Monday, January 19, 2015

Charlie Hebdo: The Importance of Respectful Discourse

Freedom of speech is a basic, inalienable right.  There is no question that everyone, no matter their position or point of view, is entitled to speak about what they believe and disagree with others' opinions.  What freedom of speech does NOT give us is the right of disrespect.

Case in point, Charlie Hebdo.  On January 7, the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo were bombed and several employees killed because they published a cartoon making fun of the prophet Muhammad of the Muslim religion.

After the attack, editor Gerard Biard defended the magazine's decision to publish the cartoon by saying "We do not attack religion, but we do when it gets involved in politics."  (1) (Perhaps it is a problem with the translation from French to English, but saying that you don't attack religion and then turning around and giving examples showing that you do doesn't seem like the best way to justify your actions).

I am the first to agree that freedom of speech is an inalienable right.  But with rights come responsibility.  If you are my friend and you come out wearing the most ugly dress I've ever seen, I have the right to tell you how ugly it is.  But I would never be so disrespectful.

Why not?  Because first of all, I value our relationship, and I affirm your inherent worth and dignity. As such, your feelings are important to me.  Even if I disagree with your choice, our relationship is more important than whether or not I disagree with you.

If you ASKED me what I thought of the dress, I would find a way to tactfully state my opinion. Like, "Well, it's not something I particularly care for, but all that matters is that YOU like it."

Similarly, when criticizing someone's religious beliefs or any other strongly held opinions, why can we not simply state, "I don't believe in your god" or "I don't believe in your religion"?  Instead, we choose to make fun of something that is sacred to others.  One might argue that making fun of someone's religion is not making fun of the person.  That's like saying that if you make fun of my child, I shouldn't get upset because you weren't making fun of ME.  My child is a part of me and yes, I would be offended if you made fun of him.

I personally do not believe in a deity nor support most organized religions.  But I do believe in not humiliating and denigrating people and their beliefs.  If your goal is to convince someone your belief system is right and theirs is wrong, you will never get them on your side by making fun of what they believe, because you immediately put them on the defensive and they can't separate your denigration of their religion from your denigration of their self.

You might be one of those who feels that Islam as a belief system denies people many of their basic human rights, and to a certain extent you might be right.  But all religions do that.  So maybe, like me, you decry all religions.  That's fine.  You might say, "If these religions are denying people their human rights, why should I respect them?"  You don't have to respect the religion, you have to respect the PERSON who holds those beliefs.  Ideas are interesting, and debating them is entertaining, but people are more important than ideas.

Poking fun at someone else's beliefs puts me in mind of the bully on the playground calling the other children names.  That behavior isn't tolerated in children and shouldn't be tolerated in adults who should know better.

I propose a return to the respectful discourse of Socratic discussion.

"In modern argument the issues are often neglected. The presenter is the focus of response, rather than what was said. This focus (on the presenter) is often negative and can take various forms. It may be gentle chiding, regular teasing or serious deriding and lampooning. The end result can be to discourage people from putting forward their opinions on issues. This leads to 'dominant' (as in dominating the agenda) and reticent group participants." (1)

Do we really want the one who can yell the loudest or come up with the funniest put-down to win the argument? Why does there need to be an argument at all?

You cannot "fight fire with fire." You cannot wipe out disrespect by yourself showing disrespect to those you are against. "By their fruits you shall know them." A seed of disrespect cannot grow into a respectful dialog, just as a seed from a poisonous weed can't grow into a beautiful flower. The seeds you sow will be what you reap. If Charlie Hebdo wants to change the world, they won't do it by sowing seeds of disrespect. That won't facilitate a healthy dialogue. The bully hurling insults on the playground isn't going to be then approached respectfully by his peers.

Oh, but you say, Charlie Hebdo doesn't want to change the world? If all you want to do is be the bully that yells the loudest, then I suppose that is its own reward. I would hope that civilized people would have higher aspirations.



Copyright 2015 Judie C. McMath and The Center for Unhindered Living

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