A new kind of liberalism
Written in response to the Charlie Hedbo atrocity
"Curbing our own freedom of speech can be likened to attending a really great wild adult drinking party, and then unexpectedly your Grandma turns up with your 10 year old niece. Suddenly you just can't say or do what you like. You can't be overtly your adult self as it may offend and or be inappropriate. In the age of a new modern global media...everyone is at the party.
- All of Us
EDIT 16th November, 2015: We are horrified by the abhorrent attacks in Paris yesterday. Our hearts go out to all victims of this evil atrocity.
We are leaving this published as we feel it is important to try and describe some of core causes that lead to events like this - but all the following discussion is in the context of a deep shock and disgust for the inhuman nature of recent attacks in Paris and and a burning sorrow for all the victims of these attacks.
Fundamentalism: a human foible
There is a built in problem in human being.
We tend to believe that the way we live is the right way to live. We live the way we think is best. Nothing wrong with that, after all, if we didn’t think it wasn’t a good way to live, we wouldn’t live this way. However, this belief that we think and live the right kind of way tends to translate into a dislike or disapproval of peoples that don’t live like us. From this kind of disapproval it’s always been a short step for most cultures to a real fundamentalism.
Beyond basic survival modes, it seems at least 5 distinct modes of human being that have emerged over the last 55,000 years: tribal, barbaristic, traditional, modern and post-modern. They all have their own unique world view and core values: Tribal members will insist you pay homage to ancestor spirits, barbaristic warlords will seek respect and power through victory over their foes, traditional religions pronounce no other way than that of their god, whilst modernistic companies prize innovation for profit as their bottom lines and post-modern liberals insist upon freedom and equal rights for all.
All of these different modes have an intrinsic right to be human in their own way – they are all valid interpretation of how to live a human life, born out of their own historical, cultural and environmental contexts at different times in history. So, just because suffragettes get the vote in 1918, doesn’t mean bedouin women in a distant desert suddenly throw off their burqas and start democracies. Just because some Europeans have a renaissance, doesn’t mean tribes in Papua New Guinea instantly decide to abandon reverence for the spirits of their ancestors and embrace calculus.
Not all people in these populations are fundamentalistic about their culture and values, but some are. All of these briefly described positions have a distinct fundamental hearts to them: this is the way to be human. There is no other proper way. This is all really quite understandable. There’s nothing wrong with anyone. One mode of being per person, per culture. That’s what fundamentalism emerges from, a simple human foible. Most of us only know one mode of being human, so any other fundamental mode is not always, but often enough, viewed as not quite right or even invalid.
Unfortunately, fundamentally different positions are, in their essence, potentially violent in nature, because of the very simple fact that there arises in though the idea of “us and them”. Once that separation becomes established and identifiable, violence can more easily ensue given circumstances and reasons - because it is already there in thought. To paraphrase the worst of that thinking: “If you don’t live like us you are not valid”.
Unfortunately, the postmodern wave of liberal pluralism - which has developed since the 1850’s and thrived throughout the late 20th century - also has a fundamentalism. Like all other fundamentalistic positions it has it’s own kind of violence in thought. For want of a better term, I call it ‘Postmodern fundamentalism’, and - in relation to social issues - it goes something like this: We think everyone has the right to live free of persecution, discrimination and undue control. We believe in the equal rights and unique intrinsic value, of all beings. We cherish liberty, fraternity, equality. We are all together in this. This is how we live, and we live like this because we believe this is the right way to live. If you don’t agree with the way we think and the way we live, well, then you can just f&*! off.
I know that may sound unfair or extreme but it really does seem to be not that far from the truth. In France - and I think France is probably one of the most liberally oriented countries of them all - this attitude has literally translated into law. In 2011 the French Government declared it illegal to wear a the burkha in public. It can be argued it is a move for improved security and increased sense of togetherness. It can also be argued to be an attempt to maintain France’s unusual and successful secular relationship to public life. But the issue is complicated because the burkha isn’t actually a religious practice per se, it’s a preference - making this a hot and confusing topic. Reading between the lines here - it’s also about an anti-not-us-ism. The ban occurs in the midst of a general Islamiphobia - manifesting in a variety of ways. To give another example, many swimming pools in France ban and actively eject women who don a ‘burkhini’ or full body bathing suit - a garment really much less challenging than a full burkha. These appear to be measures by the French to control Islamic cultural modes deemed of as being “unFrench” [Note 1]. This is the bizarre hypocrisy of fundamentalistic versions of post-modern values – everybody has rights, but we only recognise our own. Post-modern fundamentalism, whilst purporting concern for the unique rights of all, simultaneously exerts it’s own kind of social violence against all other modes of humanity that don’t share it’s views.
