Right to Offend? “I Understand Your Anger”

img1 Archbp Thomas Menamparampil
16 Nov 2020

In Times of Collective Anguish We Need to Hear a Voice that Says: “I Understand You”

Emmanuel Macron helped France more with his sincere admission “I can UNDERSTAND that people could be shocked by the caricatures (of Mohammad)…” than with all his earlier threats and warnings against the lawless and the violent. The Danish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet had just been republished by Charlie Hebdo, defying all Muslim sentiments. Macron’s strong words in support of such freedom had roused the anger of the humiliated community worldwide. Strong words work, but rarely in the case of anger. Instead, they wound, they provoke, they invite a response. That is what his mocking words did.
Macron, of course, had to keep his constituency in mind with the elections due in another two years. The trouble with our leaders today is that they are not addressing life-related problems, but are attending to the voters’ changing moods. Macron, in this context, did not want to be left behind by the Right-Wing leader Marine Le Pen in his zeal for French identity and its cultural values. But he earned the ire of millions. Jean Castex, the French Prime Minister, added fire to the flame, pledging a “firm and implacable” response. None of the EU leaders who came out in support of Macron seemed to have suggested a measure of restraint to Charlie Hebdo publishers.

Understand People’s Agony

We surely UNDERSTAND their agony. What the leaders really wanted to express was their solidarity with the victims of violence. After all, Samuel Paty was doing his duty, teaching his students social values, unfortunately displaying the mocking cartoons. Others were at prayer at Notre Dame in Paris and the Cathedral in Nice, quite unconscious of anything else happening around. They really deserved everyone’s sympathy. Political leaders merely wanted to assure the nation that they stood by its cherished values. 

But a word of caution was heard from one of the Ministers who grieved that French men now were unsafe anywhere in the world. Indirectly it was an invitation to “rethink” their reactions. Yes, we need to rethink our responses from time to time. We need to listen. 

Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia is generally considered a moderate man. If he exploded saying Muslims have a right to kill “millions” of French men for the sufferings they had inflicted on Muslims in the past, we know that all colonial pain is not dead and gone. One must UNDERSTAND when people express their pain, which is the first step towards anger-reduction and healing. If we claim the right to speak frankly, we have the duty to listen as well. It was only after Macron said “I UNDERSTAND your pain” did a lull came to expressions of anger. 

Self-Defeating Strategies

Exactly five years ago, Francois Hollande had sworn a “pitiless” response when 127 people lay dead in Paris over similar caricatures of Mohammad. Did that strategy work? Why would not Charlie Hebdo rethink their working styles and introduce a wee bit of restraint? By now, some 200 French men have lost their lives either over this or similar issues. 

Did the “War on Terrorism” that George Bush launched to arrest religious violence halt the march of Terrorism? On the contrary, it provoked terrorism; it promoted terrorism…in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Africa, in the wider world. Thought must rule. Muscle-power must not marginalize brain-power, lest gun-power takes over.  There are things like the power of the heart and human sensitivity too, that hold the key to the healing of Collective Anger—anger based on loyalty to nation, religion, colour, race, or caste. Today Collective Anger has become more wide-spread than Covid-19, carrying away millions.

I should not be overcritical. Possibly, Macron only wanted to be helpful when he cried, “Islam is in crisis”. He himself was in pain caught between diverse perspectives and loyalties that seemed irreconcilable. This is not merely his problem, but of every human being today, as more and more people move into an intercultural world. As a loyal guardian of the central gift of the French Revolution, Liberty, Macron reaffirmed the freedom of expression, unfortunately even the freedom to mock religion, and to blaspheme!  Keeping the tune, several government buildings in France displayed the controversial caricatures!

Sow the Wind and Reap the Whirlwind

From end to end of the Islamic world people were in protest. Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was among the loudest. Some of the expressions they exchanged are unquotable. But the very accusation of one that the other had gone beyond limit was a recognition that there are some ‘limits’ and ‘boundary lines’ in exercising the freedom of expression, especially when one is dealing across cultures and codes. Too often we are merely playing with platitudes. But what is needed is a contextual “UNDERSTANDING” of the immediate expression of Anger. It is a painful path to tread, but it pays. Failing which, there are consequences.

Anger could be noticed even in the remotest corners Africa and Asia: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, corners of Africa. There were calls for boycotting French goods.  France recalled its ambassador from Turkey. French embassies grew anxious, and warned their citizens to be careful while moving around. It was as though the world was on fire. 

‘Understanding’ the French Concept of Laicite (Secularity)

And, thank God, even as I write these lines, Macron expressed his deep respect for Islam. Hope returns! It may be the right moment for me to prompt, “Ardent Islamists too have something to gain by seeking to UNDERSTAND the points of view of others”. They have a world to win.

Truly, a crisis like this invites us to look at serious things in a serious way. Freedom evidently does not mean doing whatever one likes in every context. There are things like civic responsibility, democratic accountability, cultural sensitivity, human delicacy, dignity, mutuality. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is said, some in East Europe took time to understand that democracy is not mere absence of codes. Codes are there, though defined by cultures, historic experiences, and evolving traditions.

We cannot blame Macron for standing firmly by the French understanding of ‘laicite’ (secular identity) which is a treasured value in the nation’s cultural tradition. In the secular world it has created respect for religious freedom; it has also retained the right to criticize religion in all its diverse manifestations. An ‘understanding’ interpretation of the right is that it can help social correction just like political criticism. The danger in overusing this right is that it can go to exaggerations to the point of making ‘Free speech fundamentalism’ an unbending ‘dogma’, as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has charged. Here is where the two differ, belonging as they do to different Cultural Worlds.   

