Charlie Hebdo: is nothing sacred?

Until we know what we would die for, we don't know why we're alive. But what, if anything, would you be willing to kill for?

Jonathan Rowson
8 January 2015

Credit: All rights reserved.

I hesitate to comment on the massacre in Paris, because just as with the tragedy in Peshawar I feel there is a huge difference between what we actually feel and what we feel obliged to publicly profess to feel about such incidents.

Social media hands us information that is at least thrice cooked: events become news, news becomes commentary and commentary becomes opinion and debate, to which we find ourselves thrown. The swiftly conjured sense of outrage, sadness, disbelief and displaced rumbling fear is not direct and visceral—it is generated and filtered through layers of reporting and opinion, to which we are apparently supposed to add another layer of our own. I feel we don't say enough about this uncomfortable sense of knowing that we should feel a certain way, wanting to, finding that we don't, and yet responding as if we do.

No-one should feel obliged to manufacture opinions or feelings about Charlie Hebdo, but I’ve spent several months writing a recently released report called Spiritualise for Britain’s Royal Society of Arts which shows the relevance of the spiritual to public life. So it feels remiss not to say something in this case. Who knows about the ultimate motives or causes of these particular events, but what is going on in reactions to the news is very clearly about what, if anything, is sacred.

On the one hand, freedom of speech is presented as something on which there can be no compromise. On the other there is a view of religious sanctity that believes that there are important limits to what can be said or shown without causing, not just 'offence', but a deep moral transgression—an existential threat to one's honour, identity and sense of being in the world.

This juxtaposition does not assume any moral equivalence between the two positions, nor does it condone violence, and certainly not murder. I was as touched as anybody by some of the extraordinarily pungent, brilliant, defiant cartoons penned in response to the killings in Paris, and having allowed some time to pass, I feel sadness and anger at the fact that lives of innocent people were extinguished yesterday morning.

But the muscular liberalism in evidence in the response from the European press, feels painfully partial. I’ve noticed two questionable ideas in particular.

The first is the completely uncompromising attitude that says something like: We have every right to offend as much as we God damn want to, because this thing- this freedom of speech- this freedom of expression is, very, oh, hang on, that's's sacred. It's something we not only value, but something through which we define ourselves and our moral boundaries. It's something of which we want to say: if you take away that, we have nothing left.

But follow that thought through and where do you end up? I don't think it makes much sense to speak of 'reasons' for terrorist acts, but I'm fairly sure it's not just about being 'offended'. Martin Luther King famously said that until we know what we would die for, we don't know why we're alive, and you can push that a bit further - what, if anything, would you be willing to kill for?

Nothing? Perhaps, but I wonder, when you allow your dark imagination to think of the worst, most perverted and provocative things that could happen to the people, ideas and places that mean most to you - could nothing tip you over the edge? If so, extend that imagination to different cultures, values, histories, times, and places, and one's sense of what could be sacred will inevitably shift.

The uncompromising spirit that says that there are no limits to freedom of expression is something to believe in, identify and get behind. But in doing so, we shouldn’t believe in the notion that it is universally sacred. That would be another kind of ideological imperialism.

The second false move is to say: it's not that freedom of speech is sacred, it's that nothing is sacred. So for goodness sake don't sacralise Charlie Hebdo - that's not true to the memory of those who died, because their raison d'etre was precisely to show that nothing is sacred, as this piece in Aljazeera America articulates so well:

"There is an old Parisian tradition of cheeky humor that respects nothing and no one. The French even have a word for it: “gouaille.” Think of obscene images of Marie-Antoinette and other royals, of priests in flagrante delicto with nuns, of devils farting in the pope's face and Daumier’s caricatures of King Louis-Philippe, whom he portrayed in the shape of a pear. It's an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful." 

The problem with this position is that it also presents as universal what is culturally specific, and it sacralizes the process of perpetual desacralisation. Jonathan Haidt, author of the "The Righteous Mind," would point out that we do this because the values of honour and sanctity and authority are not well understood in liberal democracies—and they are experienced as values, not merely ideas. They are often valued with just as much intensity as freedom and care are valued, which is not at all to say that they justify murder.

The point is that is no getting away from the sacred, because it is not ultimately about religion at all, but about the fundamental human need for touchstones, without which we struggle to make sense of our lives, alone and together. In Spiritualise we quote Gordon Lynch, a specialist in the sociology of the sacred:

“The persistence of the sacred is not a symptom of a persistent cultural backwardness that rational Enlightenment can cure, but an inherent structure of morally boundaried societies.”

Personally I'm not sure how best to respond to what happened in Paris, but I’m fairly sure that recognising the complexity and ubiquity of the sacred would be a good place to start.

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