Thursday, 8 January 2015

Sensibility...or why we might not all be Charlie after all

OK I'm not going to post any cartoons of Mohammed even though I don't believe for a second that he is (or was) a prophet granted some sort of spiritual revelation by god. And you're all entitled to call me a coward. I have my reasons and they are, as you would expect, self-interested and entirely rational.

However, I'd like to try and explain the wide reasons why many people who may in their hearts wish to stand up to the murderous bullies who want to silence criticism of Islam especially when that criticism is expressed in the form of ridicule. And at the heart of this reason is the idea of sensibility - or what we now prefer to call empathy or even (and pretentiously) emotional intelligence.

Now I know that in the 18th century sensibility became a literary movement (allowing Jane Austen to demolish its pretensions) but the origins of the term lay in the idea that we should attune ourselves to the feelings of others - it became a matter of response to aesthetics but still maintained a core of benevolence, sympathy and strong feeling.

This morning I listened to part of the phone in on Radio 5 Live and heard one caller capture the absolute essence of this idea - this woman, having started with a gentle criticism of multiculturalism then said that while people had every right to mock and criticise (in this case) Islam they should consider "laying this right aside" so as to promote social harmony. There was no compulsion merely the implication that a civilised society would behave with sensibility towards Islam and Muslims.

Indeed, the same sentiment comes from Will Self:

"...our society makes a fetish of 'the right to free speech' without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right."

I'm not sure our society does make a fetish of free speech but, as with the called to the radio phone in, Self is suggesting that we have to, as it were, self-censor because that is responsible behaviour. Now it's true that Self was also suggesting that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were not very good satire and if they were then everything would be fine, but the essence of his argument is that simple insult lacks sensibility and should be resisted if we are to act with responsibility.

Most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, behave in this manner - holding back from full on attack, treading carefully with criticism and avoiding mockery. We do this because we do not want to upset people - we feel hurt ourselves if we have done this and, as a result, chose our words with care. This, we feel, makes us better people that the aggressive, in-your-face, no-holds-barred perpetrators of satire, mockery and insult. We peek at look at these people, at what they write and at what they say - if only so we can tut a little and preen the feathers of our sensibility.

The truth is, as James Delingpole pointed out recently in a different and less painful context, we need people who don't have this sensibility, that empathy:

We want to live in a world where everyone is free to say what they like, regardless of how much offence one or two braindead, culturally indoctrinated, kill-joys choose to take because their half-baked, dumbed-down education has persuaded them that that is the reaction they’re now supposed to have. Once that freedom is lost, it’s game over. So whether you like Katie Hopkins or you hate her be damned grateful for what she’s doing.  While you sleep safely in your bed at night, she’s out there standing in the pass at Thermopylae telling the Persians just how small their willies are…

It's true that Katie Hopkins being gratuitously rude about the Scots isn't quite the same as Charlie Hebdo publishing cartoons mocking Islam and using images of Mohammed to do so. But they are on the same page - just as is James Delingpole, Richard Dawkins, Old Holborn and even an old time lefty like Nick Cohen. There is no sensibility here, no respect for the feelings of the target - just full on satirical, in-your-face comment designed to puncture the pretensions of the pompous, the righteous and the oppressive.

I - just like most of you - really want to be Charlie but, for those self-interested and rational reasons, I won't be Charlie. So I am - and you should be - grateful for all those people who are willing to be Charlie, who take the risk (large or small) and bang the fool's bladder in the faces of Islamists, Greens, civil servants, artists and kings. Without them our sensibility just hands victory to the violent, to the bully and to the mob.



Anonymous said...

I think the point of those who would be 'Charlie' is that we all began with sensibility, then found - in the face of protectionism of the less savoury face of Islam - having sensibility forced upon us (an arrogant and absurd ambition of politicians in reaction to a problem of their - not our - making).

We can no longer afford that sensibility if we wish to preserve the remnants of our values left to us.


Woodsy42 said...

You seem to be arguing that good manners trump insult - if so I believe you are wrong. Good manners (or sensibility if you prefer) should help us decide if an insult is appropriate and in most cases it may not be, but sometimes it is because sensibility is often a polite description of appeasement.

Junican said...

The answer (I think!) lies in more ridicule, not less. But the ridicule needs to be better targeted. For example, ridicule against Christianity would be better aimed at the Pope than at Jesus Christ.
Who was it who created a fatwah against tobacco in Indonesia, after receiving a big donation from Bloomberg? He (and Bloomberg) are the ones to ridicule.
I think that Muslims have a right to protest against hurtful depictions of Mohammed (although, obviously, not in this way). Is that the reason that the vast majority of Muslims, and their leaders do not condemn the murderers? Imagine Christ being shown on the cross and a silly quip about his failure to save himself being appended. Christians might (rightly) be offended and not condemn anyone who inflicted reciprocal damage on the quipper.
Note that I am not defending the actions of the murderers one tiny bit. Nor, really, am I defending the silence of the Imams. I am merely trying to understand it.

asquith said...

Je suis Charlie. And I think it's important to note that these journalists and policemen- 2 of the dead being, in fact, Muslims themselves- for being what the terrorists deemed blasphemers. What happens to alleged blasphemers?

We defeated Blair (who else?) in his efforts to introduce what was to all intents and purposes a blasphemy law. And it is not right for the BBC and journos to act as though they lived under one, as a self-censorship. Orwell described such people as living in a constipating little cage of lies, and no one has bested him yet!

What needs to be learned from this tragedy is that we all lose out. There actually are blasphemy "laws" under which people across the Muslim world- most recently Raif Badawi- are being tortured and killed on a regular basis. The "argument" that Charlie Hebdo were asking for it is best countered by pointing out the terrorist assault on the Shiite mosque in Rawalpindi. Was THAT justifiedangeratwesternforeignpolicy, "Gaza", or "irresponsible"?

That is what Muslims such as Shia in Sunni countries or secular and liberal types, many of whom are de facto atheists, will tell you. And I don't see how smugly "liberal" white middle-class people writing nice articles to bolster their radical consciousness can tell them otherwise.

Ceding this discourse to the Marine Le Pens of this world is the final insult to Charlie, Ahmed and all their global network friends, that is what I say.