In situations like the attack in Paris, labeling the perpetrators as barbaric and therefore “other” shifts the potential response from self-reflectively seeking to exemplify our values in the best way possible and on to the road of knee-jerk violent response. We do not uphold the values of freedom of expression and diversity by grossly labeling an entire group and removing all sense of nuance. We do not uphold the values of fairness and rational inquiry by failing to differentiate between an identification with an ideology and a race.
When attacked, verbally or physically, the internal response is often the same, an immediate dissociation from any connection with that person. They become “other.” Thus when explaining their actions and determining our response, labeling them as being wholly separate from us is easy. Further, declaring their actions a complete disavowel of a value we hold sacred makes a violent response feel not only right but inevitable. Let’s face it, the purity of violence as it shuts down our frontal lobes and engages our emotional brains, feels good. The liberating feeling is the reward center kicking in.
The journey there…
Religion, like politics, develops out of a need to find a core identity, a central story out of which we can organize our experiences. This story helps determine who is like us and who is different and therefore build a sense of community. Isolating differences allows for the creation of an “other,” limiting the need for dialogue. If the person is “other,” any potential for finding similarity is prima facie impossible and therefore there’s no need to look. The “us VS them” version of tribalism is felt here at the individual level, unfortunately making this adversarial view of life feel inevitable, when in reality this is farthest from the truth.
On the other hand, generative dialogue requires searching for what is similar and then determining why different behavior evolves out of those similarities. This “us AND them” version of tribalism stems from first identifying as human beings sharing a set of values and then recognizing where ideologies or worldviews generate different behavior through the value lens. Differences are still accepted, still acknowledged, but by beginning with the shared reality as human beings we can then endeavor to seek why people who value freedom and life defend this value in very different ways.
Violence is simply one way of defending a value, it is an action, not a value in itself. Violence is a simplistic defense, it affords no discussion, no requirement of understanding and is most easily demonstrated within an adversarial paradigm. While there are certainly situations where violence is the only remaining means of defending a value, like life, to say that it is the best way to do so cannot be held under scrutiny. Introspection, generative dialogue, and rational skepticism are the means of understanding ourselves and others within a world of democratic living. Violence begins and ends at a definition of ourselves as mere beasts, at the mercy of our instincts. “…it is obvious that the more we know about ourselves, the more skillfully and effectively we can pull the strings that control our own behavior.” (Smith)
When we bomb indiscriminately, when atrocities like Abu Ghraib occur, when we flood the skies with drones, we are not upholding our values in the best way possible, we are instead succumbing to the base and simplistic act of fear-laden violent response. Violence is the most simple, the most instinctually base of responses to a situation. Sometimes it is called for, when a more rational response is impossible, but by resorting to violence as an immediate and first response we show ourselves to be less committed to our values than to an ideology of authoritarian exceptionalism.
This is why the attack on a satirical magazine demands a response that manifests the best of who we can be. Those who attacked have proven themselves not as lacking a value for freedom, but in not desiring to see what a better way of expressing that freedom would be. Satire and the broader humor it belongs to, is important because it is a way of defying authority without resorting to bloodshed. Questioning authority through generative dialogue is a way of seeing where any and all ideologies can go wrong. The way of the gun supports only the notion of might makes right.
What the terrorist shows us is not that he hates our values. Rather, his worldview or ideology places dialogue outside of appropriate response as he has self-identified his actions as being the only proper and meaningful way of upholding the values we all share. Justifying their actions through a divine or otherwise unquestionable authority is a means of further distancing themselves from their adversaries, their “other.” Answering their actions with our own violence only cements their view of the world as one of “us VS them.”
Answering terrorism by upholding our values means attempting to do so in the best way possible. This means focusing on the rule of law, the rule of reason and rational inquiry, supporting freedom of expression through a free and powerful press, which includes humor and satire. What the terrorist wants is not merely the abdication of our reason, but the right to laugh in the face of authority. We win not by shooting them, but by continuing to laugh, to joke. We win not through bombings, but in every engaged nuanced discussion. We win not by hurling racial epitaphs, but in seeking through rational inquiry to understand even those people who belong to a different group.
We win not by denying the humanity of those who oppose us, but by displaying the best of humanity in all of us.
© David Teachout