Like most people in the western world, prior to this past week I had never heard of the publication Charlie Hebdo. Had someone shown it to me last month I probably would have thought of it as nothing more than a further example of poor taste in European humor; one low water mark among many. This week, however, the name became synonymous with martyrdom for freedom of speech; of the pen being more fearsome than the sub-machine gun. Given my occupational disease as a philosophy teacher of over-analyzing everything, I can’t help but think there must be a lesson in there somewhere. Let’s see if I can tease one out.
The word martyr is more than a little overused these days, especially in relation to (both sides of) conflicts involving Muslims. Some emotionally disturbed individuals who have been brainwashed into believing that they are worth more dead than alive have made a cliché out of strapping all kinds of explosives to their bodies and attempting to end the lives of as many “infidels” or “bad guys” as possible together with their own. Others have made a point of made a point of attacking those loosely defined as “the enemy” in seemingly senseless, reactionary ways, which actually serve an important strategic purpose of drawing irate counter-attacks from the enemy, which in turn kill a fair number of innocent women, children and everyday workers going about their business. These “collateral damage” victims then can be elevated to the status of “martyrs” as well, as a means of recruiting new fighters to the reactionary cause. Others set out to establish as strong a media presence for themselves with their hatemongering towards the other side as possible, so that if they have the fortune (good or bad being a question of perspective) to get killed for their stated views, their voices will be all the more amplified.
In this sort of cynical economy of martyrdom, it is frankly rather amazing that some Muslim activists still don’t get it. The global political arena being what it is, making martyrs of those who critique your position is the worst possible sort of strategic blunder one can make. Killing off those who mock you and try to make you look stupid only reinforces the message that you deserve such mockery and derision. If your primary strategic asset is a store of “martyrs” that you can use as means of recruiting new hot-blooded reactionaries –– who in turn can quickly destroy themselves and become new “martyrs” for the cause, enabling you to recruit still more young militants –– the last thing you want to do is make martyrs out of your opponents. It is thus merely a matter of common sense that, tasteless as some of the cartoons in question may have been, “responsible voices” throughout the Muslim world have joined the western media consensus in crying out against this past week’s killings in Paris. Then the fact that the attackers also took the life of a honorable Muslim French police officer in the process of martyring cartoonists and publishers just adds insult to injury.
Martyrs don’t have to be perfect people. Some of the most iconic martyrs of the last generation have been deeply flawed individuals in many aspects of their personal lives and their strategic judgment. The core issue, however, is that they stood for something that their enemies found deeply threatening, and they refused to back off on the matter even though they knew some people might try to kill them for it. On this basis ideological opponents can no longer belittle the significance of the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya or even the Kennedy brothers by pointing out their human failings; the best they can do is try to co-opt and pervert the essence of what these heroic people stood for and were willing to die for.
Suicide cases are more ambiguous. It was harder to make a case for considering Bobby Sands and the other IRA gunmen who starved themselves to death in British prisons in the 1980s worthy of the title of “martyr”. Those who have burned themselves to death in public as a means of making their various political points have perhaps been more effective in terms of their deaths bringing others into the fight. Suicide bombers… well, their primary effectiveness is in terms of making their enemies afraid of their insanity rather than inspiring respect for their dignity and courage among their comrades. It takes a pretty desperate or confused mind to call that martyrdom. Sadly there seem to be quite a few such desperate and confused minds out there.
But if there’s a point to all this it’s that people can more readily relate to the victims than to the aggressors, and if you want to win the battle for hearts and minds, you can’t do that by trying to violently stomp out the opposition. The best you can hope to accomplish with any form of violent action is to prevent violent aggressors on the other side from attacking innocent parties, particularly those who actually have nothing to do with the feud you’re involved in.
The process of struggling for control, especially of hearts and minds, involves a certain inherent moral hierarchy: It begins with important ideas, moving on from there to media dissemination, civil activism, (democratically determined) government policy, and from there possibly to violent action. Each layer in this structure can lead to the activation of the next one up. The ultimate strength and legitimacy of actions on any layer here depends entirely on the level of support they have from the layers immediately below them (with what should properly underlie important ideas being a separate essay topic unto itself). Whenever an action from a higher level is used to combat an opponent’s action from a lower level in this hierarch, the higher level action effectively morally discredits itself in the process. This is how martyrs are made. This is what wise operators will try to avoid. Let me try to unpack this step by step.
If you come across an idea that you don’t like –– that is influencing people to do things you see as harmful or destructive –– the first thing to do is to confront that idea on the level of ideas, with a better opposing idea: you need to prove the opposing idea wrong. If you try to counter the idea with a weaker idea, and if you try to make up the difference by just shouting louder than the other guy, you may get more people to hear you in the short-term, but in the long term you discredit yourself and your cause by doing so.
