Tolerance vs. Acceptance

 

I’m having another word crisis, of sorts.

I continue to stand by my assertion that blasphemy isn’t a word that has any practical use or value in a secular society, so it is, therefore, one that we needn’t use any longer.

There have been a lot of editorials/opinion pieces/proclamations in the press since #jesuischarlie trended in the aftermath of the terror attack in Paris- and the aftermath of the aftermath. Il Papa weighed in- and got it completely wrong. As have a lot of people who are speaking out against the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo.

I’ve said before (in response to some of the wonderful comments I received on the ant-blasphemy post) that the humour- and even the satirical value- of the magazine is pretty much lost on me. It’s not my type of thing. I tend to be more thoughtful, less in-your-face about my satire/political commentary.

But. My impression of the humour- or lack thereof- in magazines like Charlie Hebdo– is not the point.

Personal preference isn’t remotely the point. Not even a little bit. Except in the fact that I can choose not to purchase said magazine if the images offend.

In free, democratic and secular societies we get to make such choices. And we get to challenge the ideas of those who set themselves against the values of our free, democratic and secular societies.

Failure to do so allows for the flourishing of things like totalitarianism. And for the ascension and maintenance of despotic regimes- political or religious- that seek to hold their power and control over the lives and freedoms of everyone else. That those living under such conditions continue to support that type of status quo… well, that’s more of a head-scratcher. We can talk about social conditioning, about Stockholm Syndrome, about not knowing anything else. We can take into account things like anomie and the inability of certain people to integrate into the norms of society. Those are some of the things we need to be looking into, certainly.

What it really comes down to is our idiotic human need to divide ourselves into two groups. Us and Them.

This particular idiocy may not have originated in the Big Book o’ Western Myths (since the concept pre-dates biblical times), but it certainly got a leg-up when one, then another, group of people began insisting on their chosenness- and their separation from and better-than-ness of others.

So. The newest words in question that are causing me trouble?

1) Tolerance. Right off the bat let me say that I’ve always felt that there was a definite underpinning of patronizing apology in the way in which this word is generally used. We ‘tolerate’ those things we must– even if we find them tiresome or uncomfortable. For example- I ‘tolerate’ the occasional Smiths song – when one is heard at a party- or the Monster Music my SO so enjoys- all in the name of friendship and/or fair-shakes in the compromising-department.

‘Tolerating’ someone’s beliefs? It’s so colonial. And politically correct. Like a pat on the head. Which isn’t something that most adults- whether or not they have given much thought and/or insight into those beliefs- are likely to appreciate all that much.

It’s irritating as hell, is what it is. I’d prefer that you tell me straight out that you think I’m completely wrong in my assessment of something than to passively ‘tolerate’ my opinion- and my right to hold said opinion. It’s such a reductive word. Perhaps it hasn’t always been so- but, honestly, I rarely hear it used without that distinctive note of begrudging obligation creeping in.

Most of the time, it makes my skin crawl. There is a perception of power inherent in the term- if one ‘grants’ that something is to be ‘tolerated’, the one doing the tolerating seems to have more authority than the one being tolerated. Stephen Colbert, in his satirical persona, ‘tolerates’ those of other races- by saying he ‘doesn’t see colour’.

Ick. Don’t like it. Never have. It’s one of those words that has ceased to mean what best intentions, once upon a time might have meant it to mean.

2) Acceptance. This one is more my style. There’s an evenness to the playing field when someone accepts what you are saying. Or doing. Or believing. There’s less resignation and imposed adherence to a perceived moral imperative.

One of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors has a line that describes the meeting of two old friends- a man and his dog, who had been separated by lifetimes- and, as they played together, wrestling in the snow, they offered little growls of reunion and “acceptance- as of like-to-like”. Much better word.

Acceptance suggests acknowledgment and thought given to opinions offered- even if that opinion is not, necessarily, shared. I, for example, can generally accept that others have beliefs that differ from my own, and that they participate in the sharing and/or furtherance of those beliefs in appropriate forums. Like in churches. Or synagogues. Or mosques. Or temples. Or in their own homes and family groups.

I can accept that these beliefs can live in concert with mine- and with the values of of our larger society- if they do not impact our educational, judiciary or political system. As long as they are not forced upon me- or anyone else- I can accept that they exist and that people find value and comfort and solace in them. As long as they are not used- overtly or covertly- to influence public policy or office, go ahead and keep your beliefs sacred in your own, individual sphere of existence.

