Monday, 16 November 2015

Paris, or We're All Bloody Mad

If, like me, you tend to regard religion as the refuge of the foolish, then there are really only two ways to look at life. Either you can say ‘well, it’s all a bit meaningless, really. What’s the point? I may as well do what I want, when I want, and to hell with anyone else.’ Or you can say ‘well, yes, it is all meaningless, in the sense that there’s no overarching reason for us to be here. We were dust, to dust we’ll return. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of it while we’re here. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be nice to each other. Life is short, let’s enjoy it. Let’s be gracious.’

I’m in the latter camp as, I think, are most of us atheist types. The deists, theists and polydeists can, and often do, point their collective finger and say ‘ah, but without belief what moral framework can you have?’ but we all know that’s bunkum. I know right from wrong. I know a morally good thing from a morally bad one. I know, fundamentally, what will pain my fellow man, and I know, fundamentally, what will please him. I’m well equipped to teach La Child how best to navigate this life, and I think she’s becoming sufficiently adept that she won’t need to consult a 2,000 year old text to tell her that killing is bad or that stealing is undesirable or that being generally unpleasant is wrong.

Which does bring me on to Paris. It’s sad, I think, that it should be such a horrible event that brings me out of my self-imposed silence (I’ve been away, I had a flat tyre, there was a terrible storm, etc), but as the images burn themselves on to my brain and the polemics begin to flow I couldn’t help but wade in. Perhaps it’s catharsis, or just my way of externalising the disappointment, and the frustration, and the grief that comes from witnessing madness and failing to understand it. Perhaps it’s purely self-indulgent, in which case I apologise. Normal service will resume next time.

In the papers today, a picture of Abdelhamid Abaaoud. A young man, 27 years old, sat in the front of a car smiling, wearing a heavy woollen hat. The sun bleaches out half his face. He’s happy, it’s a nice photo. A photo of the man who apparently organised the deliberate, cruel murder of 129 people, who masterminded the terrorising and injuring of hundreds more. Who provided the excuse for the bombing of more others. A picture of a young man who in fact was nothing but a link in the ongoing chain of attack and retaliation and revenge.

It’s heartbreaking. As I sit here now and look at the photo I see someone’s son. I can’t help it, I see someone young and immediately my mind turns to La Child, and in this case I can’t help but wonder what it would take to turn her into him. What does it take to turn any of our children into Abdelhamid? Or Omar Ismail Mostefai, or Samy Animour, or Bilal Hadfi, or Ahmad Almohammad, or any of the other alleged killers in Paris last Saturday? What happens between a child’s birth, free of all preconceptions, prejudice and hatred, and the moment that they walk into a crowded restaurant and fire a Kalashnikov?

Yes, of course religion plays its part. These are people who have come to believe that what they’re doing is right. This is their moral code. Either you believe too or you’re the enemy and therefore are a legitimate target. Their religion says so. Or actually, no. Their interpretation of their religion says so. I dislike religion, I think it enslaves you, robs you of the ability to think and to reason, robs you of responsibility for your own actions, but I don’t for one minute think that all religion is inherently violent. All religions have had a violent past, but all also speak of compassion, and fairness, and justice and of respect. Somewhere along the line people become corrupted not by religion but by their circumstance. Someone vulnerable (because of their upbringing or their environment or their mental issues) meets someone persuasive, add in some old fashioned hatred and bigotry, leave to rest for a few years and voila, lobster: bloodshed, mayhem, outrage.

If only those with power would do something positive to help, but no. In the news today, next to the picture of 27 year old Abdelhamid – a child, for goodness' sake – the main story is France’s ‘retaliation’. Airstrikes on Raqqa, the bombing of headquarters and camps. ‘We can’t let them act without reacting,’ says the French military. ‘What happened yesterday,’ said Francois Hollande, the French president ‘was an act of war.’ No it wasn’t, you opportunist tit. Nation states wage war on each other. Russia can declare war on America. Gremany can declare war on Great Britain. A group of fundamentalist fruitcakes can’t wage war. They might spread terror, they might break the law, but it’s not a war. War justifies retaliatory strikes, war means bombs and strategic campaigns. War means fighter jets and tanks and infantry and collateral damage. And so today we have the bombs, and the fighter jets and the collateral damage. Tomorrow we’ll have the upgraded terror level and the increased police presence. Next week we’ll have stricter border controls, and then, eventually, another indiscriminate attack in the middle of Rome, or Baghdad, or London, or Beirut. More death. More grief. A retaliation for the retaliation, revenge for the revenge. More outrage, more bombs, and on and on we’ll go in a never ending merry-go-round of tit-for-tat.

It’s all rather depressing. I’d usually say something funny now, something positive. Something about breaking the cycle, education being the key, a slow but determined push to eradicate radicalism, to reduce the impact of blind faith, a concerted effort to dismantle the structures necessary to keep people under the yoke of ignorance, but, really, I do feel terribly depressed today. I can’t honestly see how we’ll ever reach a more enlightened state, not while we're nothing but a thin veneer of respectability away from the apes. Evolution, I suppose, will eventually see us right. All will be well, just a few hundred thousand more years required.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

I think I'm offended part 2: this time it's very annoying

KStop it, stop it, stop it. All of you, please cease the incessent whining.

