Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Many Faces of Martyrdom

Last Friday I felt it necessary to recognize BBC World Service Radio as one of the few sources willing to acknowledge the complex relationship between free speech and hate speech. In the wake of all of the demonstrations that took place over the weekend (including here in my home town of San Francisco), I have to say that the cool voice of BBC reason seems to have taken a permanent back seat to righteous indignation. However, I use that adjective "righteous" precisely for its religious connotations.

Several sources have now shown an interview with one of the Charlie Hebdo casualties in which he said explicitly that he would not be surprised if he ended up dying as a consequence of his determination to exercise free speech in the cause of biting satire. Had such words been uttered by a Muslim fundamentalist, we would dismiss it as a fanatical embrace of martyrdom; but is Charlie Hebdo any the less fanatical just because it is a secular publication that, for all intents and purposes, lives by the creed that nothing is sacred, whether it involves religious, governmental, or any other establishments? The amount of blood spilled as a consequence of the exercise of free speech by Charlie Hebdo is relatively small in comparison with the lives lost on 9/11, but both incidents seem to share a paralysis of reason on the part of those determined to write analysis in the wake of the catastrophic turn of events. Actually, when one takes into account the many dimensions of mindlessness induced by not only the Internet but also a mass media industry dominated more by consumerism than by any drive to inform, it would be fair to say that paralysis set in a long time ago. It just takes mass tragedies to bring it into the foreground, where, as in Jean-Paul Sartre's play The Flies, we have our official rites of mourning before going back to business (perhaps that should be capitalized) as usual.

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