I cannot- and will not, and SHOULD not- accept beliefs that DO, in any way, impact those things that impact our secular system of governance and community engagement.

Religions, it has to be remembered, are ideas. Some may argue that they are amalgams of good ideas. Others may disagree. We can, and should, demonstrate sensitivity and acceptance of the fact that one religion or another might well have things to say, or practices to enact, or things to ban and call blasphemous, with which we might disagree.

When those words or practices or calls of blasphemy run contrary to our larger freedoms as secular societies? Yeah no. That we don’t tolerate. We SHOULD NOT tolerate.

If a group happens to believe that polygamy and forced marriage of girls under the age of 15 is okay, we have larger, societal markers that dispute that. We have the legal recourse- and moral obligation- to put a stop to such things if we are made aware of them.

If an extreme segment of Islam calls for the murder of writers and artists over a perceived slight against the personification of an idea, we need be charged with ensuring that the same legality and obligation are upheld.

We must enact our righteous responsibility for the legitimate and logical protection of people– not ideas, actual human beings. There is no ‘fine line’ between free speech and the offence of ‘sensibilities’ that are associated with ideas. Especially if those ideas are patently and demonstrably wrong-footed and anachronistic. Some things may, admittedly, be relative. Violence and abuse of one another in the name of ideologies based in divisiveness are not.

It is not enough to condemn the actions of those who act out in purported defense of these ideas- whether the defense is supported by one or by many. If we do not actively demonstrate that these ideas must not be valued above our humanity and inherent connection to one another, then the terrorists and the power mongers will keep on winning.

That the terrorists and the right-wing power mongers are seeking the dissolution of consensus and direction from those of us who claim to be progressive is a given. Both extremes are manipulating our emotions and reactions to the suggested triumph of one idea over another. If we don’t cease the liberal knee-jerk ‘tolerance’ of all things and work toward true acceptance (and with it, understanding)- across the board and across the world- we will continue down the path of playing to the extremes- both those who claim to be Islamist and those who seek to eradicate all those who subscribe to or find connection with Islamic beliefs and practices.

Tolerance has become an ‘apologetic’ word. We tend to use it uniformly and unthinkingly to describe liberal feelings towards those things that we may have been less than nice about in the past. Things like race. Or difference in religion. Or gender.

We have misused it to such an extent that it is damaging us- and interfering with our real need to understand one another. If we manage to convince ourselves that we ‘tolerate’ something, we tend to figure that the thing in question requires no further thought or input on our parts. We dismiss it as ‘solved’, as ‘done’, and move on.

I’ve read a number of articles on both sides of the argument- those that advocated publishing the images from Charlie Hebdo and those that supported those publications that refused to do so. There are those who say that if we demonstrate our ‘tolerance’ by not insulting the ideas of more than a billion people we are doing the right thing.

That particular argument sounds a little too much like the comments that Francis made. Using as faulty an analogy as I’ve heard recently, he equated ‘faith’ to his mother- and noted that insulting Il Mama would end with a  ‘punch in the nose’. “One cannot make fun of faith” he said. To do so will inevitably incite violence. Even from the guy who is supposed to be the earthly mouthpiece of the Prince of Peace.

I’ve said before that this Pope keeps surprising me with his (relative) progressiveness. So I have to say that this reaction disappointed me terribly. Not only did he realize an intangible (faith) as something concrete, he placed its sacredness above the human that challenged the idea.

We MUST be free to make fun- of faith, of science-denying political ideology, of anti-vaccination nincompoops, of those who think that the earth is flat- of any and all ideas that can’t be supported through reasoned discussion and evidential proof. We have to be free to question and constantly challenge those ideas that threaten other humans.

People always trump ideas. Nothing can be more sacred than our shared humanity. NO-thing. So ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘tolerance’ don’t get to supersede the freedom to question and poke fun at human-created ideological constructs.

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the States. I’m a little unclear as to whether or not it’s a statutory holiday (SNL had a satirical sketch about this very question on the weekend), but, regardless, it’s a day that people can use to demonstrate their ‘tolerance’ of the ideas that this great man- and proponent of peaceful action toward social justice- expressed decades ago.

Of the many pieces of quotable wisdom he left as part of his legacy, the one up there ^^^^ certainly applies to this discussion. There may be some irony, perhaps, in bringing Dr. King into a rant about doing away with the concept of tolerance. I’d argue that he wouldn’t recognize the uses to which we put the word these days- and the lackadaisical definition that now represents a once-proud concept.

