In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre in Paris recently, debates have raged throughout the Western world regarding the free expression and its role in society.
Many conversations have been outright condemnation. Sadly, a good number of other conversations have gone: “Nothing justifies murder, but…”
“We shouldn’t attack ideas with satire and ridicule for fear we might provoke outrage,” they say. This just hands power back to the thugs by giving them exactly what they want — control of others by fear and force.
But here are the facts: Words do not do any intrinsic harm. Ideas don’t have feelings and don’t deserve respect. People deserve respect.
Two things are at play here:
(1) People honestly believe that violence is permissible if someone is provoked
Pope Francis clearly believes this — the paragon of virtue of the Catholic Church supports the wife beater’s (she made me do it) defence, saying: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
It should be no surprise that a Catholic official is in favour of violence towards those who the Church deems as “opposition” (just look at Church history), but this is the meek and mild saviour of the Church speaking! The most popular Pope for a long time because he has appealed to the liberal and non-Catholics.
The kind of revenge society that Pope Francis is advocating is not the sort of society reasonable people want to live in. The idea that violence is justified for any reason other than defense is simply barbaric. We condemn the kids who inflict physical punishment on the playground; we try to stamp out bullying, yet some of us are quick to say that inciting violence if insulted is okay. Progress in human rights, justice and ethical living since the Enlightenment has been away from this kind of meathead justice.
Violence is never the right answer to words and ideas we don’t like. Better ideas and better words are.
(2) People like to gain control by being reflexively offended
In recent years it has become fashionable for some to try to silence others and exert control on public discourse by playing the “I’m offended” card. The notion being that we all must have our feelings protected and if “I say I’m offended then you’d better just stop”.
But the world is constituted in such a way that this is clearly an absurd position. Just look at the droves of American Idol contestants in genuine shock and denial after receiving negative comments about their lack of singing talent. This is likely the first time they ever received any negative feedback because their so-called friends are constantly pumping them up and egging them on to “pursue their dream”.
You have the right to be offended but you don’t have the right to silence people in public discourse just because their arguments are inconvenient or uncomfortable to you. For if it is acceptable to silence others for your benefit, then it must be fine for others to demand that same level of respect of their beliefs from you.
If we try to change the world to conform with our wishes we are in a head-on course with disappointment and suffering.
It is impossible to not offend someone, somewhere. For some, the mere existence of atheists is offensive. Others just can’t be offended at all, though they feel revulsion at things done in poor taste. The thing is, ideas and concepts aren’t intrinsically offensive, people get offended.
Be not offended
Have you ever noticed that if you take two very similar people (similar interests and stations in life) and tell them the same thing they will respond differently? That’s because it’s not the words or the message that matters, it is the meanings people derive and layer on top of the message.
Words do not injure; words merely carry meaning and that meaning can only lead to injury if it is perceived to be so in the mind of the receiver.
Despite this, it blindingly obvious that when we lash out in response to things we don’t like it is because at some level we believe ourselves to have been injured in some way.
This is probably due to the fact that people identify with their beliefs and the more conviction and importance they assign those beliefs, the more sting they’re likely to feel if their beliefs are challenged. While they maybe ideas to us and we might even recognise them to be in error, to the person who holds the belief it is a matter of utmost importance. This is particularly the case when it comes to religion, primarily because those kinds of ideas are at the root of a person’s identity.
How the Stoics handled insults and criticism
As usual, the Stoics had some of the better insights on dealing with anything people had to say, positive or negative. This was because the Stoics knew that too many people place too much importance on what people thought, to the point where it would derail them emotionally.
Many of the following Stoic approaches to handling insults have been used with great effect in anger management classes and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
The Roman Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius prepared himself for the hostile life in Roman Politics by reminding himself not to be surprised that people ware scoundrels:
“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill”. People do not choose to behave they way they do so “[t]hat men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice.” – Meditations 2:1
Much of the shock we experience from the actions and words of others is because we at some level we think people shouldn’t be nasty or provocative. This is however, an unrealistic expectation and Aurelius’ morning reminder posted above is an antidote for such idealistic delusion.
We can’t control other people, but we can control our responses to them.
Another very effective way of dealing with comments is to refrain from thinking of them as negative or positive in the first place. After all, it is the assignment of meaning to statements that governs our emotional response.
“Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” – Meditations 4:7
The above quote reveals a central theme in Stoic training that survives today in modern CBT: Don’t allow your initial impression to catch fire and turn into a full-on emotional outburst. Ultimately, we have the faculty of reason that can pour water on the sparks of emotional fires thereby keeping our equanimity and calm.
Epictetus says it much more eloquently:
Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you. – Enchiridion 1.5
Ideas don’t deserve respect, people do
In a civil society it is our duty to challenge ideas and allow the best ideas to make to survive while discarding those that are subversive, harmful and factually wrong. This can only happen with reasoned debate and inquiry free from corruption.
Words, ideas and pictures don’t have feelings, they can’t endure suffering and can’t be offended. Ideas deserve no special treatment for if they did then the idea that Earth is center of the universe or the ideas of alchemy would not be cast on the trash heap of history as they should be.
This is the big point that people like Pope Francis don’t get: we have only made moral and scientific progress — away from barbarism and the archaic notions that hold humanity back, by criticising ideas, holding them up in the light of day and seeing whether they’re valid, invalid, helpful or harmful.
However, ideas do carry power — power to change society, transform lives and shift wealth. This means people and and heads of corporations and institutions such as religions are motivated to suppress, deny and rubbish ideas that don’t serve their purpose or will lead to a loss of power. This is why we need freedom of speech — to avoid abuses of power in all its guises.
Some things will offend people, regardless of how tame they maybe. You can’t not offend people. If we had a society that remained tight lipped over important issues for fear someone may cry “offense” then that lack of honesty and transparency would be allow all kinds of abuses and toxic ideas to flourish. The bullies would win.
The main take away points:
- Words, pictures and actions are not inherently offensive, we become offended.
- Words and ideas don’t deserve respect but people do
Ideas don’t have feelings.
- Trying to bend reality to meet our expectations is a flawed strategy.
- Remind yourself daily, as Marcus Aurelius did, that you will encounter people who are rude, critical, irrational and outright nasty. Expect insult and avoid injury.
- Repugnant ideas should be met with counter ideas in a civilised society, so that we can make moral progress.
- Violence is only justified when meeting violence, never because we don’t like the words or ideas of others.