Blaming Charlie Hebdo

It surprised me how keen some people have been to point out that the staff of Charlie Hebdo contributed to their own deaths. Not that they are responsible, mind you. No, of course the murderers are responsible for their actions. Nor would we say they quite ‘brought it upon themselves’, I suppose, just that…well if they hadn’t published such gratuitously offensive cartoons they might be alive today.

The more I think about it, the more this observation seems so utterly trivial. Yes, the victims of the crime acted in a way that provided motive to their killers. It would have been astounding if they hadn’t.

What is going on here? Are we so accustomed to ‘random acts of terror’ that we jump at the chance to identify the non-random nature of this massacre? Are we so deeply impressed by the long-standing notion that ‘they hate us for who we are’, we cannot help but get excited when it seems, for once, that they might hate us for what we do? Better still, that they hate someone else for something they did that I don’t particularly like or agree with either?

This is called having sympathy for the perpetrators, and as shocking as that may sound, it is not entirely unnatural or unwarranted. The killers didn’t like their religion being mocked; well I don’t like my religion being mocked. The killers weren’t impressed by crude and offensive satire; well who is impressed by crude and offensive satire? Of course we do not share the terrorists’ murderous intent and we must decry their despicable actions; this is not a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, so the best I can do is just sit back and helpfully point out that perhaps if they hadn’t been so gratuitious and offensive and blasphemous, well perhaps they would still be alive today?

The commentary I’ve read seems to be divided into two camps: “I am Charlie Hebdo”, and “I most certainly am not”. The reality is that most of us are not Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is an ideologically driven publication with extreme anti-religious and anti-establishment political views. Its staff were not merely satirists with a crude sense of humour, like an off-colour version of ‘The Onion’. They were left-wing radicals, of an ideological stripe once viewed with trepidation across Europe.

But to stand in solidarity with the victims of the massacre is to nonetheless recognise that some expressions of extreme ideology are more tolerable than others. We can tolerate nasty cartoons. We can’t tolerate massacres.

The distinction between tolerance and support may be lost on many who take up the “I am Charlie” theme and view recent events as a more generic conflict between terrorists and cartoonists. But the distinction is equally lost on those who feel compelled to point out instead that the massacre would never have happened if the magazine had not engaged in such puerile and offensive satire in the first place.

This is, I think, an instance of allowing disdain for Charlie Hebdo to override and distort the broader context. After all, though disdain for crude anti-religious satire brings us into sympathy with the perpetrators, this sympathy is incidental to their deeper ideological perspective. Some have charged that Charlie Hebdo were performing a role akin to agents provocateur, yet such a charge implies that provocation is the driving force behind these terrorist acts. It might be more accurate, given the nature of Salafi Jihadism, to view Charlie Hebdo as canaries in the coal mine – the first, most obvious target in a broader campaign to impose a Salafist ideology by force.

It has become something of a cliche in conservative circles to say to the more outrageous and offensive critics of Christianity “you would not dare to thus offend Islam”. Charlie Hebdo did not discriminate in its offensive anti-religious propaganda, yet now the response is “they brought it upon themselves”. One might be forgiven for thinking that some Christian critics of Charlie Hebdo perceive natural justice at work in the massacre.

Aside from pointing out cowardice and double-standards among certain critics of Christianity, there is something unworthy of Christian Charity in the subtext “You’re lucky we’re not the type to go around killing blasphemers!” Likewise, if our disdain for offensive satire causes us to turn a blind eye to the moral agency of the Salafi Jihadists, then we are letting our sympathies rule not only our reason but our better nature.

Like it or not, offensive satire is part of the French political and journalistic landscape, while terror and massacres have not been for quite some time. There are excellent ethical bases for not intentionally offending the religious beliefs of others; an appeal to consequences is perhaps the lowest of these. Taking the massacres first and foremost as an opportunity to vindicate a consequentialist position against blasphemy is a pretty dismal offering from conservative Christian quarters.

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Canaries in the coal-mine

I’ve discussed this idea with my melancholic relatives and friends, and was hence pleasantly surprised to see the ‘canaries’ theme appear on the blog of ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘.

Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme draws on the MBTI theory in his observation that:

NFs are like the canaries in the coal mine. Whenever they are not happy, things are bound to change. Therefore NTs should not only solve the present personal finance problems but try to predict and plan for the future that the present will transform itself into given the interhuman tension. If history is any guide things will look much different fifty years from now just like they looked quite different 50 years ago.

In comments a reader asks “what are the NFs not happy about right now?”

As a melancholic/INFP unhappiness is pretty much my stock-in-trade, so here goes:

Melancholics are idealists, and as such the most dissatisfying thing about our present socio-economic conventions (at least in Australia) is the growth of a mundane economic mindset which leaves little space for ideals.

Melancholics are motivated by ideals – we are not motivated by ambition, material wealth, popularity, or ‘what everyone else is doing’.  So it is demoralising for us to find that merely existing in society on a basically equitable level requires a life dedicated to the dull, self-serving materialism of the masses.

In practical terms, pursuing a basic ideal like ‘independence’ seems impossible unless we first obtain some form of hateful employment that pays far more money than we need to simply survive, but not enough to achieve meaningful independence.

Most of the melancholics I know are liberal arts majors (like me) who pursued their degrees under the influence of our idealistic temperaments and without much consideration to future employment.  There’s nothing to complain about in that, but now we find post-graduation that all the traditional avenues of employment for people like us are being squeezed.

Thirty years ago I probably would have gone on to do teaching.  Teaching can be viewed in an idealistic light, but nearly every teacher or former teacher I have spoken to has warned against it.  ‘Teaching’ itself is not the problem, it’s all the associated crap that goes on under the auspices of a seemingly dysfunctional education system.

Academia is likewise being squeezed under new models and domineering management structures that are turning universities into big business.  If we were to inquire about the nature of the ideal university, it would surely begin with wise and exemplary scholars in their various specialised disciplines.  Yet in the modern university the scholars are increasingly reduced to low-tier employees and service-providers, forced to play along with the narrow mercenary attitudes of non-idealistic managers.

The conventional avenues for aspiring idealists are approaching their end.  We’ve arrived at a point in which excelling at these supposedly ‘idealistic’ pursuits requires a non-idealistic frame of mind.  In other words, there’s no room for idealists anymore.

I’m sure this has happened many times in the past; it’s no doubt cyclical. But the important thing for melancholic idealists is to be able to recognise what part of the cycle we are in.  Concepts like ERE are vital and necessary as idealists begin to search for a way of life that is not entirely soul-destroying.  Money is always going to be an important part of life, but our relationship with money needn’t proceed according to social and economic conventions that crush, demoralise, and dismay us.

Recognising ourselves as canaries in the coal mine (or as dtcwee put it: the thin end of the wedge; or tip of the spear) affirms our sense that there is something deeply amiss in the way of life society would have us embrace.  There is something deeply offensive in donning the corporate guise with all its accompanying shallowness, politics, and insincere rhetoric.  There is something incredibly ugly about a society whose labour and institutions are increasingly stripped of any higher considerations than the self-interested and anxious pursuit of material wealth.

Why should I subordinate myself to a feckless and banal corporate structure, a management hierarchy comprised of people whose motives and ethics are at worst malicious and at best only benignly self-interested? Why should I submit myself to shallow conventions of language and an incorrigible corporate facade that exists seemingly just for the sake of preserving a coercive deception that this dysfunctional organisation is one big happy family?

If I have to sacrifice something, I would rather it be material wealth than personal integrity.