I accept that his beliefs about religion- and the existence of and need for a god- differ from mine. I accept that his beliefs- and his cultural and temporal and geographical context- shaped his wisdom and provided a great deal of its continuing resonance. I also accept that his life experience was very different from my own- and that his ability to express his ideas about inequality and injustice have been pivotal in the shaping of changing political and social mores South of the Border (and, arguably, North of the Border, as well).

He is, deservedly, oft-cited. My very faves?

This one is also, actually, quite appropriate to this discussion. Different innocents, same concerns regarding the murderers.

We can’t possibly begin to do that if we ignore the reality that there are systems, in this world of ours, that are fostering the growth of philosophies- of ideas- that suggest that murder is an acceptable reaction to hurt sensibilities and offence taken when mythological figureheads are held up to criticism and satirical examination.

As a race, we humans are a pretty creative bunch. We industriously come up with ideas and theories- to which we grow attached and cling. It has been part of our continuing evolution as we seek to understand ourselves and our world. Our ideas define us- and some of them have, historically and practically, been pretty great.

Those ideas worth sharing, discussing and adopting are the ideas on which we should be focused. The ideas that are worthy of acceptance are those that speak to the fact that we are all the same. Playing at superficial tolerance, however sincere- without any attempt at real understanding- will only increase the body count and lessen our humanity.

 

Banning ‘Blasphemy’

Well that whole thing about ruminating on my own reactions to things and thinking about the epidemic impulse to leap to the defensive didn’t last all that long… I’m angry. So angry. So yes, this is reactionary post. It isn’t a defense, though. Nothing here to defend.

You can’t control the world, cole. Have to keep telling myself that today. As the existential reflection goes on and on…

I love language. I love languages– I’ve learned a fair number of them- some out of necessity, given the path my studies have taken, but some simply for the appreciation of the inherent music of the words and for what those words and phrases and colloquialisms can tell us about the underlying culture in which the language evolved.

Certain words are more fun than others. This one, for example. Interestingly, the stuff I wrote about while talking about that word, in particular, kinda echoes some of the things I feel like I need to talk about now.

Some words, admittedly, become loaded with negative associations or misused to a degree that leaves the original meaning lost in the dust of history. Cult is one. That’s a whole other post, though (seriously, it’s in the Drafts folder as I write this).

Others have become so offensive to progressive and rational views of the world that we have removed them from polite conversation- if not the actual lexicon itself.

I’d like to suggest another.

Blasphemy.

I’m not talking, here, about its colloquial, secular usage- ‘irreverence’– especially since I, myself, do tend to use it hyperbolically when (jokingly) defending something that I like against a dissenting opinion. Example? Call the Monkees a ‘manufactured, talentless band.’ THAT’ll get an exclamation of blasphemy! thrown backatcha. (While they were, certainly, ‘manufactured’, they were/are hardly talentless. Read this if you want some more of that particular defense).

The original meaning of the word is tied up, inextricably, with religion and belief.  From the Greek, the word means ‘impious’, or ‘to speak evil of’- which, given my disdain of the ‘E-word’- unless it is being used hyperbolically and illustratively (as in, ‘that Justin Bieber? He’s just evil.’)- is the most uncomfortable of the uncomfortable meanings. The sense of the original Greek root implies ‘injury through speech or utterance’. Which calls to mind sticks and stones and the like… but I’ll come back to that in a minute…

From its earliest usage it was employed almost exclusively to describe lack of reverence for one deity or another. An expression of disdain for those things that were considered ‘sacred’ and ‘inviolate’. Back in the bad old days, when there was no such thing as the separation of religion and state anywhere, laws were put on the books to deal with those who violated the inviolate- through words or actions. Laws. That are still active in too many parts of the world.

Including the Alsace-Moselle region, in France.

Last year, in fact, a group of French Muslims remembered the existence of the law (a hold-over from the annexation of the region by Germany, and the retention of that little piece of nonsense once it was returned to French control) and sued Charlie Hebdo under the statute. Previous to the 2014 suit, the law was last invoked in 1918.  1918.

The 2014 case was thrown out of court, not, as one would hope, because of its implied reversion to archaic anti-secular ideals, but because the law only protects against blasphemy to Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism (that the latter was included, surprised me a little, TBH). So any perceived insult to Islam wasn’t covered by this blip in common sense. And common law. Legal statutes against blasphemy have not existed elsewhere in France since the Revolution (that started in 1789, for those who mightn’t know their history).

No regression of ideology here. That isn’t the least bit anachronistic. Surely not a indicator of a devolution of human rationalism and progressiveness.