Of course any idea needs to be heard to have an impact on society, for better or for worse. If the other side is trying to drown you out with their volume, sometimes it becomes necessary to find ways of raising your own volume or visibility to counter that. Fighting media tactics with media tactics is thus a morally acceptable practice, as long as you don’t surrender the integrity of your ideas in the process (which, sadly, most politicians seem to do). What you don’t want to do beyond that though is to use mob tactics against their media. The term for fighting against an idea by mobilizing an emotional mob against it is demagoguery. This is what Kierkegaard accused his opponents of doing. This is part of why today we remember Kierkegaard’s name, but not the names of his opponents.
That does not mean that mass participation in the implementation of ideas is to be forbidden. The contest between groups of supporters of different ideas as groups is not demagoguery, it’s democracy. Democratic coalitions should most certainly be allowed to challenge each other’s positions, and in the process they should be fully entitled to organize, campaign, protest and vote on behalf of the ideas they collectively believe in. For one group to use their position of political advantage and (temporary) authority to officially prevent opposing viewpoints from being fairly represented is a practice commonly referred to as tyranny. It was (theoretically) in opposition to just these sorts of abuses that the United States of America determined to rid themselves of English imperial rule some 240 years ago.
From here we come to the case of tensions arising between different self-determinant and self-governing peoples. When the legitimate autonomy of both sides is mutually recognized, and negotiations –– sometimes particularly intense negotiations –– are carried out on this basis, we are not talking about tyranny, but rather diplomacy. Sadly however, diplomacy has historically remained a rather abstract concept in international politics when it is not backed up with a certain amount of military preparedness and capacity for violent reaction on each side. When this military capacity becomes too one-sided, and when the dominant side in question uses its dominance to disregard the other side’s interests, this is properly known imperialism, a phenomenon closely related to the disease of colonialism. The historical abuses carried out in this regard by competing European nations with all of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas are quite universally acknowledged by most educated people these days as having been in many respects morally inexcusable; but that does not necessarily imply that would-be imperial powers in our own time have learned anything from the moral mistakes of their predecessors.
Then we come to the word terrorism. These days this term is broadly used in reference to any group which does not represent a recognized national government, but which still attempts to use violent means of achieving their political interests. Given the way that some warring parties refuse to recognize those they are fighting against as having a moral right to fight back, the term is frequently over-used, and the difference between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” tends to get very fuzzy at best. When Nelson Mandela can be officially labeled as a terrorist and without the term being used in reference to Augusto Pinochet, its moral significance obviously becomes rather questionable. Regardless of what we call them though, we can say for sure that those who use violent means to try to frighten others into submission stand on morally shaky ground. When a group uses its capacity for violence as a substitute for developing stronger ideas and building communal solidarity around them, moral justification is no longer a bona fide possibility for them.
The process of seeking out valid justifications for violence –– be they religious, ideological, utilitarian or in any other sort –– is more than I want to explore here today. Suffice to say, the number of violent actions which we see around us in the world today that might have some sort of valid moral justification is tiny at best, and as many intelligent Muslims have already joined western commentators in pointing out, the attack against Charlie Hebdo certainly doesn’t qualify as justifiable.
Hopefully intelligent leaders on all sides will take this stupid tragedy as a signal that it’s time to start de-escalating these cycles of violence –– regardless of how emotionally satisfying the feel to certain sorts of conservatives, and regardless of how profitable they are to certain American businesses. I’m not holding my breath waiting for current conflict leaders to take such de-escalating action, but I can still hope.
Meanwhile I can’t imagine that I would be important enough where any radical extremist would consider killing me to be worth their trouble, but regardless of my trivial status I hereby stand in solidarity with all of the “martyrs” whose ideas have been considered so threatening that the various powers that be have decided to be violently silence them. Though I write my own ideas pretty much entirely by keyboard (and I generally use pens only for marking up my students’ texts and my research source materials), I hold this pen aloft to say, long live the power of ideas, and shame on all those who attempt to silence them by demagogic, tyrannical or violent means!
All honor to those who, regardless of their other short-comings, have dared to stand up for their own ideas, however crazy or tasteless those ideas may be. All honor to those who dare to think in exciting new ways, and to those who dare to challenge their ideas on an intellectual level, in a spirit of mutual respect. All honor to those who abide by the principle that the way to challenge faulty ideas is simply with better ideas; those who believe that if violence has any legitimate use at all it is to be found in the restrained exercise of such to prevent greater and more random violence from befalling the innocent.
Long live the principles that Charlie has come to stand for. Now can we please take some steps towards shutting down this martyr factory?!