Tag Archives: debate

Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and the Wise Man on the Bus

Picture the clichéd image of a bedraggled man or woman sitting in a chair hunched over a typewriter. They appear to have been in the same position for at least three or four days. Every now and then they stop to violently tear the paper out of the machine, ball it up as small as they possibly can, and toss it into an overflowing waste paper basket. Each time they spit forth a tirade of foul-mouthed self abuse as the rejected sheet descends to join the pile of other useless rubbish in the bin – all there is to show for the three or four hours that they have actually been sitting there.

That’s how I write.

All I can say is that I’m thankful for laptops and word processors, especially for the ability they afford me to repeatedly cut out huge portions of my writing and start over, without single-handedly destroying the Amazon. To put it mildly I’m a ‘drafter’ – the writing process for me, as I’m sure it does for many others, involves copious amounts of cutting, pasting, deleting and re-writing – and occasional swearing (out loud, not on the paper). But usually I get there, I end up with something that I think gets across the point that I am trying to make.

What has made that process so much more difficult this afternoon is that, as I’ve just realised, I actually have no idea what the point is that I’m trying to make; or rather what my stance is on the issue that I’m trying to discuss.

I’ve been trying to write about my views on the public reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings that tragically occurred 11 days ago. Everything surrounding this tragedy is terrifying and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Of course this is always going to be a difficult subject to write about. It is a story of inconceivable tragedy that tugs at the heartstrings, not just the political sensitivities, of many nations. It has come at a time when (speaking for a moment of the UK in particular, as this is all that I have personal experience of) many people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the system of government. I have personally heard people who would never before have dreamt of abstaining from voting in a general election, considering doing just that. Not because they can’t be bothered but because they simply no longer buy that there is any difference between the parties on offer. Many of the people who are considering ‘waiving’ their right to vote don’t see it as that at all, they see it as exercising their right not to do so. In a nutshell (admittedly one inside which the emotional topography of an entire nation is hugely over-simplified and generalised) the population is angry. The “this country is going to the dogs” sentiment abounds and although that idea seems always to have held appeal for the older generations who fondly remember a “better time” that in reality may not have been any better at all; now the younger generations are starting to agree. But how do you fight against an establishment which is so.. well.. established?

In the midst of all this uncertainty is escalating religious tension, and one thing that I am almost sure about (I say almost because I’m less qualified as a politics expert than I am as a zookeeper) is that the aforementioned political parties don’t really mind that tension, not one bit. After all it is not only distracting us from how utterly uninterested they are in the wellbeing and quality of life of anyone below them in the class and power foodchain, but is an ideal basis of useless rhetoric and empty promises with which the various parties can divide the population into comfortable voting categories – then pretend they care who we vote for as they all enjoy remaining in power together, the bestest of buddies living the high life behind closed doors. The escalation of religious tension between Muslims and – it would seem – everyone else, has provided the opportunity for UKIP and Nigel Farage to rise up from the masses (this description requires us to forget for a moment that Farage has basically the same background as the rest of the major players – give or take a few years of make-me-rich banking) and try to convince us that they are the ‘revolution’ that this country so sorely needs. They’re reminiscent of a manufactured pop band and I suspect they’ve been designed by the people in charge to make us think that we do not need to question what’s really going on, we just need to rebel by voting for UKIP in May and everything will change; we’ll all have more money, there will be 0 unemployment for the white man and they’ll find the cure for all cancers, in early June. If UKIP do get into power I imagine it will turn out to be more like the time when Rage Against the Machine stole the christmas number 1 from the X-factor – only if we had found out soon after that the band were in fact managed by Simon Cowell all along, and they’d immediately started covering Leona Lewis songs.

But that’s a subject I could write about all day. What I find so much harder to do is form a solid opinion on the human issues surrounding the tragedy of 12 people murdered in their office as they went about their day and how this can come to happen, in the midst of so much more hatred than I ever want my future children to be surrounded by.