Since those three demented fools went on a rampage in Paris last week the Internet has been awash with people getting their knickers in a twist about the giving or taking of 'offence'. On the one side we have what I affectionately call the Whitehouses, adherents to the Mary Whitehouse School of Propriety, or the 'I'm offended by that' Society. Free speech must have limits, they cry. One can't give offence willy nilly. What about child pornography? What about disabilities? What about religion, hmm, hmm? 

On the other side we have the Absolutists, who say free speech is the freedom to say what you want when you want to whom you want without repercussions. 

I have news, kiddywinkles - you're all wrong. Free speech has limits. Always has had. And it's right that it should, but those limits are there for very good reason. Sorry to break it to you, you odious little ignorant preacher of complete codswallop @anjemchoudary, but 'thou shalt not give offence' isn't one of them.

Once upon a time, in 1919 (at just about half past three) a chap called Oliver Wendell Homes Jr gave an opinion in the case of Schenck v United States. He said:

"[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

Ever since then, we've been using the example of an irresponsible fool in a packed theatre to explain when it is that free speech is protected, and when not. Take another look at the quote, and in particular the word 'falsely'. If you happen to be in a packed theatre and there really is a fire then you'd be fairly within the bounds of normal behaviour if you were to decide to shout about it. But if there isn't a fire, then what you're saying is false, and you deal with the consequences.

Why's that relevant here? Well, we don't have an unfettered right to free speech, so all you Absolutists out there, tough luck. Time for bed, off you go, please stop bothering me. And all you Whitehouses out there? You can fuck off as well. Why? Because any limit on free speech is there to protect from a distinct harm, and dealt with under specific legislation. You can't tell lies about someone because that's libel, and you can be rightly sued. Lies can affect people's livelihoods, their reputation, their ability to work and their relationships. Lies are bad. Naughty naughty; Oliver would waggle his finger at you. You can't wander about being racist or discriminatory either. Racism, bigotry, prejudice, it's been the scourge of society for centuries and caused misery to millions. It's morally indefensible and flies in the face of our ideals of equality and fairness. It's also illogical, and frankly that's enough to annoy me. Don't fall foul of the Race Relations Acts, kiddies, or the Disabilities Discrimination Act or a whole bucketful of other legislation. 

But what you can do, what you can and should carry on doing again and again and again, as loudly and as widely as you could possibly want, is offend people. I've said this before, and I shall say it again, and again, and again - there is no right not to be offended. You can complain as much as you like that something I say has offended you, but that's your affair, not mine. Offence is taken, not given. "I'm offended!" It's a meaningless whine, a toddler's stamping of the feet.

I've used Mr Fry to illustrate this very point before, but I suffer no shame in using it again:

"It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that’, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive’. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I’m offended by that’, well so fucking what?"

You may believe in religion if you wish. Monotheistic, nontheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic or plain old deistic? Believe in the big bearded fellow suffering from a sense of humour failure? Base your moral code on a 2,500 year old book that says wearing a polyester/cotton mix shirt is the devil's work? That's fine, off you trot. Dislike the idea of man on man action? Fickle about the notion of frottage? Not a problem. Find @frankieboyle a bit much? That's your prerogative. But so is it mine to point out the madness of religion and to call you out on the idiocy of your prejudice. 

Offence is healthy. Offence is necessary. Another quote, this time from Philip Pullman:

"I think there's a difference between (a) offending people for its own sake, which I don't necessarily want to do, because some people are good and decent and it would be unkind to upset them simply to indulge my own self-importance, and (b) challenging their prejudices, their preconceptions, or their comfortable assumptions. I'm very happy to do that. But we need to be on our guard when people say they're offended. No one actually has the right to go through life without being offended. Some people think they can say "such-and-such offends me" and that will stop the "offensive" words or behaviour and force the "offender" to apologise. I'm very much against that tactic. No one should be able to shut down discussion by making their feelings more important than the search for truth. If such people are offended, they should put up with it". 

I'm not saying that we should offend for the sake of it; that is, as Philip Pullman says, unkind. But neither should you seek to stifle debate by the expediency of taking offence. Offence is subjective, offence is hurt feelings. It's not an impact on livelihood, it's not the suppression of a part of society, it's plain old moaning. 

So stop it, stop it, stop it.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie

This morning some people walked into an office and killed some other people. 

The people who were killed (Jean Cabut, Stephane Charbonnier, Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac, Bernard Maris and seven more, let's call them the 'Normal People') had been in the habit of drawing cartoons about non-existent characters from a millennia old work of fiction. 

This made the people doing the killing (let's call them the 'Fundamentalist Nutjobs') angry, and let's be honest, who can't understand that? We all have out favourite characters from books, don't we? And I can tell you, I get so irate when they do something that's just, well, unexpected. One of my dirty little secrets is a weakness for those Tom Clancy books, you know the ones where Jack Ryan runs about doing rightwing stuff to foil a drug runner or a dark skinned middle eastern type with designs on world domination. And how annoyed do I get when ol' Jack says something out of character, like endorsing free healthcare for example? So annoyed. Or if Harry Potter shouts "Engorgio!" when he should be using "Expelliarmus!", so so very annoying. 

You can see, then, why the Fundamentalist Nutjobs would get worked up over some cartoons of their own favourite non-existent, fictitious character from an age old work of fiction. So excuse me, would you, I'm off to shoot Colin Dexter for killing off Inspector Morse.  

Before I do, though, RIP Cabu, Charb, Wolinski, Tignous, Maris and the others killed this morning. Have this -