Why Sanctimony Is No Defense against Zealotry

To some extent, sanctimony is the “civilized” version of dogma enforced by social, religious, or political conformity and then, when that proves insufficient, the threat of force.

There is now a great deal of attention to the nature of the satire published in Charlie Hebdo, with some commentators finding it almost embarrassingly juvenile and others finding it relentlessly offensive and extremely and needlessly provocative.

But what is missing from most of those discussions is that this is a debate about taste, and as any freshman composition student knows, debates about taste are not fruitful topics for any sort of well-reasoned argument. Taste is always very personal, even if we happen to agree on some standards by which tastefulness might be judged.

Although the Internet has developed into an unprecedented source of information, it is also a cesspool of completely uncensored and often horribly offensive opinion. And nowhere is this more apparent than on the websites promoting religious zealotry and hate groups, which often reveal themselves as very closely related mentalities. For it is a very short step from believing that non-believers are damned to believing that non-believers should be hastened to their damnation.

Some of the harshest critics of religious fundamentalism have observed that all fundamentalism–whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic—is equally dangerous because it demands for itself a freedom of expression that it wishes to deny to everyone else.

Indeed, there are many Christian hate groups—that is, not just groups who hate devout Christians (and there are those) but groups who hate non-Christians in the name of Christ. In fact, more fascistic groups in the West cloak themselves in Christian symbolism and other associations than do not. Indeed, many of these extremist groups seem to exist primarily to embrace, to justify, and to promote derogatory caricatures of Jews and Muslims as if they were simply and indisputably representations of fact.

Likewise, there are Jewish hate groups for whom all Muslims are not just dangerous but despicable, even subhuman.

And a Google search for Islamic stereotypes of Jews will turn up scores of incredibly offensive caricatures based on hateful assumptions that would seem laughably childish if they were not so violently expressed.

Furthermore, for almost all of these groups, religious, ethnic, and racial distinctions—many of which might be completely lost on any outsider—are of paramount importance. But what is also often very clear to an outsider is that nothing is so simple as to divide so neatly along such religious, ethnic, and racial lines, all at the same time.

In essence, an ideology of hate flourishes to the extent that it can magnify the offensiveness and the ostensible threat posed by the targets of its hate.

The awful truth is that hate requires a certain simplemindedness. Tolerance is founded on thoughtfulness whereas hate is fueled by emotion unmitigated by any truly reasonable thought. Indeed, tolerance requires not just a lack of fixed, preconceived notions but also an ability to allow for complexities, to distinguish subtleties, and to accommodate fresh insights.

So when we try to put ourselves into the mindset of extremists of any kind, we need to recognize that there is a fundamental (and I use the word here deliberately) difference between them and us: we view critical thinking as a challenging opportunity whereas they view it as a challenge to their beliefs that must be obliterated.

We have to give up on the notion that there is any way to reason with such people. We must recognize the difference between understanding them and attempting to approach them with understanding.

Some of the commentators on the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo have tried to define a way in which both free expression and civility can both be maintained—a way in which offensiveness can be stopped short of the level at which it might provoke violence. But that’s basically ceding standards of taste to the extremists. You cannot find a meaningful compromise with groups that view any compromise as a betrayal of principle.

Moreover, the one thing that is most apparent in any Internet search of the sites of hate groups is that those groups that engage in the most virulently insulting stereotyping of their “enemies” are paradoxically the most sensitive to any derogatory representation of their own attitudes and actions.

This is a group version of a phenomenon that we have all witnessed on an individual level in our daily lives: the people who are the most unsparingly critical of others are often those with the thinnest skins, those for whom the slightest personal slight is magnified to an unpardonable insult. In such cases, unbridled self-assurance is a defense mechanism, a mask for deeply seated self-doubt.

The people attacking the offices of Charlie Hebdo are essentially the same people who are videotaping their beheadings of journalists and aid workers in the ISIS-controlled regions of Syria and Iraq. Moreover, these same people have been executing droves of people in those regions who simply belong to other Islamic sects and “other” ethnic groups.

If one were to juxtapose a slideshow of the most controversial covers of Charlie Hebdo with a video montage of those individual beheadings and mass executions, would there be any question about which was more offensive? Would there be any question about which actions place the underlying principles of a free society at greater risk?

In a free society, hate groups are allowed to disseminate their messages with few constraints, but no one is allowed to use violence to silence a message that he or she finds hateful.

That fundamental principle safeguards a free society against extremists who desire to create a world in which everyone who chooses not to embrace their beliefs has, in effect, surrendered all basic rights, including the simple right to exist.

That fundamental principle safeguards the very basic and simple distinctions between being offensive and being dead and between taking offense and committing murder.


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