Eva Murray: Industrial arts

Je suis.....

Posted:  Monday, January 12, 2015 - 12:00pm

It would seem obvious that it is wrong to respond to printed insult with physical violence. It seems obvious to me, but in these days, we overanalyze such things and look for all sorts of sociological explanations, back-stories, and cross-cultural insights. In my opinion, the obvious is just that —self-evident, uncomplicated, and morally unassailable: you do not respond to dishonor, or to any other intangible, with deadly force. You only respond to deadly force with deadly force. To repel insult and dishonor, we must resort to other mechanisms.

The often-quoted New York Times columnist David Brooks, the less-often quoted Mad Magazine executive editor John Ficarra, and an impressive list of others have opined on the outpouring of “Je Suis Charlie” sentiment after the murders in France recently.

With pens raised in silent resistance people stand in the rain in Paris and worldwide to show solidarity and to stand for freedom of speech. I would stand in the rain among them. Brooks, it should be mentioned, spoke for those who take issue with the “I am Charlie” meme, pointing out that the contents of the Charlie Hebdo publication are not always easy to defend.

We don’t have to like the satire. We can find the cartoons obnoxious, tasteless, even incendiary. We can have all the conversations we like about whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would be acceptable in a university newspaper. That’s not the point.

This is also not about whether the rest of the world should respect the most extreme forms of Islam, or whether in search of a laugh we have pushed volatile people too far, or whether Charlie Hebdo is all that funny. That’s all fine fodder for discussion, but the simple fact is, a line is crossed when a gun is raised. That’s the issue: rudeness is not a capital offense. Civilization has moved beyond thinking that blasphemy—which is basically a specialized rudeness—is a capital offense. I believe that those who think that God by any name needs us to defend his honor with the sword are simply wrong.

We must remain free to say, to write, and to draw what we think. Sometimes that will be, “I think what you say is horrible, dangerous, offensive in the extreme, and utterly twisted. I don’t want you in my newspaper or on my property or near my children and I will strive to undermine your efforts.” Still, unless you raise that gun barrel at me, I may not kill you, no matter how you offend me, bully me, or scare me. Physical self-defense is very different than protection of one’s honor or one’s principles. To think otherwise is barbaric.

I dare to call others “barbaric,” and yes, I mean it. You might write me off as closed-minded, and suggest that I cannot put myself in the shoes of people from cultures outside of my white liberal Rockland coffee shop crowd, or that I don’t understand other people’s religions. You would be largely wrong, and I can explain, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Should we learn not to push the buttons of unstable individuals? Well, that’s a good question. There is some wisdom in such restraint, at times, but there is also a lot to be said for refusing to show fear in front of the bully. I’ve even had neighbors on this little island who have tried to bully the less violent among us; it happens everywhere, at every scale, from the ruthless dictator to the rotten punk on the playground. Dealing with the likes of them forces a judgment call, and over a lifetime probably many, each decision made case-by-case, face to face, and hopefully supported by a good upbringing and a conscience. Maybe you don’t stir a hornet’s nest, but on the other hand, maybe you can’t go through life being told to ride in the back of the bus. This is life in human society, for better or worse, and it is complicated. We each have to make our decisions. Free speech includes some serious troublemaking. Free speech isn’t always ethical speech. How does one respond?

There may be few absolutes in a 21st-Century American mindset, but that doesn’t mean there are none. One of the few is that we do not pull a gun because we have been verbally insulted. Gang members sometimes do this; by my lights, they are invariably wrong.

Some may argue, “They have nothing except their honor; they sincerely think they have to defend that.”

I say, no, you don’t pull the trigger just because somebody has disrespected you — or your mother. Or the Prophet. I was educated by and among those who believe that every culture gets to determine its own ethics, and that there are no absolutes. I no longer agree; there are a few non-negotiables. Human sacrifice was once accepted; these days it is a relic of the brutal past. Slavery is non-negotiable. Honor killing needs to be on the list of things human civilization leaves in its dust, and that is what this sort of criminal act amounts to. Whether it’s a family turning mindlessly against a helpless daughter or an inner city young man taking revenge on some perceived disrespect or a terrorist shooting up a workplace because blasphemous cartoonists are insensitive toward tradition, it’s all the same. It crosses the line. It is not a matter of local culture; killing people over abstractions, over feelings, is indefensible.

“You would feel different if it were your culture being insulted,” some say. No. The writer, the artist, the comedian who offends does not need everybody’s respect, but unless we are about to be struck down we do not have the right to pull the trigger.

Taking offense is most certainly not wrong. Being Muslim is not wrong. Refusing to be marginalized is not wrong. A non-violent demonstration of anger against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would not have been wrong. Pulling the trigger was wrong. Let there be no mistake.


Eva MurrayEva Murray lives on Matinicus.

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