Everyone’s at the party
Charlie Hebdo treats all of it’s subjects equally: with an unabashed rhetoric saying what they think. It is important to do this and I’m glad to know they do. Their passion for freedom of speech is inspiring and their content is excellently funny and often deliciously mischievous. I support their belief that we should be able to think and talk critically about all forms of human being, transparently and also do so without loosing our good sense of humour. However, CH - whilst appearing to uphold a value system for all - actively and happily single out and attack Christians and Muslims, conservatives, entrepreneurs and politicians, and others who don’t explicitly share their core values. They absolutely have the right to do this, but it’s important to also understand their targets are generally those who represent fundamentally different approaches to Human being. In this way, CH actively manifest a postmodern fundamentalism. The unspoken message: ‘To us, these modes are not valid’. There’s nothing new here, or at all unique only to Charlie Hedbo: it’s yet another iteration of the oldest and coldest war in human history - the war between the different modes of human.
CH content is usually light, fun and fair enough, but in the case of the cartoons they seemed to cross a line. In the case of the visual depictions of Mohammed, CH were perfectly aware cartoons had been upsetting a large number of people to the point that many rioted in protest right across the Middle East. They had previously depicted Mohammed in cartoon form on their cover and subsequently received hundreds of letters describing it’s offence. Regardless, they wantonly and openly repeated the same ridicule of these values on their front cover, on public news stands, right across France. It really wasn’t necessary for a sensible discourse about traditional values, or even to just be funny, which in my opinion makes it an ill judged, if not contemptuous act towards those they had already offended.
My suggestion in response to this? Just think more carefully about what one is going to say: How will it affect everybody? It is really necessary? In essence, autonomously curb one’s freedom, as appropriate, out of consideration for all others. Curbing our own freedom of speech can be likened to attending a really great wild adult drinking party, and then unexpectedly your Grandma turns up with your 10 year old niece. Suddenly you just can’t say or do what you like. You can’t be overtly your adult self as it may offend and or be inappropriate. In the age of a new modern global media, we have the same problem with freedom of speech - everyone is at the party. ‘Everyone’ includes really a lot of people who are just unable to appreciate where you are coming from or have fundamental beliefs deeply disparate to our own.
I’d understand if you think curbing your freedoms is not fair, is complicated, and is annoying, and if one does curb their self expression, they will receive no thanks for the effort. But, in my opinion, it does follow that the correct thing to do is act carefully and thoughtfully according to this circumstance. Whilst we have the freedom to say what we like, that doesn’t mean that everything you say is going to be OK. On this topic some journalists have suggested that we should all just grow a thicker skin. Here’s an alternative: why don’t we just all be nice to each other? That doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other - it does mean learning to fundamentally differ respectfully.
The other common response to this issue is: ‘It’s just words’. I think this is the crux of the matter because in instances like this, it’s just not that simple! For the great traditions freedom of speech makes no sense. The precise words used are largely the whole point - that tradition’s specific set of words and specific set of rules are considered sacred and incontrovertible. That’s largely the reason many people practice these religions - because they like it like that. In professing liberal progressive values, we either do believe everyone has a right to their own beliefs, or we don’t. If we profess equal rights, then very obviously, we actually need to respect people’s rights to disparate beliefs and ways of thinking and not automatically expect them to adopt our ways of thinking. Living up to this tall demand is the challenge of communicating and living in our very complicated modern world - the sooner we get used to it, the better for everybody.
I see no point in discussing these things with people who willingly kill.
For the rest of us: The French [Note 2] are obviously a very sophisticated and extraordinary people, and I think they are in a unique position to make this an opportunity to innovate a new kind of mature, magnanimous liberalism: one that is still outspoken, one that is still critical of lesser ways, one that still champions and defends all human rights and defends the weak poor and unpowerful, but, critically, a new liberalism that thrives without aspiring to diminish people who don’t understand it. A new kind of post-fundamentalistic liberalism, where there really is no “us and them” - just all of us.
- Note 1.
There is a completely valid counter concern regards sub-populations that represent fundamentally distinct values. In this instance: the Islamic peoples in France may not reflect or even understand the mainstream, at large collective progressive liberal values of the nation they live in. That’s also a fair and legitimate concern, and a very real and complicated problem. However, I don't believe these issues can be solved by more human on human violence - that includes derisive social violence and apartheids. Go to reference in main text
- Note 2.
I believe these issues are universal, but because this happened in France, I'm talking about France. Go to reference in main text
- Reference 1.
Why are Muslims so concerned about depictions of their prohet? The great traditions of Christianity and Islam distinctly rejected the idea of idol worship. The world in which these traditions were born was one of rampant violence in the name of many gods – represented by idols. The advent of Islam was the advent of a transcendent religion where there was only one god who was beyond the world, thus not manifest in any physical form. Go to reference in main text