Like everyone else, I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces about this tragedy over the last 11 days but I’ve honestly found myself more confused after reading each one.

In trying to form an opinion I have considered writer Mehdi Hasan’s assertion that Charlie Hebdo has never published cartoons about the holocaust or 9/11 as this would be offensive; and that this destroys the idea that they believe in freedom of speech without limits?

But hang on a minute, while Charlie Hebdo have indeed never published either of the above (thankfully!) but to the best of my knowledge, nor have they ever published jokes about thousands, or millions, of Muslim men, women and children being massacred. Surely their Muhammad cartoons are all about denying extremism that’s based on the belief that people deserve to die for refusing to follow a prophet? Surely that’s their reasoning for ridiculing Muhammad? Not racism, not hatred of Muslims?

But then there is a lot of discussion around whether it as seen as acceptable for other religions, in particular Judaism, to be mocked in the same fashion as we are expecting the followers of Islam to accept. This seems to centre mainly around the reported sacking of Maurice Sinet in 2009 for allegations that he made anti-semitic remarks in his work.

In my view, all religions should be allowed to be mocked and need to be mocked, if we are to ever come to understand that they are flawed human creations, not divine catch-alls for whatever monstrous behaviour we as flawed human beings want to get away with at any one time (which they have served as across all religions for centuries). But of course that has to apply to all of them.

A question that I have seen asked by many, after first being posed by Professor Brian Klug, which has caused a lot of debate, is mentioned in the Mehdi Hasan article and which did really make me think, was this: would someone joining the unity rally held in Paris in reaction to the shootings, holding a placard showing that they support the gunmen and their ’cause’, have made it out of that situation unharmed? I don’t think I can answer that question confidently. So does this prove the hypocrisy of the idea of free speech without consequences?

Then I read another article just today, that has been written in response to the first one, and this too made a lot of sense. In it, among many other good points, the writer argued that none of those defending Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “have or would advocate (government-sanctioned) suppression of Holocaust jokes, however repulsive they might find them,” because they believe in free speech.

But wait, the question posed is not about Government-sanctioned judgement. This still leaves the question of whether all of those attending that rally really would have been able to allow the man with that placard his right to free speech without violent consequence, given how deeply offended they would have been by what he was saying?

Indeed, many of the sickeningly racist comments that I read attached to a video (LINK) of a radical Muslim being attacked by two British men for preaching on an British high street, certainly did not reflect the opinion that voicing their views (no matter what they are) should not put a person in danger.

As I write this I realise that of course, trying to work out what would have happened in Brian Klug’s scenario is all conjecture and nobody can really say what would have happened in that situation. I suppose the point I’m making is just that I am confused about what I think here.

So all I can do is go back to the things that are easy and are facts in my mind – because sometimes it helps to take things back to basics for a minute and look at what we really believe:
1. What happened to those journalists is not OK. It can never, in any way, be justified.
2. Mass persecution of people of any (or no) faith, can also never, in any way, be justified.
3. For as long as we keep allowing our governments and press to guide our opinions of each other, we’re screwed.

That’s it as far as things that I am sure of on this subject goes, that’s all I’ve got and I’m aware that it isn’t very useful at all. In fact it’s probably nothing more than common sense, but the problem is that amidst the bombardment of information that we all receive on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis, maybe our view of common sense has gotten a little lost in the white noise?

An elderly gentleman on my bus the other day, who smelled quite bad and talked loudly to himself for the whole journey – soliciting more than eye-rolls and sniggering then I would have hoped to see in 2015 – at one point said something that I think maybe we all need to stop and remember. He said “we’re not all the same though are we, whether you’re a man or a woman or whatever, we’re all different from each other, every one of us.”

“Don’t Tell me what to do!!”

For a long time now I have found myself getting very frustrated by some people’s massive overuse of the term ‘political correctness’.