That ^^^ was sarcasm. Which, like satire, is an expression of derision for the ridiculous. According to the Wikipedia, satire is a genre of literature and art  “in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.”

The emphasis in that there definition is mine. ‘Constructive social criticism’. I’m all about the constructive social criticism.

I’ve stayed away from the news groups today- partly because I’ve had too much else to do, but mainly because I know that this horrible event is going to be used as another example of the ‘evil’ of ‘the Other’- and will provide further evidence (as if such was needed) that institutionalized religion is an archaic concept that has no role in progressive societies. That its only role is one of divisiveness, when what we have to be focusing on is our shared humanity.

And, of course, there will be all kinds of articles and comments and ignorance passed around in the www that will focus on Islamic extremist ideology and assertions that ‘we’ are ‘above’ this sort of thing. Which, certainly, speaks to this horrific example, but misses the larger point.

Because are we? Really?

Most of our Western ideas about blasphemy come from that Big Book O’ Myths that I so love to talk about (and that so many others love to cite- out of context and never having read the thing in its entirety). In fact, most Xian theology places blasphemy as the most sinniest of all sins. Worse than things like murder. The NT calls it the eternal sin (Mark 3.29).

The most common punishment for violating the inviolable? For busting this specific Big Ten Rule? For taking names in vain and all that sort of thing?

Stoning.

Before anyone starts tossing stones on this side of the Atlantic (or over there in the UK and the rest of Europe for that matter), I think we’d all better be taking a good look at our own glass houses. There are charges of ‘blasphemy’ from religious groups in North America All. The. Time. And before the stones start flying even faster, we need to check our own cultural/religious perspective and acknowledge that we are experiencing a crisis of reason and secularism ’round these parts, too.

Although laws against blasphemy are prohibited under the language contained in the Constitution of the USofA, some States retain statutes that uphold the possibility of prosecution for blaspheming. You think we’re not culpable of resorting to supporting the ridiculous? Throw on FoxNews of an evening and then tell me another one.

So. It should be obvious. Secularism is the only solution that makes anything like sense. We may not be able to affect that level of change on a worldwide scale- at least not yet- but we can certainly bring it into being hereabouts. It’s going to cause a whole lot of pushback- from a whole lot of people (many of whom were likely first to hop on the anti-extremism bus while screaming about freedoms this morning)- who misunderstand the term and equate it with atheism (which is becoming, increasingly, a BAD thing to be labelled. In my experience, lately, anyway).

As Jacques Berlinerblau emphasized in his 2012 HuffPost article, and despite assertions from the religious right to the contrary, Secularism is Not AtheismAtheism is about (anti-)metaphysical discussions of the non-existence of god(s). Secularism, on the other hand, doesn’t even address the existence or non-existence of god(s). It is about politics- specifically the tension between and suspicions about “any entanglement between government and religion.” ANY entanglement.

While Prof. Berlinerblau reminds us that there is flexibility to be found in the designation ‘secularism’, I maintain that complete separation is the route we need to be taking- for our own societal benefits and to better-position ourselves as an example to the rest of the world. We have to stop making belief/nonbelief in a supernatural entity (or a bunch of them) the focus. Of ANYthing- let alone things like governance and ethics and education. It isn’t something that matters. Not really. It shouldn’t drive the ways in which we make decisions that impact all of humanity.

The way I see it, we NEED to push for full-on secularization “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance… Secularization refers to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. As a result of secularization the role of religion in modern societies becomes restricted. In secularized societies faith lacks cultural authority, religious organizations have little social power.” (again, from the Wikipedia)

Believe in sky gods or earth goddesses or pasta monsters if you must – just keep all of it the hell out of journalism, our schools, public institutions and politics. If religious belief marks an extremity of unreason (and I’d argue that it does- Salman Rushdie agrees with me, evidently), then blasphemy, as a concept, has no place in rational conversation.

Especially when you realize, as Brandon Withrow outlined in another HuffPost article, that blasphemy laws are not about religion. They are about power, and rather than safeguarding religion (as the claim would have it), such laws quash the marginalized voice(s) (religious and non-religious). Which, as we saw today, is the grasping, desperate and cowardly recourse taken, all too often, by those who have their beliefs challenged.

Which seems to justify- rather than dispute- the reality that those beliefs should be continually challenged.

If they can’t withstand such scrutiny, they have no place in evolved, modern society.

