Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Get outta the house!

Time has passed, 20 days to be exact, since the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Defenseless people were slaughtered. The pursuit of the gunmen played out like a Hollywood movie. There was outrage, of course, and marches in support of free speech but now perhaps there is time to look into the whole thing a bit more dispassionately.

A society is a lot like a house: If you stay in a house, or at least play in the same neighborhood, long enough, you begin to take a lot for granted. There are things that you do and things that you don't do. I remember when I was young comparing ourselves to our family friends and couldn't help but feel we were poles apart - they did things we didn't even imagine trying. Cultures and societies are like that, too.

Every house has its head, but the head is never totally in control. And there are house rules, too, both explicit and implicit. But even with these there is deviance from them: there is the sub-world of children and teenagers; you have some boarders in; you have some hired help, and perhaps a boyfriend or girlfriend that stays over - things can be complicated. Brothers will tease sisters (and vice versa); naughty things might happen in the bedrooms; perhaps some of the silver goes missing and there is the faint smell of cigarettes or pot by the back porch. Some house rules can cause resentment, perhaps just because it is an inappropriate rule, or it's enforced selectively or it is used as a tool against others. Girls have to come home earlier than boys, etc. But there is the comfort of the house and the seemingly firmness of the house rules gives us all what we need for peace of mind: security. However, when we get down to it, it's just a house and things can go bad within and without even with the power that the head of the house has.

In most western countries we have this nominal house rule of free speech, but it's really up to the judgement of the heads what is free and what is offensive. Explicit and implicit sanctions control what can and can't be said and expressed. But even lower down society as a whole uses its own explicit and implicit sanctions on each other and the powers that be. The murders were an expression of outrage that surely isn't what those marching might imagine, but it was a clear statement, as was the point made by the original Charlie Hebdo pictures, taking a sacred image and mocking it.

If it were my house, the rules would allow for cartoons to be drawn and burkas and hijabs to be worn and nudists walking down Queen Street, but whether people should do either in particular situations is the real question. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. That's simply where freedom and responsibility meet. It's where theory and reality collide. Holocaust denial, homophobia, open gay behavior, hate speech and nudity are all forms of expressions of humanity that can all be exposed to open and discreet forms of oppression or condemnation by both the State and/or the populace at times. The freedom of expression is theoretical and eventually defensible in court (but whether you'd win is another kettle of fish). The immediate actions taken against those expressions though can be sharp, unpleasant and painful.

We can talk about inalienable rights of people of this world. But this world can alienate them just fine. Pitbulls can do it. People can alienate those of others with similar ease. In the moral desert of ISIS, they can alienate your head from your body. That doesn't mean people won't fight the tyranny of fear that the monsters can impose upon us, but the things that bind us together are more important to emphasise: respect, tolerance and understanding.

Those who stay in their house, their country, their culture are prone to not see past the house rules, especially if they're the conservative majority. Difference and change drives them to fear. But let's not fear and let's learn something from the spilt blood that might truly undo potential future conflicts. Let's understand the societies we live in and the true responsibility we have with our freedom of expression.