In the middle of Charlie

Posted on 29. January 2015

by Anna Harpviken

anna-harpvikenMy immediate reaction to the articles and blogs that were posted after the attack on Charlie Hebdo was mixed. Almost everyone had an opinion, and it also seemed that it was possible to pick at something in everything that was written. Authors were called too narrow-minded or too broad-minded, overly tolerant or racist, even extremist. In a way, this scared me. I was surprised how easy one can come off as one thing or the other. How easy it is to write someone off. Also, I was fascinated about how heated the debate got, because in some way, I felt I could relate to many of the opinions that were posted.

On one side of the debate, they’re the “JeSuisCharlie”-people; a diverse group, some of whom I understand and agree with, some of whom I don’t. Amongst the people claiming that they “are” Charlie, one can find right-wing extremists, using the attack to promote the idea that there should be no non-western immigration to Europe; moderates, (like me); and finally, fanatic freedom of speech-advocates. On the other side of the debate, there are those individuals who claim that there’s a limit to the freedom of speech, for various reasons; from insulting others to simply wanting to maintain order and security. Again, some of these statements are understandable, others, not at all. An extreme example is the outbreak of violent protests in some parts of the Islamic world in the wake of the reprinting of a Mohammad cartoon in the week following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. These demonstrations show that for some freedom of speech is not a principle that is raised above everything else.
These seemingly irreconcilable ideas –freedom of speech as an absolute right vs. a more limited view – create polarisation, at two different levels. First, there’s the debate within Europe itself. The increasing polarisation is easy to notice here. Even though the majority of Europeans still stand on the “JeSuisCharlie”-side, you also have voices questioning the sanctity of the freedom of speech. But there’s also a discussion being held at a global level, resulting in polarisation between the ’Western’ and the Islamic parts of the world. Both trends are frightening. It could lead to more violent conflicts, and this is one of the reasons why I find this debate an extremely important one. Should we stand firm on our beliefs, regardless of how other humans react, regardless of the consequences?
In a debate that so quickly turns into a ‘us vs. them’ discussion between two mutually opposing ‘camps’, it is difficult to place yourself in what I choose to call ‘the centre’; not at all sympathising with the people who planned and executed the terrible attacks, but understanding both types of reactions to what some people feel is an attack on their most basic values. Yet, freedom of speech should not be used to offend others. As the leader of the Norwegian Labour Party, Jonas Gahr Støre, said: “Blasphemy is not a goal, freedom of speech is”. In my view, one should be able to question, react to and even make fun of religions. At the same time, it should not be a goal in itself to ridicule the beliefs held by others. For me, we are dependent on understanding one another. We need to make an effort to understand why people react as they do.
In his “Meanings of Life”, Roy Baumeister claims that meaning is created through our culture and our social system. For me, an important point is to realise that our culture and social systems are diverse. The meaning we give to things can be immensely different. Meaning can lead to values, and when these values are threatened, one will react. My question is: how? What is the best way to react in such a situation? Is it to stand firm on your beliefs, reluctant to view the matter from different angles, or is it to acknowledge and look for different perspectives on the situation, which can broaden your own view? Relating to others can strengthen your own faith, it can change it, and it might create a debate that narrows the gap. This can be scary. But for me, what’s even scarier is to see the conflict and violence that can transpire when you don’t.