Reclaiming the Centre Through Word and Deed

In an op-ed for today’s Straits Times, Bilahari Kausikan intuits that European liberalism is failing, but I sense he jumps to the wrong conclusions. He says:

In West Europe, for instance, the political arrangements that we now call liberal democracy were arrived at only after several centuries of an often violent process of accommodation between different varieties of Christianity, each of which claimed a monopoly of divine revelation. These accommodations are now subject to the political, economic and cultural pressures generated by immigration – legal and illegal – from North Africa and the Middle East as well as from other parts of Europe. That large numbers of these new arrivals are ethnically distinct and Muslim are additional complications.

European liberalism, indeed all varieties of Western liberalism, have proved inadequate to deal with contemporary challenges. This is because liberalism prioritises one system of values and places it at the head of a hierarchy of value systems. But it is precisely this hierarchy that is now being contested – and contested not only by the new arrivals.

The liberal democratic value systems that formed the basis of late 20th century Europe’s political accommodations are now under pressure from European electorates. Hence, the rise of extreme right-wing – sometimes neo-fascist – movements across Europe. Their emergence points to a gap between the values of European elites and substantial numbers of their peoples that needs to be bridged if is not to metastasise into something darker and more malignant.

Across Europe, multiculturalism – an ideology derived from liberalism – is giving way to pressure for assimilation or integration. But assimilation or integration to what? What is, or ought to be, the core and what is the periphery? These are not abstract questions.

Since Kausikan will not mention what this ‘system of values’ and ‘hierarchy of value systems’ are, let me spell it out.

European culture is indeed based on democracy and Christianity: one man one vote, separation of Church and state, freedom of speech and expression, respect for minorities, human rights, and peaceful coexistence.

These immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East carry a different set of values based on Islam and Arabic norms: tribe above all, the majlis is the state, do and say nothing that will bring dishonour upon the tribe, minorities must submit to the majority through tax and slavery in exchange for ‘protection’, women are far less important than men, and the House of Islam and the House of War.

These aren’t simply a ‘hierarchy of value systems’ — these values are incompatible. They were developed in different lands, over different time periods, with a different set of historical baggage. Many immigrants entering Europe, especially the illegal immigrants, do not wish to integrate and become Europeans; instead, they are bringing their cultures into their new homelands, living by the old ways in the ghettoes and no-go zones instead of co-existing with their new neighbours.

Barely a century ago, humans used to call this ‘colonisation’.

Multiculturalism is indeed giving way — but not to assimilation. Assimilation is a symptom. Liberalism is giving way to nationalism: the outright rejection of immigrant culture and values, especially those from Africa, in favour of local cultures and values. The ‘centre’ of this loose ideological movement probably would have little objection to immigration, so long as the immigrants assimilate into the culture of their new homes and adopt their norms.

Specifically comparing the staff of Charlie Hebdo and their murderers, Kausikan says:

Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion?

I pointed out that even from the point of view of freedom of expression, a double standard was at play. France, like many other European countries, has laws against the denial of the Holocaust. When the law was challenged on the grounds that it infringed freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that it was justifiable as necessary to counter anti-Semitism. Even the United States prohibits hate speech.

The central argument of Western political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is that there is not only one Good, but that there are multiple Goods and these often contradict each other and so cannot be simultaneously realised.

If this idea is accepted, the goal of a movement of moderates cannot be agreement or even consensus, only peaceful co-existence; a modus vivendi that allows for peaceful co-existence between ultimately irreconcilable systems of values. Such a modus vivendi is necessarily always tentative and constantly needs to be renegotiated. To seek a still, unchanging point of eternal nirvana is not only futile but to court an extremist response.

So how do we get to where we all want to go? The Langkawi Declaration on the GMM (adopted by Asean leaders in April this year) prescribes certain approaches, among them outreach programmes, interfaith and cross-cultural dialogues, sharing of best practices and information and academic exchanges.

