Self-righteousness about the self-righteous: An attack on Charlie Hebdo

Note, February 7, 2015: I return to this topic in a subsequent entry.

Of the attack on the satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo,

Michael J. Morell, a former deputy director of the C.I.A. and now a consultant to CBS News, said it was unclear whether the attackers had acted on their own or been directed by organized groups. He called the motive of the attackers “absolutely clear: trying to shut down a media organization that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad.”

“So, no doubt in my mind that this is terrorism,” he said.[1]

But suppose the attackers had not “screamed ‘Allahu akbar!’ or ‘God is great!’ during the attack,” or “said that they were part of Al Qaeda?”[2] Suppose instead that they were Christian, reacting to some slight on Christianity? I have doubts that Morell would so quickly label the assault terrorism. He would, instead, perhaps, label it the act of three deranged relatively young men (in the event, identified as Said and Chérif Kouachi, 34 and 32, and as Hamyd Mourad, 18[3]).

There are other troubling aspects. Many people reacted with outrage to the attack, of course. Notably, “Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris, one of France’s largest, expressed horror at the assault.”[4] But once again, I am seeing fury directed against religion. Again and again, the usual suspects cry that religion is to blame.

The assault threatened to deepen the distrust of France’s large Muslim population, coming at a time when Islamic radicalism has become a central concern of security officials throughout Europe. In the space of a few minutes, the assault also crystallized the culture clash between religious extremism and the West’s devotion to free expression. Spontaneous rallies expressing support for Charlie Hebdo sprung up later in the day in Paris, throughout Europe and in Union Square in New York.[5]

Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish progressive Tikkun, puts his finger on my qualms. After noting the minimal attention paid to threats and attacks against himself and others who have challenged Israeli policy, or to civilian deaths caused by U.S. drone attacks, or to the question of prosecuting U.S. elites for torture,[6] he writes,

there is no recognition in the media of the dehumanizing way that so much of the media deals with whoever is the perceived threatening “other” of the day. That media was outraged at the attempt by some North Korean allied group to scare people away from watching a movie ridiculing and then planning to assassinate the current (immoral) ruler of Korea, never wondering how we’d respond if a similar movie had been made ridiculing and planning the assassination of an American president. Similarly, the media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded. . . .

Yet the violence is an inevitable consequence of a world which systematically dehumanizes so many people who are made to feel powerless and despairing and deeply depressed about the possibility of finding the milk of human kindness anywhere. The representation of evil dominates the media, and becomes the justification for our own evil acts. And that evil is made possible because so many among us avert our eyes and shut our ears to the cries of the oppressed.[7]

Lerner points to structural violence that leaves so many marginalized, hungry, and impoverished,[8] and continues:

All of us absorb this global reality into our unconscious, just as we absorb the violence, hatred, and demeaning of others. We tolerate the kind of endless put-downs that the “humor” magazines and even supposedly liberal comedians like Bill Maher perpetrate, not realizing how much damage all of this does to our souls. The spiritual consequences are all around us: people despairing of ever being understood by others, growing distrustful of others, and feeling that no one really can be trusted. . . .

“But they ridicule everyone’s religion, not just the Muslim’s, so isn’t that fair?​” we are reassured. But the reassurance isn’t reassuring. That they ridicule everyone is exactly the problem — the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone. But of course not equally destructive, because people who are already economically and socially marginalized are in far greater danger of having this demeaning sting rather than feel funny.[9]

Of course, if we notice this, we are apt to be associated with fundamentalists or, as Lerner notes, “to open oneself up to charges of not caring about the murdered or making excuses for the murderers.”[10] There is a cyclical aspect here: Assuming the superiority of a secular world view, we not only deny our own self-righteous persecution of those who disagree, but then condemn not only those who lash out violently, but the entire communities from which they come, further marginalizing entire groups of people, leading to yet more violence.

Lerner observes a number of hypocrisies in our treatment of Muslims and in our reaction to events such as this attack on Charlie Hebdo.[11] Let me add another: In ordinary life, we hold people individually responsible for their life outcomes. However, we stigmatize entire groups, including the poor, including Blacks, including Muslims, and then deny it, by citing a “rags to riches” story, or by electing Barack Obama president of the United States (but challenging his origins), or by selecting Condoleezza Rice as (now former) Secretary of State, or Clarence Thomas as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, or Kofi Annan as (now former) United Nations Secretary General, using these individual exceptions to obscure the suffering of a vast number. In global neoliberal society (Thomas Shapiro unduly limited his scope when he called this an ‘American’ credo), we imagine “that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.”[12]

We lie to ourselves, are self-righteous among ourselves, and we close our ears and hearts, but we only notice these faults among people of faith, and then we do not even stop to wonder why people might be radicalized, why they might feel they have no other recourse than a massacre.