‘Understanding’ the Religious Sensitivity of the Believer

It is generally accepted that in intercultural contexts communities should be sensitive each other. Postmodern ethics demands this kind of courtesy. Different communities are ‘sensitive’ about different things: while one may value straightforward frankness, another may plead for dignified deference. Even with regard to sensitivity, different people are sensitive about different things. In certain parts of the world Holocaust Denial is a serious crime; in another part, people may not even understand why the rejection of a historic fact amounts to an offense.  A hasty racist or feminist remark may be more offensive in one cultural world rather than in another. Sensitivity differs, in some matters seriously. Nevertheless, no one would insult a national flag, a national anthem or a cultural symbol anywhere in the world. 

President Joko Wododo of Indonesia pointed to the injury the caricatures inflicted on the “sacred values and symbols of religion”. For most religious believers an insult to their religious symbols would be far more painful and humiliating than all the above-mentioned injuries (even though it does not justify counter-violence). The sentiments of 1.8 billion Muslims deserve to be respected. Religion is far more intimate to them and central to their lives and loyalties than anything else. Most Asians perceive that as though by instinct, Indians by conviction. So it happens that in spite of interreligious tensions in India, accentuated recently by cultivated polarisations, no one in our country thought of publishing the offensive caricatures …as though by a “moral consensus”, as Swapan Dasgupta says. 

On this issue we are all agreed at the deepest level. We are very religious; an insult to religion we consider self-injury. At the same time, we are very secular; we greatly respect others’ convictions whatever they may be. Could we say that this type of attitude stands for civilizational adulthood and points to reflective maturity? Hopefully, it does. However, even as we are proud of it, today we have many reasons for being embarrassed.  Things have changed rapidly under the present leadership.  The world is questioning our civilizational stature.

Questioning Our Present Level of Fidelity to India’s Civilizational Values

Sober-minded Indians are disheartened. They see that the guardians of the great Indian heritage have undermined some of its central values rather than strengthening them, e.g. through promoting hatred, restricting freedoms, and taking advantage of the poor. Even as they pose to make “India great” again, they have seriously damaged our collective image, stifling intellectual freedom, trivializing her civilizational patrimony, and further weakening the weaker sections.

For example, they have shocked the world recently harassing social workers like Father Stan Swamy, who today pines away in jail at the age of 83, despite long years of service to the poor, and in spite of protests from Chief Minister Hemant Soren and the civil society of Jharkhand where he worked. Among others who have protested are the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, CPM leader Sitaram Yechury, DMK leader Kanimozhi. Protest meetings have been held in Bangalore, Patna, Guwahati, Trichy and other places. Even the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Michelle Bachelet, has intervened in behalf of Stan Swamy serving marginalized groups. All to no avail. This is but one of the many instances. The Government seems determined to choke to death all social service NGOs, their accounts, and their initiatives. India’s image has fallen in its global stature.

Be True to Asian Values, Indian Values

In 604 AD Prince Shotuku of Japan introduced a liberal constitution in his country with these words, “Let us not be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong”. This is a message equally valid for Macron and Erdogan, Modi and Yogi, Amit Shah and Owaisi, Mohan Bhagwat and Rahul, and all those who play on emotions. What Buddha did was to search for the “cause” of this emotional build up, of suffering. He was enlightened. We too may need to search intensely to UNDERSTAND, in order to help.  

Yes, we need to UNDERSTAND also the hurt feelings of Hindu society for the centuries of humiliation they have gone through. We do understand and sympathize with their sentiments of hurt very sincerely, we respect them…not however those of the Hindutva supremacists! They in turn need to understand the humiliation that the Buddhists suffered at their hands after centuries of dedicated service, whose teaching of ‘equality’ was closest to India’s indigenous genius. The tragedy is that the people among whom Buddhism flourished, the humbler communities of India, have been marginalized. Their pain has not been attended to, and their call for attention keeps coming up in various forms down the centuries. In Bihar, the land of Buddha, we heard recently a few echoes of their lament. We need to UNDERSTAND their meaning, interpret them to be able to be helpful. 

A contextual UNDERSTANDING of the reason for emotional buildup, Anger, is the first step towards anger-reduction. Then follows dialogue with sensitivity and respect (See further details in my book, “Sored Anger”, Claretian Publications, Bangalore-560 055). A non-confrontational approach brings about the healing of Anger and general healing to society. In this way, earlier opponents can come together, as Jose Biden says.  Buddha, having explored this path, proposed the “Middle Way”.  No extremes. No fanaticisms. Use your reason. Don’t be over-influenced by interested parties. Confucius’ teaching was similar: the ‘doctrine of the mean,’ abstaining from extremes, cultivating refinement, moderation in everything.

Strive for the Welfare of the World

Then suddenly you discover that it this is a core teaching in every tradition. In Greece, Heraclitus held to the virtue of moderation. Solon said, nothing too much. Aristotle spoke of the “Golden Mean”: virtue is in between extremes, he said. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics drew the teaching into the Christian tradition. Joe Biden seems to believe in it firmly. The first thing he did after election was to show respect to his political opponents. Opposing views, he said, should not lead to confrontation, but to collaboration, a commitment to the common good, welfare of the nation, welfare of the world. 

Amazingly, twenty-three centuries ago Asoka proclaimed in unwavering terms that he was committed to the Welfare of the Whole World. His Rock Edict VI reads, “There is no higher duty than the Welfare of the Whole World. And what little effort I make is in order that I may be free from debt to the creatures, that I may render them happy here and that they may gain heaven in the next”. 

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