The recent shootings in Paris have given rise to a lot of really interesting debate about freedom of speech and legitimate ways to exercise it, as well as about the bias towards European stories, given that the massacre of 2000 people in Nigeria at roughly the same time made significantly less impression in the media. While I could certainly comment at length about those topics, I want to reflect on the incident in a slightly less orthodox way.
I believe that one of modern humanity’s greatest failings is that we have forgotten how to be appropriately angry.
First, I am convinced that we are not angry enough. Perhaps it is because daily exposure to the tragedy that is human existence – the sheer scale of human misery depicted in the media – has desensitised us. Maybe, in the face of such overwhelming suffering, it is easier to become subsumed by the trivial and to ignore reality. Whatever the case, too often we limit genuine emotion to reactions to the performance of sports teams, or to poor service delivery. Either way, we are angered too readily by things that do not really matter, while remaining dreadfully silent on issues that do.
Most of the time we simply accept the gross injustices of life as fundamentally unchangeable. It could be that really seeing them means caring, caring means getting involved, and getting involved is both inconvenient and risky. It could be that the problems seem insurmountable, and a sense of helplessness renders us inactive. I think we forget that throughout history, when people have cared enough to become angry, others have rallied to their passion and what had seemed impossible became possible.
I can respect the fact that two shooters became passionate and angry enough to act. I cannot respect the action that they took.
The affair highlighted for me a second aspect of our inability to understand the power of anger: how to channel it effectively. Anger will change the world if it is properly harnessed. It has the power to destroy the world if it is not.
By killing those who had offended them, the gunmen in Paris served only to reinforce the negative and degrading stereotypes the cartoonist had ascribed to them. They missed an opportunity to challenge simplistic Western perceptions of Islam and to expose the hypocrisy in the publication’s implicit suggestion, through so many of its cartoons, that religious adherents are intolerant and myopic. They missed a rare opportunity to effect authentic change. Attempting to restore wounded pride rather than to seek justice, they could not see that the right to freedom of speech gave them a legitimate and far more effective platform to challenge Charlie Hebdo’s bigotry.
Anger is a powerful motivator. Any intense emotion is, I suppose. The danger with emotion, is that it tends to override reason. We erroneously believe that emotion-driven action is beyond our control. We refuse to see that we are not powerless puppets to our hearts; we do not plan how to harness the force of our emotions because we simply don’t consider the fact that our actions are subject to our will – certainly not when passion colours our thinking.
But we are not ever truly slaves to our feelings. Certainly, we cannot change how others make us feel, but we can choose how we respond to those feelings. As with anything powerful, once channelled in a certain direction, anger can be difficult to stop. And it will change the world. Charlie Hebdo showed us that. It is such a pity that the seething resentment at what amounts to sanctioned racism was not harnessed in a productive way. The outcome could have been so different.
Maybe if we really understood the power we wield when we care deeply enough to get angry, to risk everything to correct injustice, we could initiate meaningful change. Maybe that is why we fear anger. We sense its power. We are certain it will change who we are. We realise we cannot escape the discomfort and sacrifice it will demand. It is simpler not to think about it, not to feel. And so we prefer to watch passively – maybe a little embarrassed, maybe with complete disdain – as those with nothing left to lose give voice to the rage they can no longer contain. Then, once we have picked a side, or clicked ‘like’ on Je suis Charlie, we convince ourselves that we have taken a stand against terrorism, and we switch channels to see what else is on.