The following are the comments Pessin made at a panel on January 22, on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris at the beginning of the month. It initiated a series of email exchanges with Lamiya Khandaker in February, which preceded the full-fledged assault in March.
Notes for Hebdo comments 1/22/15
Of the many issues, questions, problems in play here, one particularly strikes me:
“moral relativism” … in particular, the profound moral differences in play between distinct cultures/subcultures …
–in the academic bubble we live in we are firm believers in tolerance and diversity … which leads to a strong default inclination toward a kind of relativism — different societies and cultures and religions are all equally valuable, equally legitimate, equally ‘correct’ in their own way — at the very least we are in no justified position to critique their differences … it’s imperialistic, colonialistic, to impose our values on other cultures … shades of European imperialism, colonialism, conquest, domination etc….
–the fascinating irony of course is that these ideas of tolerance, diversity, individual liberties etc. are profoundly European ideas in the first place …
–helping to support these ideas is that it can be very difficult to distinguish “cultural” differences from “moral” differences … of COURSE differences in dress, and language, and cuisine, and customs, etc. should be tolerated, celebrated … so that bleeds over into tolerating/celebrating the diversity of practices that begin spilling into moral practices — the role/status of women, FGM, the role/status of gays, freedoms of the individual (speech, assembly, religion) etc….
–and it is instances like Hebdo which show just profoundly problematic this strongly relativistic attitude is … which reveal just how profoundly different are the value systems in play …
–for most of “us,” OF COURSE Hebdo had the right to satirize religion (not just islam but pretty nasty toward Christianity and Judaism too) … perhaps we find it offensive, in bad taste, maybe even “wrong” in some sense — but in no sense deserving of execution
–but for many of “them” (leaving that undefined!) OF COURSE Hebdo did not have that right, and WAS deserving of execution …. (demonstrations all over the world AGAINST Hebdo, incl riots and deaths against Hebdo … Nigeria (burning churches), Pakistan, Gaza…) ….
–tho I am very skeptical of sharp black/white distinctions, of us/them distinctions — they’re generally not accurate and not helpful to productive discussion — I use the distinction here only to demarcate a strong moral dividing point — either you condemn the Hebdo shootings simpliciter or you don’t … events like this force you finally to make a choice … and I’m using ‘us’ to indicate the former and ‘them’ to indicate the latter, regardless of race/ethnicity/religion etc.
–[and note I’m not even talking about the shooting of the Jews here — separate issue(s) — just focusing on the Hebdo]
–it’s easy to be tolerant and celebrate the diverse practices when “they” are “over there” “elsewhere” — but the world is getting smaller, now they are right “here” … so what can and should you do?
–can you “tolerate” those who don’t want to tolerate you?
–can you “coexist” with people who want to kill you?
–how is it possible to affirm your commitment to “individual liberty, freedom, diversity” when “sub-cultures” within your culture want to overthrow you and your values?
–this also shows up “between” cultures — eg how do states go to war justly, morally (by their own standards) against non-state entities that don’t play by the same rules (eg re protecting civilians) …
–I have no answers, to either the theoretical or practical problems raised here … but I do suspect one thing, regrettably, in both domains — that whatever the answer is, it might well involve re-examining and articulating far more precisely the nature and limits of the key notions (liberty freedom diversity tolerance) we celebrate …. Or to articulate it more precisely: the great challenge for societies committed to liberal democratic values is how to maintain those values, to maximize those values, even toward those who don’t share those values, who are so opposed to those values that they attack them with violence ….