Lerner argues that individual human rights and liberties are “not our highest value. Our highest value is treating human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect and see[ing] them as embodiments of the holy, and treating the earth as sacred.”[13] But this is the mistake of modern conservatism: It substitutes a discourse of “liberty,” never minding whose liberty, for compassion. It has become the mistake of secular global neoliberal society as well.

  1. [1]Dan Bilefsky and Maïa de la Baume, “Terrorists Strike Charlie Hebdo Newspaper in Paris, Leaving 12 Dead,” New York Times, January 7, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/europe/charlie-hebdo-paris-shooting.html
  2. [2]Dan Bilefsky and Maïa de la Baume, “Terrorists Strike Charlie Hebdo Newspaper in Paris, Leaving 12 Dead,” New York Times, January 7, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/europe/charlie-hebdo-paris-shooting.html
  3. [3]Dan Bilefsky and Maïa de la Baume, “Terrorists Strike Charlie Hebdo Newspaper in Paris, Leaving 12 Dead,” New York Times, January 7, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/europe/charlie-hebdo-paris-shooting.html
  4. [4]Dan Bilefsky and Maïa de la Baume, “Terrorists Strike Charlie Hebdo Newspaper in Paris, Leaving 12 Dead,” New York Times, January 7, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/europe/charlie-hebdo-paris-shooting.html
  5. [5]Dan Bilefsky and Maïa de la Baume, “Terrorists Strike Charlie Hebdo Newspaper in Paris, Leaving 12 Dead,” New York Times, January 7, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/europe/charlie-hebdo-paris-shooting.html
  6. [6]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/mourning-the-parisian-jou_b_6442550.html
  7. [7]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/mourning-the-parisian-jou_b_6442550.html
  8. [8]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/mourning-the-parisian-jou_b_6442550.html
  9. [9]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/mourning-the-parisian-jou_b_6442550.html
  10. [10]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/mourning-the-parisian-jou_b_6442550.html
  11. [11]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/mourning-the-parisian-jou_b_6442550.html
  12. [12]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 3.
  13. [13]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/mourning-the-parisian-jou_b_6442550.html

2 thoughts on “Self-righteousness about the self-righteous: An attack on Charlie Hebdo

  • January 26, 2015 at 3:44 pm
    Permalink

    While I have respect for the author’s compassion and level of education, I have to categorically disagree with most of the assertions he makes.
    The exception to this is that the world sorely needs more compassion. I believe the large scale vehicle for that is for the religious leaders of the world to get together regularly to clarify what basically amounts to the Golden Rule which is common to most major religions. Their lack of guidance has been an astounding vacuum and it is incumbent upon them to at least attempt to fix the misguided source of the terrorist solution. Namely that is derived from an extreme interpretation of none other than the Quran. That is not hearsay – just read how it regards the Infidel and your questions regarding the source of Islamic disregard and disgust for non-believers will be answered. Ignorance of that fact is tantamount to a useless undeserved mea culpa.

    Reply
    • February 7, 2015 at 1:10 pm
      Permalink

      I think the difficulty with this idea is that religious leaders are not unanimous. And the degree to which they have achieved unanimity has been criticized for being insufficiently precise.

      When I speak with Muslims, I have been repeatedly struck by their absolute certainty that their interpretation of the Quran is the correct interpretation, even when these interpretations differ from each other. Similarly, when we speak generally of Christians, we should know that we include the Ku Klux Klan, the Inquisition, the Crusades, televangelists and other social conservatives, and the rationalization for modern hyperindividualism.

      Then there’s the problem that where religious leaders lead, religious followers may not follow. Witness, for example, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on contraception, divorce, and same-sex marriage. In the U.S., these teachings simply lack credibility for large portions of the Catholic population.

      More profoundly, ethical misconduct cannot be excused by an appeal to one’s preacher. If my pastor (for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I have one) tells me it’s okay to denigrate the poor, for example, that doesn’t make it so, and that, ultimately, is the difficulty with any appeal to religious authority: That authority is, despite any pretensions to the contrary, human; it may be misguided or corrupt. The converse is also true: Conduct is not automatically ethical, simply because my pastor gives his or her blessing.

      That means that individuals remain individually responsible for their actions and for the hurt that they cause. In the matter of the Charlie Hebdo attack, this is a matter I return to in a subsequent entry.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.