Friday, January 09, 2015

Martyrs and The Coordination of Sentiment


That Je Suis Charlie meme is a great example of the spontaneous political sacred – it declares a public communion with some genuine martyrs. I forwarded it around myself, but felt self-conscious about it. Not that I didn՚t feel like standing in solidarity with the murdered political satirists, but because it seemed that to post it on Facebook seemed to be in part bragging about it. If I had been in the city I might have joined in a rally, that would feel authentic, but doing it online is sort of like attending a church service by teleconference – inauthentic at best, sacriligious at worst.

Perhaps enough rationalist anti-politics memes have penetrated me that I am leery of moral posturing, in myself and others. Still, this seems like a pretty easy case. An act like this compels choosing a side, and there isn՚t much question about what side I or anybody I would care to share the planet with would find themselves on. Team Civilization is what Jon Stewart called it yesterday – and he used the occasion to assert that the American politicians he mocks aren՚t really his enemies. I՚m not so sure about that, they are killing us too, just more slowly. And they unleash many orders of magnitude of violence and death than a couple of Islamic terrorists. Still I admired his ability to find the right tone of horror and reconciliation and self-awareness needed to get back to the business of comedy.

You probably have a collection of confused emotional reactions to an event like this – a mix of anger, fear, hatred, distress. Perhaps you are angry at Muslims in general – that would be pretty natural, although disallowed by liberalism (It՚s also quite likely that that is exactly what the murderers were aiming for – sharpening the contradictions, firming up the boundaries, promoting conflict, acting as violence entrepeneurs). Maybe you are finding it difficult to maintain your liberal faith in the bright line between speech and violence. Or f you are a right-winger, you may subconsciousnly be welcoming the sharpened contradictions yourself, as it justifies your own miltancy, and maybe you feel a bit guilty about that. Or maybe your reaction is confused by the racist nature of some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which included some pretty classic antisemitic caricatures that did double duty against Jews and Arabs.

Sacred rituals exist around things that are confusing, terrifying, too big to think about rationally – death and other absolutes. It՚s how people deal; at least it allows us to be confused together. So there is a guilty benefit for horrific events like the Charlie Hebdo murders or 9/11 or natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. They bind society together simply by virtue of being too big and violent to ignore.

Like other sorts of rituals, I find this process weird and somewhat alien even as I allow myself to mostly be carried along with it.

1 comment:

Crawfurdmuir said...

The best word to describe Charlie Hebdo is "scurrilous." One need not admire its content to believe that publishing scurrilous cartoons should not warrant death. If freedom of expression means anything, it is the freedom to express not just the innocuous and anodyne, but also those opinions we find strongly disagreeable. Charlie Hebdo was an equal-opportunity offender. It published cartoons attacking Christians and Jews, too. These groups complained, but unlike Muslims, they did not attack the publication's offices with Kalashnikovs and RPGs.

A key to understanding the outpouring of public sympathy we've witnessed is that Charlie Hebdo was an organ of the French secular left. There is an element in French left-wing politics of anti-clericalism that descends from the 18th-century philosophes such as d'Alembert, Helvétius, and ultimately Voltaire, and which was established in law under the Third Republic as the principle of laïcité.

This has no exact equivalent in American politics. Our First Amendment's non-establishment and free exercise clauses have historically permitted religion a much greater presence in the public square than would be à la mode de France.

Stéphane Charbonnier, the late editor of Charlie Hebdo, explained his continuing jibes at Islam by making the point that Catholicism, the historic butt of anti-clerical derision, had been "banalized," and that he hoped to go on attacking Islam until it was just as banalized as Catholicism. This is a motive, then, with which the left in France, and in many other places, could sympathize. Other motives might not attract such sympathy.

The commitment of Western societies to freedom of expression in general is not as great as one might suppose. They simply have more subtle ways of restricting it than at the muzzle of a gun. It's not necessary to kill people when one can cause them economic harm or render them social pariahs. The threat of such treatment is usually enough to deter politically-incorrect expression. Examples are legion.

To illustrate this point, can anyone for a minute suppose that had the people who attacked the Charlie Hebdo office instead attacked the offices of the Front National, we'd have seen a massive march through the streets of Paris, with people carrying signs reading "Je suis FN"? Of course not! At most we'd hear the pundits and the main-stream politicians making muted remarks deploring the violence, but intimating that the victims, after all, had been asking for it.