it is a clear morning here in Cochin, India, with the chirping of birds audible even after 8 am. The traffic noise has not picked up enough to drown their notes. A sunny and optimistic day. But reality strikes in the face through newspaper reports about shootings in Copenhagen. Shades of the awful carnage a short while back in Paris.
Charlie Hebdo had a subscriber base of only about 60,000 if the newspaper reports were right. The post-shooting issue sold more than a million copies….possibly more as a collector’s item than because the buyers shared the views of the publication. Not having seen a copy before or after the shooting, I am wondering why it was not all that popular earlier: were they simply too offensive to good taste?
When the Pope, Queen Elizabeth and President Putin of Russia expressed their condolences and support for the magazine, its staff cartoonist ‘Willem’ is reported to have rejected them saying “we vomit on” them.
Reminded me a passage from one of P. G. Wodehouses exceedingly funny golf stories. In it an eccentric Russian novelist, asked about other Russian novelists, says that he is the only good Russian novelist, and that he despises all the others. “I spit me of Nastikoff” and the others, he says. It was hilarious, like most of Wodehouse’s output. Neither the character nor the author came across as repugnant. But when Willem of Charlie Hebdo says he vomits on the supporters he does not like, an unacceptably odious picture comes to mind. It may have been the post-shooting shock that caused him to say it, but the words and the attitude show a sick mind. (I admit my definition of “sick” may be different from yours, but my test is to ask of anything “does it better the human condition, does it further the cause of civilization?”. If it does not, wilfully, then that wilfullness is a sickness, I submit, that might occur even to the best of persons sometimes. )
But I suspect it was not the shock. I am inclined to think that they were all “sick”. Broken homes? Traumatic childhoods? World War II and its atermath? I do not know, I am just speculating, pardon me if I am wronging anybody. My proposition is that sick minds produced sick humour with which they had their revenge upon the world. With the number of persons with similiar backgrounds being large and increasing, ‘modern civilization’ has had to accept such deviant behaviour as allowable. Otherwise it would be a violation of the right to freedom of expression. But such people are still on the margins, really. The French public as a whole did not find Charlie Hebdo palatable, that is why it had rather poor circulation numbers before the shooting, it will soon subside from the one million for the post-shooting issue to somewhere slightly above the earlier numbers soon. Seemingly, that is where it belongs, that is where he French public has put it…..so runs my impressions of the sad episode.
If you sport a moustache the shape of it which I do not like, and if I am your friend, you may allow me to express my opinion to you privately. In fact you may welcome it, but rarely from someone whom you are not well acquainted with. For a stranger – even a friend, for that matter – to make public criticism and mockery would be to invite trouble. I can discuss with you about the merits and demerits of moustaches, but if I tell the public that you look ugly, then I am inviting a punch on my nose. That is what happened at Charlie Hebdo.
If I say something, it should be for the good of the hearers. Freedom of expression in a decent society allows discussions and debates, even arguments, when they are conducted with mutual respect. We see many such arguments around us every day – on politics, gender, religion, on marriage, sex, and sports. It is present in the bus, in the media, at the club….everywhere. It is a necessary part of life. But when I say something not for the good of anyone but out of a malignant disrespect for the ordinary decencies of life – as hinted at by Willem’s comment – then it is a totally different proposition. A magazine article discussing Islam and its theology would be well received. But when a magazine says “I don’t care what your theology is and I don’t want to understand it, but I am going to poke fun at it even though it may be so dear to you”……?! In context, let me inform you that I am a practicing Catholic Indian, born and living in multi-religious India.
The terrorists who committed the crime are very wrong. Equally wrong is the insidious drift into anarchy in expression that passes by in the name of freedom. The way this anarchy is being foisted upon the world is certainly a sign of decadence. It is a sign of a malaise that affects the binds of civilization and threatens to unravel it. The consequence could be a descent from progressive human society into a crowd of wanton automatons, albeit possibly materially better off. This is one side of the coin of decline. Violent religious extremism is only another side of this multi-sided coin.
We can make the world a better place. All we need to do is to apply the basics of civilization, the most important one of which is to give respect and take respect. Charlie Hebdo should be an object lesson.
The songbird is still at its job. The sun is shining. If we will, it will be a great day to all of us – in spite of occasional clouds. Wish you one.
Jacob J. Mappilacherry