Now this is not because I feel that a situation in which my kids could grow up not being allowed to keep long-lived British traditions such as having Christmas parties and plays at school, is fair and just. It isn’t because I don’t recognise that there are still many taboos in our society which need to be broken down, and that getting around entrenched stiff-upper-lip-syndrome is an essential part of making cultural progress with issues around, for example drug use, mental illness, abortion, homelessness, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy… the list goes on and on. It isn’t because I am a wily politician who is terrified of voters thinking about and discussing real issues which may lead them to question my carefully cratfed election strategy, and consider voting for a ‘revolutionary’, ‘new,’ party such as Ukip. (The fact that a vote for Ukip is in my view the exact opposite of a vote for change or a protest against the establishment, is a topic for another day).

The point is, I don’t like being told how it is ‘correct’ for me to think, feel or behave, any more than the next person.

But what I also hate is to see people rolling out the old cliche that something is “just political correctness gone mad”, along with a big sneer, as a barrier to conversation and debate. What I hate is when that cliche is thrown into the mix as an excuse to refuse to discuss the way in which we do things, our attitudes, or really anything that means anything.

Today I was reading a post on Facebook where a guy was asking parents to consider signing their childrens’ more extravagant Christmas presents from Mum and Dad, and signing a more modest collection of them as being from Santa Clause. The idea behind this was that the children of parents who are less wealthy (or less willing to amass huge amounts of debt) can be left wondering why Santa thinks they’ve been naughtier than Jack down the street who got 2 new consoles, 26 games, an iPad and a whole new wardrobe for Christmas.

The idea is that splitting the credit between Santa and the parents shows children that their Christmas presents are determined by the wealth of the family rather than by who Santa likes the most or by how well each child has behaved (which, lets face it, tends to have very little effect these days, on how much stuff they get).

Now of course, there are many arguments before and against this. I can totally see the point that many parents work very hard to provide chair-fulls of gifts for their kids at Christmas, and don’t see why they should have to spoil the magic by admitting they’re not all from Santa. I can also see the argument that the only important thing is to teach your children to appreciate whatever it is that they get, and not compare it to what other’s have received. I know that’s how my brothers and sisters and I were brought up and we continue to be very none-materialistic people and appreciate anything that is given to us or done for us.

Another comment that had me nodding as I read, was from a parent who wholeheartedly agreed with the post and elaborated that she thought it was extremely important that children grow up from day one knowing the value of money and that nice things don’t just appear out of nowhere because they are owed to you, because its Christmas.

I could see the points of people who pointed out that we all have a responsibility to society and its other families, and the happiness and welfare of their children as well as just our own.

The post and its comments made a really interesting read and there were so many varied opinions that I can’t honestly pretend I know how I will approach this when the time comes that I have my own family. But I really enjoyed reading the discussion and thinking about the points that were made.

I also saw a blog about much the same subject but discussing the impact of posting photos of mountains of gifts on social media, if you have time give it a read and check out the comments, people obviousy feel very strongly about this issue.

The only comment that angered me to read was on the first post and it basically ranted about how this is just another example of ridiculous political correctness, and “them” trying to tell us what to do.

No. No it isn’t. It is simply a heartfelt post written (from my perception) with the intention of encouraging parents to think about something a little differently. It was intended to start a discussion and it did just that.

So why is it that some people are so terrified of that? Why are they so quick to become intensely defensive of themselves and the way they live their lives? Why are some people so closed to debate?

As I said above, I don’t like being told by our government how to think, feel and behave, just like everyone else. But I also hate being told just that, by people on the internet. I hate reading memes and posts on Facebook which agressively proclaim to rally against ‘political correctness’ and encourage individual opinion, yet include words along the lines of “re-post this if you have the guts”.

Is this not also trying to tell me how I should think, and shaming me for having an opinion which does not comply?

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there is nothing wrong with questioning the way that we do things as individuals and as a society, and that crying “political correctness” every time someone tries to do that, probably says more about you, than the person you’re yelling it at.