What is only partly and indirectly stressed is the role of the state. There is no country that is today homogenous. Attempts to homogenise a country are today frowned upon: It is called genocide.

Notwithstanding education and the promotion of understanding, conflicts of values, including values that define core identities, will therefore inevitably arise. When this occurs, it is the role of the state to act as neutral arbiter, to hold the ring between different conceptions of the Good and to maintain whatever modus vivendi pertains at that point, if necessary by exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, including the pre-emptive or prophylactic exercise of such powers.

When conflicts of values lead to violence, it is usually due to state failure: Because the state or government was caught by surprise; because the state or government was too weak or too timid to take decisive action; because the state or government was unable to resist the temptation to seek political advantage by privileging one group over another; because the state or government was hamstrung by its own ideology.

Of course the West does not practice freedom of speech fully. I recall reading an observation that Greeks of 7th century BC Athens enjoyed more freedom of speech than a modern-day American. This is due to the West’s obsession with liberalism. Holocaust denial offends Jews — therefore, it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at blacks offends blacks — therefore it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at Islam offends Muslims — therefore it must be censored.  The key word here is ‘offend’, as in, ‘hurts the feelings of’. Not speech that incites to violence, merely speech that someone can interpret as insulting.

But if you look at how hate speech is actually defined and prosecuted, one would see roots in liberalism’s respect for minorities. Hate speech against whites, men, and Christians goes unpunished and uncommented.

This points to two things: the West is weak, and states cannot be trusted. The latter is not a Western notion either. In Malaysia, the government punished Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee for posting a photo of themselves eating pork during Ramadan, but did nothing about a group of Muslim protesters who demanded that a Christian church take down its cross. In Uganda, the government passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, condemning all convicted homosexuals to lifetime imprisonment.

The state cannot play the role of a neutral arbiter because it is not neutral. The government running the state will have to pander to its support base, the people that confer legitimacy upon it, to remain in power. If the support base do not believe in unlimited freedom of speech then the government will not respect that freedom either. And if that support base screams that it is offended, then of course Big Government will step in to save the day.

It means more Kill the Gays bills — and any attempt to criticise it will be slammed as anti-Christian. It means more Alvin Tans being jailed while Muslim mobs walk free — and any attempt to criticise this will be slammed as anti-Muslim. It means more people being enslaved, tortured, and enslaved by Daish, the Lord’s Resistance Army, drug cartels that worship Santa Muerte, and other such groups — and attempts to criticise them will be slammed as anti-religious. And from these criticisms come punishments, to tell everybody else to keep in line – or else.

Unlike Kausikan’s thoughts, people cannot have it all. Rights and values need to be measured against each other. If you want freedom of speech and protection of human rights, you cannot have protection of  religion. If you want protection of religion, you cannot have freedom of speech. If you want the state to intervene, it will act in the interests of the government and then the interests of the people. Freedom is not freedom only for the ideas you find palatable — that would lead to tyranny. Freedom must be freedom for all.

So, what can be done to reclaim the centre?

The centre is representative of society as a whole. The values the centre embraces must in some way represent the values that bind society, so the first thing to do is to determine what values guide society. And different peoples must decide what societies they want to live in.

I believe in a society that seeks to maximise the rights of the individual while balancing that against obligations to the state. The society would respect the rights of groups while ensuring protection for the individual. It grants every individual the potential to influence the direction society is going, while preventing any interest group from hijacking the rest of society and undermining its core values.

By necessity, this is a society that respects rights over feelings, freedom over censorship. No religion should be protected from blasphemy, and equally representatives of every religion are free to respond to criticism in the marketplace of ideas. The state will plays a role as an arbiter, but it does not police all speech. it monitors instead speech that incites to violence — religious or not, racist or not, the motivation is unimportant — and takes appropriate measures to defuse the situation: counselling wayward attention-seekers, ignoring harmless moonbats, and in the gravest extreme prosecuting terrorist ideologues. The state must serve all people, not the group that keeps it in power, and the best to do that is to limit its role to words and deeds that would harm people, no matter the source. And by ‘harm’ I mean violence against people — not the temporary heartscrapes caused by hearing people express different opinions. Within the state, there must be checks and balances to ensure that it will uphold its duty: ombudsmen, a Supreme Court actually interested in justice, a body that consults with the people to ensure that the government is in touch with the citizens.

