Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Knowledge and Power turns to Idealism and Hate


The execution of the staff at Paris’ Charlie-Hebdo office is creating a stir.  The issue is whether offensive speech should be allowed in polite society.

It’s a debate that has been going on for centuries, and America is unique in defending free speech.  Our right to free speech is enshrined in the Constitution.  The problem is that if only inoffensive speech is allowed, only the offended are protected.  Our constitutional “equal protection” provisions end up being not so equally applied.

While I can’t settle the free speech argument, it is important to look at the other side of the Charlie-Hebdo violence.  That has to do with the twin pillars of idealism and hate.  Those forces were on display in Paris on January 7, 2015.
When we are born, we are totally dependent human beings.  We need someone to tend to us in every way.
When we face death, that dependency returns.
Mitch Albom wrote a book about Professor Morris S. Schwartz, titled “Tuesdays with Morrie.”  It covers the art of dying.  One of the quotes that sticks with me is this:

"You know the biggest thing I dread?" he whispered. "When I can't wipe my own rear end. For some reason, that really bothers me."

Professor Schwartz was lamenting the loss of power that comes late in life.

The same thing pertains to knowledge.  When we are born, we begin our quest for knowledge. That search is portrayed in the film WALL-E where the animated character is in “input mode,” absorbing everything available in new surroundings.
Unfortunately, late in life we tend to reach “knowledge satiation.”  We no longer want to learn new things.  We are comfortable with what we already know.  (There is something to that expression: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!”)
Thus we see a continuum in knowledge and in power.  Humans start with none of each and end with none of either.  What happens in the middle of the continuum is what is interesting.
Humans come to realize that life has limitations.  Our individual knowledge is not boundless, and neither is our power.  How do we cope?
We frequently become attracted to political-religious movements.  (Stay with me on this.  It ties with the massacre in Paris.)
On the religious side, humans find it attractive to subordinate themselves to a higher being.  We can’t know everything, so we accept that “infinite knowledge” must reside in a spiritual being.
On the political side of things, we find it attractive to use displacement to accommodate our lack of power.  We can’t control everything, so we displace our feelings.  All of our problems can be replaced with hate toward a particular identity group.
Examples of both of these phenomena are plentiful in our culture. Political organizations from sports teams to cults are happy to influence our feelings about entities that we don’t support.  We learn to “hate” the Cowboys or the Rams (football teams).  It provides intensity to our sporting experience.
All of this is right and natural.
What’s disheartening is when a political-religious movement takes our normal human tendencies and subverts them.  Our desire to limit the search for knowledge gets replaced with dogmatic idealism.  The Movement tells us we can end our search for truth.  We join the Movement and “the truth” is revealed to us.
The same can be said of power.  A political-religious movement replaces our acceptance of powerlessness with a sense of moral authority.  Our powerlessness becomes displaced by hate.
We see these effects day-in and day-out, but somehow miss the connection until something like the Charlie Hebdo killings occur, or we see police officers gunned down in New York.
Those organizations that teach us to hate rarely have our best interests in mind.

UPDATE 1/8/2015:
Claire Berlinski has a first-hand account of the aftermath of the attack.

UPDATE 1/9/2015:
Peggy Noonan has an article in The Wall Street Journal (unfortunately behind the paywall) that goes over the free speech issues associated with the attack.  Her conclusion:
A singular feature of extremist Islamists is that they are not at all interested in persuasion. They don’t care about winning you over, only about making you submit. They want to menace and threaten. They want to frighten. They enjoy posing with the severed head.
"The elephant in the room" is that extremist Islamists TEACH PEOPLE TO HATE and  Ms. Noonan avoids making that point.  Those who eschew the hate need to be heard.

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