Freedom of speech is something that is required for societies to function as anything other than totalitarian states. As such, people who choose (since the freedom to choose is another much-lauded hallmark of democratic societies) to take our collective mythologies at face value have every right to chat about them as they will. Of course, personally, I’d prefer that we talk about something sourced in THIS world, but that freedom has to allow for others to talk about things with which I may not always agree.

To talk about them. I don’t have to listen. I can choose to focus my energies elsewhere.

When violence and murder come to be seen as anything at all like an acceptable human response to the exposure of problems, contradictions or discrepancies in a worldview- religious or political- then that worldview isn’t worth supporting. And those actions cannot be condoned.

Full stop.

So… as much as I hate to blame words for the uses to which people might put them, and as counter-intuitive as it might be to talk about banning a word in light of the crime against free speech that occurred today, I feel like I have to advocate for the removal of this one from our secular lexicon. And, since we live- ostensibly and for now, at least- in a secular society, that means removing it from our day-to-day discourse- in the media, in entertainment, in literature and song.

It has become dangerous.

As a concept, it has no place in 2015. None.

For something to be blasphemous, all sides of the discussion have to agree, at the least, about the sacredness of that which is being discussed/questioned/maligned. Since it seems unlikely that we will arrive on common ground with that one, let’s do away with this whole blasphemy thing altogether, shall we?

Your god is someone else’s fairy tale. Get over it.

If your specific sacred cows can’t survive having the light of reason and evidence shined upon them, then shouldn’t they warrant further examination? Shouldn’t YOU be the one looking more deeply into the reasons why their support requires justification? If your ideas/beliefs can’t hold up under the pressure of some constructive social criticism, are they not something that deserves to be outed as irrelevant and/or replaceable?

As Withrow noted, protecting freedom of religion must also involve protecting freedom from religion. Somehow our dialogues about ‘tolerance’ have started to be more about fear of religious belief than respect for religious belief. And that fear isn’t focused on one particular worldview. As much as right wing talking heads might wish us to believe otherwise (Charlie Hebdo isn’t ‘anti-Islam’. It isn’t anti-anything- except perhaps anti-credulity and anti-unchecked-power-mongering. The magazine satirizes all kinds of things. Religious and otherwise. It is their mandate to do so). Withrow summed it up quite nicely: “If you want to change society for the better, and convince others of the power of your beliefs, or even rationality of the absence of them, do not hallow them through law. Demonstrate it by promoting civil conversation and show it by how you live and support your neighbors.”

Satire is among the oldest ways of committing sociology. It is a lens through which we can see problems, contradictions, and irrationality. It isn’t meant to offer up solutions, but to point out where the institution is failing. Satire is our collective wake up call. It can counterbalance the power- challenging leaders, dogma, doctrine and common practices- and calling these things to account. When used effectively, it can help to restore social equilibrium. It’s a vastly important form of communication. It’s also why so many people are going to miss The Colbert Report so much.

I’m not a satirist. It takes a special type of insight and analysis and talent to pull it off effectively. I’m an historian. And a writer. I can- and do, when possible- offer up solutions for the situations that the satirists bring to our attention. I can- and do- assert that we have to view religion as little more than an historical cautionary tale that may, in some ways, guide us as we reach for better answers- sourced in the availability of all the resources that this world of ours has to offer, and the capacity of our evolved human brains to search ever further for evidence-based solutions to those things we don’t yet understand. That its time of functional divisiveness is over.

The hashtag #jesuischarlie has been trending all day, as people express support for those freedoms associated with speech and expression. Whether or not you heard of the magazine before today, please take some time to think about the repercussions of the incomprehensible crime that took place in Paris this morning. And please be aware that attempts to silence criticism isn’t the province of any one religious faith or political ideology. Those with power- who would like to retain that power- do it as a matter of course.

Writers, musicians, artists, scientists and factivists (I told you I’d be using that word again) the world over face opposition- often at the institutional level- when their words or pictures or numbers or statistics or experimental results challenge the status quo. They are frequently silenced- although rarely as finally and heinously as happened in Paris.

Given the events of the day, there’s really only one dude who can sum up all this stuff. He was, appropriately, French. His work was considered blasphemous. He spent his life advocating things like freedom of expression and the separation of church and state. He was a satirical polemicist who critiqued the dogmas and institutions of his day (1694-1778).

François-Marie Arouet.

But you can call him Voltaire.

We need to keep on challenging those who seek to make us believe those absurdities. And commit the atrocities.

#jesuischarlie

I’m thinking really hard about what the truth of that means, for me. I hope, before you take ownership of the hashtag, and the responsibility that goes along with the claim, that you will do the same.