Hurt sentiments or fractured humanity?

Use of harassment or murder clearly translates the message of love into the language of fear, and a community living in perpetual fear of hurt sentiments is a community of fractured souls

purushottam-agarwal

Purushottam Agarwal | January 29, 2015




The horrific massacre in Paris and then declaration of his own ‘death’ by Tamil writer P Murugan ought to be matters of great concern for anyone who takes his/her own life and freedom seriously. From a long-term perspective more bothersome are the rationalisations of various hues and degrees being offered on behalf of the ‘hurt sentiments’, even by some well-meaning people. One major argument claims that Charlie Habdo had the implicit power and prejudices of the ‘modern’ West behind it, and was catering to Islamophobia, which is spreading fast in western societies. On the other hand, the killers, though misguided, were only registering their angry protest against a culture which is insensitive to their religious sensibilities. Killing, so the argument goes, is, of course, extreme and wrong; but also so is the extreme insistence on unbridled freedom of expression. After all, one must be respectful (even while being critical) to all religious traditions and be careful in criticism or caricature. How could Charlie Habdo forget, while publishing these caricatures, that Islam strictly forbids ‘representation’ of the prophet in any form?

Those asking the above question innocently forget that they are asking non-Muslims to submit to an Islamic injunction. They need to be reminded, ‘your taboo cannot be my taboo, and if you want to make it so, please argue with facts and logic, not with arson and gun’. More importantly, they need to be reminded that blasphemy has been the sine qua non of human progress, howsoever you view it. Had it not been for a blasphemous Galileo, the sun would still be moving around the earth!

I had a personal experience of this politically correct ‘innocence’ only last week, when a friend teaching in one of the premier institutions of the country wondered, “How in the hell can the French talk of free expression, when by banning the hijab in public, they have restricted the free expression of Islam?”

I had to remind this lady (who being a non-Muslim never had the opportunity to express her religion through hijab) that the French ban is applicable to public display of all symbols indicating your religious affiliation. More importantly, the restriction on hijab and other religious symbols draws its sanctity not from a putatively divine but from the human law – which is theoretically open to challenge and change unlike the final commandments of God.
The case of Murugan is both similar and dissimilar. Thankfully, it has not seen an extreme expression of ‘hurt sentiments’; and naturally has not attracted that kind of attention, too. In fact, more interesting or rather educative are other differences. While in the case of Charlie Habdo, the entire French nation (including those who have been caricatured by the irrepressible weekly) came out in an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity declaring “je suis Charlie”; in the case of Murugan, the administration representing the ‘democratic’ state of a ‘liberal’ society forced a humiliating ‘compromise’ on the distressed author. And since, the matter involved not only the Hindutva brigade but also the ‘hurt sentiments’ of the powerful OBCs of Tamil Nadu, the political establishment chose to look the other way.

The other important difference, of course, was the ‘demonstration’ of double standards. Those who disdainfully refused to say, “je Suis Charlie” were found enthusiastically saying, “I am Murugan”. And those who were quite vocal in their condemnation of the attack on Charlie Habdo were endorsing the administration’s way of handling the situation and were asking authors to be more circumspect in future. The reason of these double standards is the same – to treat matters pertaining to expression and criticism merely as ‘tactical’. For some of our liberals, Hindu traditions are fair game, but Islam has to be treated with kid gloves. For most of the Hindutva types, Hindu traditions are beyond any criticism, all other religions must be duly criticised and caricatured.

Both these opinions get support from the so-called multi-culturists, and ask in their chosen contexts: Can the right to exercise freedom of expression be absolute? Should you not respect the religious sentiments of so many people?

It is high time to pose a counter-question: Can the right to hurt sentiments be absolute? The religious or political sentiments which get hurt are rooted in a set of structured beliefs. Also, let us remember that hardly any collective expression of hurt sentiments is truly spontaneous. Even in cases where it seems to be the act of a small group of individuals, there is the force of cultural mind-making operating in the background. More directly, there is the community at large already implicitly supporting the action taken on behalf of its sentiments. Sometimes, the whole business of sentiments is deliberately conducted to create a diffident and besieged community – the evolution of the unprecedentedly ‘hurt-sensitive’ Hindus over the last couple of decades is a case in point.

Given these facts, the implicit or explicit concession to the demand of absolute immunity to any type of collective sentiment is an extremely dangerous one. After all, some people must have had suffered the hurt to their sentiments when the community practices like human sacrifice, slave trade, and divinely ordained exploitation on gender or ethnic lines were and are attacked, criticised or lampooned. It is therefore extremely important to distinguish between personal emotion and collective sentiment. Even personal emotion is not totally unconnected from the collective set of structured beliefs rooted in power structures; hence it also should be open to scrutiny.

Undoubtedly, emotions are too important to be marginalised in a discourse or in behaviour. But, this, in itself, is a rational position. After all, God has granted humans not only emotions, but also the capacity to reason and argue. More importantly, it is easier to find the shared universals in the sphere of rationality than in that of emotions. Everyone has a right to feel emotional attachment to his/her nation, but rational dialogue puts reasonable restrictions on this attachment from becoming aggression against other nations. Insistence on absolute freedom of sentiments getting hurt at the drop of a word or a caricature in howsoever sophisticated way is merely a sophistry which privileges a fractured notion of humanity over an integrated one.

Sometimes, your ‘emotional’ position may not be rationally very convincing and your first reaction could of feeling hurt, but if this hurt becomes a sort of permanent state of mind or a badge of collective identity, then there is a problem. Emotions deserve respect but so does reason, the only arbiter can be the democratically negotiated rule of law. No religion, no tradition can be given an exemption from this. Use of harassment or murder clearly translates the message of love (which all religions claim to contain) in the language of fear, and a community living in perpetual fear of hurt sentiments cannot but be a community of fractured souls.

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