not entirely convinced that the attacks have the meaning that most sections of the media claim they do.

I cannot in good conscience for example demonstrate my solidarity with the victims with the hash tag #jesuischarlie because, to my mind, Charlie Hebdo was a repulsive publication which went well beyond satire into the realms of disdain and perhaps even hatred. Many have pointed out that Charlie Hebdo is at least consistent in its approach as it has published cartoons which have invoked the ire of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Homosexuals, Politicians, Businessmen etc but diversity in hurtful polemic does not negate or excuse it. It is for this reason that I cannot the endorse the prevailing narrative, feverishly supported by the media, that the attacks were first and foremost an attack on freedom of expression and therefore an attack on the ideals of "liberté égalité fraternité". Indeed, much of what I have read in the media response appears to be filled with irony and hypocrisy.

Here are just a few examples:

Charlie Hebdo supposedly represents the summit of freedom of expression yet France's National Front were excluded from the multi-party response arranged by the French government. The National Front may make a a vile contribution to the French political climate but doesn't it's exclusion constitute a denial of expression? [1]   

One million people were expected to join the #jesuischarlie march in Paris and the world media ensured a global audience yet on March 25, 2013, the one million people who joined the Manif Pour Tous in support of the traditional family, also in Paris, were completely ignored. They were however met by baton baring members of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité. [2]

Some of the same media outlets expressing solidarity via #jesuicharlie continue to "self censor", refusing to show audiences the images which had provoked the terrorist response. Many claim to be doing so out of respect for Muslims yet the same policies do not seem to apply to Christians or Jews. The Associated Press for example said that it did not want to to publish "deliberately provocative images," yet it had no problem selling (until the aftermath of events in Paris) copies of "Piss Christ," an artwork that was deliberately designed to provoke Christians. [3] The hypocrisy of the New York Daily News was juxtaposed on the same page as it printed a Charlie Hebdo image, pixilating out the offensive image of Mohammed, but leaving the offensive image of a Jewish rabbi in place.      

What therefore are we to make of the events in Paris? 

Firstly, I think that it is time that we had a serious debate on the nature of Islamic terrorism. Spouting platitudes which claim that events in Paris, Iraq, Syria or Nigeria have nothing to do with Islam are futile and will do nothing to address the escalating loss of life. Part of this examination must necessarily include the secular West's relationship with and understanding of Islam because none of the events since September 11th 2001 have occurred in a vacuum or have happened without a history. Like it or not, the West has inherited all the complexities of Christendom's relationship with Islam and Judaism. Perhaps it is time to critically re-asses Pope Benedict's address at Regensburg, an address for which he was lambasted at the time but which seems to grow in relevance with every passing minute [4].

Secondly, the media has far too much influence over society. To my mind, the balance between reporting public opinion and forming it has long since tipped in favour of the latter. On the same day that 12 people were killed in Paris, Boko Haram carried out their deadliest attack murdering two thousand in Nigeria. The Paris events have dominated the news as they have been framed as an attack on the very soul of Western Liberalism but the massacre in Nigeria has been reduced to an "other news" item. I see similar parallels with ISIS in Syria - it was only when a journalist was beheaded that a vociferous response was made by Western leaders, spurred on by outrage in the media. Why did the those prisoners who did not work for the press yet were gruesomely and summarily beheaded not deserve the same publicity and response? I appreciate that it's only human nature to respond more passionately to events which effect our own social or interest circles but should journalists be regarded as a special class of people because they represent the great ideals of liberal democracy? In 2007, Andrew Marr criticised the BBC for its "innate liberal bias" stating that it was "a publicly-funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large". The Times reported that this bias had "extended across drama, comedy and entertainment, with the corporation pandering to politically motivated celebrities and trendy causes". [5] I don't think much has changed amongst the general media since then but this is not to say that the profession is devoid of members with great integrity and heroism.

Thirdly, I'm not so sure that complete freedom of expression is an ideal to which every civil society should subscribe. Thankfully, there are very few people who agree that child pornographers should be afforded the kind of platform given to Charlie Hebdo. Nick Cohen in the Guardian laments the refusal of the BBC or Channel 4 to run with images of Mohammed, lamenting what he calls western liberalism's cowardice. He warns us that "unless we overcome fear, self-censorship will spread". To my mind, a virtuous society is one which does "self censor", it accepts that freedom comes with responsibility and that it can sometimes be most generously expressed by choosing what not to say. I disagree with many philosophies, behaviours and ideas which are prevalent in western society and I am grateful for the freedom so say so and to try and explain why. I would never however want to resort to hateful, crude or vile language or to express my opinions by drawing cartoons specifically designed to be offensive to my opponents. The source of this "self-censorship" cannot however be the media or the government - it has to come from the hearts and minds of society itself. Yes, we should have freedom of expression but that freedom must not be expressed responsibly and never wielded like a weapon. Unfortunately, one would only have to spend 10 minutes on Twitter to see how uncommon this attitude is.

Finally, the debate around what constitutes legitimate freedom of expression has perhaps revealed a poorly understood consequence of greater degrees of pluralism in Western society. Multi-cultural societies are necessarily contain more diverse opinions and beliefs and this creates a greater potential for causing offence. Conversely, community "policing" of offensive behaviour and comments is diluted because there is a lack of consensus what should be deemed offensive. In this, western liberalism is perhaps hoist by its own petard as its instance of the triumph of individual rights over the collective has undermined the common good and society's ability to deal with intolerable words and behaviour. Take fore example the fact that Scottish Police are said to be looking into Katie Hopkin's comments on "Sweaty Jocks" bringing "Ebola to England" [7] Have we really got to the point where the police need to treat such language as a hate crime or should it be enough for the rest of us to tell her, politely, that her opinions are nonsense and that she won't find any support for them amongst civilised folk. Without a strong appreciation of collective rights, we are forced to look to the government for redress to personal grievances and it simply isn't equipped to maintain such order without resort to restriction in the freedoms we take for granted. 

So, I've come to the end of my incoherent dump of thoughts on Paris. I cannot say #jesuischarlie but I can appreciate the sentiment of the millions of people who took to the streets in Paris to express solidarity against the terrible events there. Tonight I will pray for all those effected by terror and for an end to such atrocities.
[1] http://www.france24.com/en/20150108-paris-attack-charlie-hebdo-french-unity-far-right-national-front-lepen-hollande-republic/
[2] https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/1.4-million-march-against-gay-marriage-in-france-police-tear-gas-crowd-chil
[3] http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/associated-press-censored-muhammad-cartoons-while-selling-piss-christ-prints/article/2558314
[4] E.g. See http://blog.acton.org/archives/71814-dear-pope-benedict-sorry.html or http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2015/01/08/benedict-xvi-showed-the-way-forward-for-the-muslim-world/ 
[5] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6764779.stm
[6] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/11/paris-attacks-we-must-overcome-fear-or-selfcensorship-will-spread
[7] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/11319054/Katie-Hopkins-investigated-by-police-over-little-sweaty-jocks-Ebola-outburst-on-Twitter.html

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