National Post Barbara Kay: Civilized people choose words, not revenge

National Post - Thursday January 15th, 2015

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
The coffin of Bernard Verlhac kown as "Tignous" is carried outside the town hall of Montreuil after the tribute service on Jan. 15, 2015 in Montreuil, France. Cartoonist Bernard "Tignous" Verlhac was killed in last weeks terrorist attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

In his Jan 14 column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne tackles the much-debated topic of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that deeply offend adherents of all three of the Abrahamic faiths, some of which – the ones insulting Muhammad, that is – Quebec media have freely published, but most English media have not (the National Post was one of the few that did).



At the core of Coyne’s column is the observation that, while there has been a great furrowing of punditariat brows over the rights and responsibilities of the media – “the offenders as it were” – little to no attention has been paid to “the question of what responsibilities, if any, are borne by the offended.” Of course Muslims are offended by satiric depiction of their “sacred” icon, Muhammad, just as, Coyne points out, secular Quebecers were offended when Maclean’s magazine published a cover featuring their “sacred” Bonhomme Carnaval as the avatar of corruption in Quebec (for which decision, Coyne notes, he was partially responsible).

But, Coyne postulates, when aesthetic effrontery clashes with our perception of what is seemly, we have a choice. We can take offence or we can choose not to take offence, because we “are not automatons, programmed to respond in the same way to every provocation.”

And herein lies the problem with his argument. He is directing his rational suggestion to the people who least need to hear it – that is, to people who consider themselves individuals first, and members of a collective second, if at all. Whereas the people who take deep offence at these cartoons – offence that demands a vigorous response – do not think of themselves as individuals first, and sometimes not at all.

For individuality in matters of settled conviction is a notion that was born in the Enlightenment, which produced a revolution in social organization that we take utterly for granted, but which did not touch, and does not govern an enormous swath of the human race, including those who massacred Charlie Hebdo’s staff.

I think that in the context of the massacres, “offence” is the wrong word. The word that fits the situation more precisely is “shame.” In Islam-dominated regions of the world, honour and shame are the two ineluctably braided principles governing one’s actions. Under this rubric, when one’s family or tribal or religious honour is impugned, one is in a state of shame, which is intolerable.

In the honour/shame paradigm, the individual may be likened to a cog in the wheel of family life, the wheel one of many bearing forward the carriage of society. Individualism weakens the wheel. Its vulnerability threatens the other wheels and the viability of the carriage. Therefore, individual cogs do not “decide” whether or not to take offence. When the icons riding in the carriage are shamed, the wheels all move in the same direction, and the cogs with them.


Honour/shame cultures take a pre-Enlightenment view of the world. We see this self-organizing system in the rigid roles of men and women. The hub of the family wheel is the chastity of the family’s girls and women. Even a rumour of lost virtue can set off a frenzy of honour redressment that results in severe punishment, even death, to the source of the rumours. Love for the individual girl or woman, reason, respect for the individual’s free will: these notions are not pertinent to ancient codes that supersede any idea of individual rights. Fathers who publicly privilege love for daughters and wives who have allegedly shamed the family over their damaged honour – a state of being defined by the families’ kinsmen and community, not by the individual – are uncommon in Islamic culture (one such is the supportive father of Malala Yousafzai, the courageous Pakistani girl the Taliban tried to kill for asserting girls’ right to an education).

Coyne’s encouragement to control and manage our sense of outrage makes sense to people who have been born and bred in democratic cultures. Which explains why the Jews of France – and everywhere else – stoically endure, or civilly criticize, the torrent of obscenely offensive anti-Semitic cartoons that Muslim cartoonists continuously spew over the Islamic world and beyond (after the Danish cartoon affair, Iran’s Hamshahri newspaper sponsored an International Holocaust [Denial] Cartoon Contest, as its response to what it called “Western hypocrisy on freedom of speech”). Are Jews any less offended by this vomitorium of Holocaust-denial, or the nauseatingly hateful portrayals of their rabbis and political leaders than Muslims are offended by mocking portrayals of Mohammad? Of course not. But they are only offended, which does not require punitive redressment. They do not suffer a sense of shame, which does.

Thus, the issue is not about choosing not to be offended. One cannot help one’s feelings. Nor is it necessary to. The decision is whether to express one’s feelings in words dictated by reasonable indignation or violence dictated by the instinct to redress collective shame. Civilized people choose words. Coyne’s argument will not be heard by the people who are most in need of his wisdom.