The state will probably fail in its duty as protector. It would likely be prejudiced in favour of the group that put it into power, overreact, or fail to act at all. It is inevitable: the mechanisms of state are run by people and people are imperfect. But in such a society, the media and the people would be free to point out the failings of the government in a bid to rectify it — and in this society, the government cannot crack down on such people on the grounds of alleged hate speech without consequences.

Between the Points of the Pen and the Sword

The pen is mightier than the sword only as long as it takes for the swordsman to get within range of the writer. At which point the former will be free to make an example of the writer, and write his own message with the writer’s pen and blood.

As the tragedy in Paris has shown, it is not enough to say that people should be free to exercise their right to free speech. Free speech is lip service unless that speech is defended against all that seek to silence it — be they terrorists, militaries, or governments foreign and domestic. While Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, depicting an image of the Prophet Muhammad, may be seen as a symbol of defiance, it is also guaranteed to provoke Muslim extremists — the equivalent of a wounded matador, alone and unarmed, waving a crimson flag in front of a blood-maddened bull.

The world is seeing a clash of cultures. France has a long and storied history of satire and political irreverance in the grand tradition of Voltaire; to these jesters, everybody and everything is fair game for insults and criticism, and they are not required to pay a high social cost for their words. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, brook no dissent and tolerate no slight towards the symbols and articles of their faith, and will not hesitate to turn their ire on anyone who contradicts these values. This is especially pronounced among people from honour- and tribal-based cultures in the Middle East, for whom every insult must be returned with blood or blood money.

The language of satire, or indeed any kind of intellectual discourse, is not necessarily universal. Some brands of writing appeal to some people, others will offend those same people, and published ideas do not necessarily influence everyone they come into contact with. But violence is a universal language, and any given degree of violence has predictable first- and second-order effects on the target. Left unchecked, the extremists will win.

The modern terrorist employs fourth generation warfare to achieve strategic effects. One of the key principles of fourth generation warfare is to control the narrative. Extremists with the capacity and willingness to do violence in addition to spreading propaganda are going to seize the narrative. Whenever they encounter organisations that criticise them, insult them, or otherwise publish ideas contrary to what they stand for, extremists will target them for assassination and destruction. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is just the latest and most public of a long and lamentable history of violence against journalists and writers. The individual shooters may be motivated for any number of reasons, personal or ideological, but the strategic effect would be to punish and terrorise people who disagree with the extremist ideology, publicise their own ideology and demonstrate their power to the world.

News organisations, and by extension societies, targeted by such extremists will tend towards two courses of action. The first is to cease and desist publishing ‘inflammatory’ or ‘provocative’ material, either out of a sense of self-preservation or some misguided notion of respect for diversity. In which case the terrorists win the war of ideas, since they will be the only ones publishing inflammatory, provocative and therefore eye-grabbing content. The second is to puff up their chests and continue publishing provocative material. People will naturally laud these acts and naturally let the whole world know — and, naturally, the extremists will redouble their efforts and continue targeting such people and organisations until their staff are intimidated into resigning or until they are annihilated.

Between the jester with a pen and a terrorist with a machine gun, bet on the terrorist.

The next question, then, is what can be done in the wake of the Paris attacks. The easy approach, of course, is to condemn everybody that publishes offensive material — either of all kinds, or more commonly, offensive to Muslims. While benevolent, this is misguided. Terrorists do not care about offensive material — they just want to be the only ones offending people.

