Thursday, January 8, 2015

Where my comfort zone ends and yours begins: Some thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo massacre

It's an awkward thing, to be an American in Europe when gun violence erupts. The sheer size of the outrage, the intensity of public scrutiny, it all feels so completely different from the US, where we sometimes appear to lack the surprise one might expect from a community that has been torn apart by gunfire. School-based shootings in particular happen with such humiliating regularity, across state lines where we may not even understand each others' gun laws, that sometimes I worry we might be shrugging off such convenient mechanized murder.

In all the coverage of the events in Paris yesterday (where I'll be in just a few short weeks), from formal newsdesks to off-the-cuff social media posts, impassioned sympathy for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo office have taken over the channels. That's as it should be; in no civilized nation should the populace be confronting one another with violence when they are offended.

In no civilized nation, however, is free speech unlimited. I'm having a pretty interesting conversation with some commenters on this article (see if you can spot me. Hint: I'm named Julia and have the same icon as on Twitter), and while I worry a little bit that my concerns over the limits of free speech is a bit "...ack, too soon," I've seen way too many newscycles start to ignore even atrocious and violent crime as soon as a new cat gif or celebrity divorce comes along, and so I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by the need to evaluate this whole thing superfast - like, before we have a proper investigation superfast.

I'll say it again, because I want no confusion: violence is uncivilized. It's also illegal, scary, completely outside of one's rights to inflict pain on another, unjustifiable, and immature. At its core, violence appeals to our basest desires for immediate gratification, attention, and intolerance for nuance. A civilized, global world has no place for this.

Intolerance for nuance is as much a problem when we talk about freedom of speech as it is when we talk about terrorism. Whether or not your community chooses to legislate it, we know as people that it's hurtful, it's othering, and it's just plain rude to use language (or, in this case, draw pictures) that we've been repeatedly told are offensive. For example, we know that, hey, gendered slurs are not okay. So, in my own life as a cis person, I don't use derogatory language against trans* folks, not out of any piety, but because that community has said, hey, we really don't like that. It doesn't cost me anything, but I do gain some perspective.

Sometimes feelings will need to be hurt. Sometimes, a really incisive cartoon may be published that depicts the prophet, and it may be worth the backlash and the hurt because it is making a worthwhile and compassionate point overall.** It will be a very subjective moment, and we will not all agree that an insult has even been made. But when that happens, when one population's "rule" about how to behave is broken, the only way out is dialogue. Not violence.

Paris has long been a focal point for unrest between Muslims and non-Muslims, many-generations-back French folks and immigrants. It's a long and complicated history, and it's still being written, which is why I take issue when Paris is conflated with NYC, or London, or any other city. And that's part of why I wanted to put this post up here today. Look, if you've had the chance to travel, if you've seen chunks of the world where you're a minority, or tried to communicate across completely different cultural barriers, you've experienced in an immediate way how important it is for people to reach out and attempt to find common ground, rather than sticking militantly to their own belief system.

That's all. I just wanted to make a little call, in my own minor way, for us to be kinder to one another in our small, everyday actions. Not because "Charlie Hebdo was asking for it," or "this whole thing could have been avoided" (that's not how violent group mentalities work). Just because checking our privilege, evaluating our "jokes," and apologising when we mess up... well, it seems to me to be the right thing to do.

*This isn't an asterisk, it's part of how trans* folks often spell it. But then I needed to use a real asterisk below, and though it would be weird not to address this one...

**A great example of offensive media that I, personally and subjectively, think accomplishes this well is the show Book of Mormon. Or early seasons of Family Guy - you know, before Seth MacFarlane got lazy and just made rape the punchline for everything.

I've got all my photos of Paris on an external drive, naturally, so these images come via Creative Commons, from here, here, and here.

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