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Charlie Hebdo

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In relation to what happened in Paris today, Ezra Klein ends a passionate post with this:

These murders can’t be explained by a close read of an editorial product, and they needn’t be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn’t need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong.

This is a tragedy. It is a crime. It is not a statement, or a controversy.

Darwins-Cathedral-cover Much of the above is so wrong that it is jaw-dropping. Does Klein really believe this? Is it copy rushed out in the moment? If you read history and observe patterns in human culture it is clear that most societies hold certain metaphysical ideas sacred. Sacrosanct. This came home to me years ago when reading Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval — America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. One of the most radical acts of the Founding Fathers was to not base the federal government of the United States under the imprimatur of a particular divine order. All organized complex societies across history had done so, from the Chinese Empires under Heaven, to Augustus’ traditionalist attempt to resurrect older Roman family religious practices, to the religiously justified polities which arose under Christianity and Islam. Arguably the first cities were theocratic in their organized structure! Socrates was famously brought under charges of impiety against the gods of Athens. This may have been a pretense, but it illustrates the principle. Athens was not a theocracy in the manner that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy, but in ancient societies religious sensibilities suffused everyday life. In fact they often did not have a separate word for religion, so ubiquitous was the melange of ritual and supernatural in the agora and the hearth.

World Values Survey

World Values Survey

This co-mingling of religious and communal identity is not an aberration, but the human norm over most of history. In much of the world it still is the norm. Dishonoring the gods of barbarians and unbelievers has long been a matter of course. Churches were built over temples and mosques over churches for a reason. To show the power of one communal identity and the eclipse of another. Gods and people were interchangeable in the psyche. When the Assyrians sacked Babylon they dragged away the statue of the god Marduk in chains. But individuals dishonoring the gods of their own people was always a matter of serious concern, violating public order, and potentially undermining social harmony (often, innovation in religious practice prefigured rebellion). It doesn’t take much to imagine that there might be functional reason for societies to establish taboos of what is inviolate and sacred, and sanction those who trespass.

41PkQaRolCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The modern West, and to an extent the modern world writ large, upturns these conventional sensibilities, lionizing individual self-actualization to the point where almost all public communal taboos are open to question and critique. This is a radical overturning of conventional human assumptions. Even within the West most nations have limits on freedom of expression around particular topics of great emotional sensitivity (e.g., Holocaust denial in Germany). The fact that religion is no longer in that class is a reflection of the marginalization of religion in the life of the modern West. But the post-materialist Western viewpoint is not the dominant one throughout the world. Dissent from it is not madness, it is simply different.

Ramna Kali Mandir Hindu temple, destroyed by Pakistani army in 1971

Ramna Kali Mandir Hindu temple, destroyed by Pakistani army in 1971

So the behavior of Islamic radicals is definitely not beyond comprehension. Rather, it is totally explicable, and in many societies and times would be entirely normal and healthy behavior. Attacking the religion of the folk is understood to be synonymous with attacking the folk. That is why Thomas Jefferson had to elucidate his views on religion in the first place, they did not come naturally to people in the 18th century. They had to be inculcated over generations. Even if Islamic radicals in the West prey upon the marginalized, they reflect ancient and primal methods of social outrage and sanction. What you see here is the reality of living in a multicultural world where there is no a harmony of values and norms, and free movement of individuals who don’t necessarily subscribe to the social viewpoints of the lands in which they settle. With the rise of globalization a jockeying of civilizational values through channels of travel and across nodes of cosmopolitan cities will naturally occur, because different Weltanschauung abrade against each other uncomfortably when their demands are at cross-purposes. The norm of free speech and acceptance of blasphemy as a fundamental right is young to the world.* We shouldn’t think anything otherwise, and turn the world upside to conform to our prejudices of what is good, true, and beautiful.

One can agree that something is evil without asserting that it is inexplicable. Just because you can not understand someone’s language does not imply that their speech has no content or structure.

* Just to be clear, I stridently support an absolutist stand on free speech. I just don’t live under the delusion that it is somehow natural or eternal. It is a historical artifact. One I cherish, but not one I take for granted.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Charlie Hebdo, Religion 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"