Freedom of speech must by necessity carry the freedom to offend. Puerile humour, the kind that Charlie Hebdo specialises in, is of course likely to offend people. But so can well-researched, thought-out white papers. It is only a question of audience and likelihood. Scour the Internet long enough and you will find flame wars and heated debates over everything from PC vs Apple vs console, the exact role of prebiotic starch in digestion, interpretations of the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 9mm vs .45. it is impossible to judge with any degree of accuracy how controversial something will be, and to say that materials that appear to offend a given class of people (such as Muslims) is to treat that class of people as infantile subhuman creatures, driven entirely by base emotions, guaranteed to explode into tantrums and violence when triggered. Beyond the inherent prejudice involved, refusing to publish offensive material is little more than appeasement, and appeasement is not a viable survival strategy when faced with barbarians who wish nothing less than the destruction of civilisation.

Another easy approach is to enhance security measures in the name of counterterrorism. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for new laws to break into encrypted terrorist chatter. Actual enforcement may prove stickier: it would require the government to either pre-emptively ban encryption protocols it cannot break, or private corporations to give the government unilateral access to confidential communications between innocent clients. It is easy to justify such an approach by claiming that it will save lives. The problem is that terrorists do not kill for the sake of killing; they are interested in mass casualties only insofar as they inflict terror on the target population. Terrorists kill civilians to degrade the values of society, in the case of Paris freedom of speech. Security measures that sacrifice freedom in order to fight terrorists who aim to subvert freedom are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

Fourth generation warfare is a sophisticated series of tactics and strategy to exhaust and hollow the state, tempting it into self-destruction. Countering 4GW requires similar sophistication, combining both the pen and the sword.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, upholding freedom of speech, and the freedom to offend, must still be paramount. At the policy level, neither the state or the industry should pass laws or regulations, formal or informal, that suppresses anybody’s right to say anything. The only exception should be made for speech that incites or enables violence.

While states have a duty to protect their people, the greater the power a state has the greater the potential for abuse. Counterterrorism laws and policies that further increase the power of the state must include clauses for checks and balances, such as an oversight committee, requirements for warrants, and strategies that enable as precise a targeting method as possible to minimise the chances of innocents being caught in the dragnet. While swords are useful when faced with an enemy, it must be remembered that swords have two edges.

At the individual level, I think people should give some thought about the material they read and critique. This is not to say their tastes should fit mine, rather that it is useful to think about the effects of publishing something, be it in praise or condemnation of an idea. It is equally useful to make a distinction between crass or offensive material and material that promotes critical thought. All public speech, either in favour or as critique, will promote an idea to whoever happens to be the audience, followed by how the speaker frames and interprets that idea. One’s personal taste is entirely personal, but one does not need to critique every offensive thing either. Publicity is the oxygen of ideas and memes; to defeat them, I think starving them of attention would be the best approach. This would mean supporting and publicising speech that affirms the values that underpin civilisation, and ignoring that which do not — and, perhaps, by rhetorically savaging those that undermine it with the goal of discrediting the underlying ideas.

But beyond the level of the pen, people and organisations have to take personal security seriously. I will grant that this tends to be more useful against criminals than terrorists, but people who publish the kind of speech that offends terrorists are statistically more likely to be targeted by such people. Remaining a soft target exposes them and their families to death and fates worse than death — and turns them into a message for their colleagues and fellow citizens. Further, it is increasingly unlikely that the police will be able to respond in time to a defeat a terrorist attack unless they happen to be in the vicinity. People who dare to dance with the devil must be ready to defend themselves, with violence if necessary. That means seeking training from competent professionals, establishing a security plan, hiring skilled protectors, and other such measures. I suspect in the long term, only people and organisations that can bear the cost of enhanced security measures will be free to criticise terrorism and its adherents without fear of death or ruin.

Fourth generation warfare combines the pen and sword, the former through propaganda and the latter through terrorist violence. It is not enough to pick one or the other in response. Society has to choose both, the former to spread the memes that affirm civilisation and undercut those that undermine it, and the latter to deter and defeat those who would use the sword against it.

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