The right to offend: newsletter #26

Way back when the world was still new, the devas and the asuras started fighting each other. They were more alike than unalike. Perhaps they had forgotten their brotherhoods; more likely, they had reasons to suppress that memory. The slightest offense made them reach for their weapons. It didn't help that each coveted the other's treasure and every low trick was acceptable when aimed at the eternal enemy.

That eternal enmity, the clash of civilizations as it's called now, preys heavily on our minds. My media feeds were abuzz after the recent shooting in Paris. As far as I could tell, everyone was rehearsing scripted positions. First, there was the condemnation of the attacks themselves. There was the dominant "these barbarians should be shown who is the boss" line of attack. In response, there was the "it's the result of centuries of racism and colonialism" defense. Finally, there was the official "these attacks are the product of a few sick minds; they have nothing to do with Islam" response. These positions are so familiar to all of us that I am inclined to give them code names: Bush, Said and Blair. Like one might say: republicans want to repeat the Bush offense while liberals prefer the Blair response.

A crisis makes for strange bedfellows. The devas and the asuras were faced with the oldest and biggest crisis of all: death. And so, they found themselves churning the ocean of milk with a snake as a rope and a mountain as churning rod, hoping to find the nectar of immortality. Somewhat like the assortment of dictators, aging radicals and ex-presidents who found themselves marching for freedom in Paris.

The defense of Charlie Hebdo (CH henceforth) took equally familiar forms. There was the reflexive "here lie our heroes, the defenders of the western faith", clubbing cartoonists with the firefighters and policemen who died on 9/11. There was the liberal "I wouldn't ever print such offensive garbage, but I will die to defend the rights of others to do so" trope. Of course, I am excluding the silent mass of people who think CH had it coming to them.

None of these scripts assess the act of giving offense. The fact is, most of us are terrible at offending others. We mostly stick to easy targets. If you are in the west, Israel or in India, it's easy to say outrageous things about Islam and Muslims. Similarly, if you are in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, it's easy to condemn the global conspiracy of Jews and Hindus. However, it's much harder to say outrageous things that cut to the bone. The art of the takedown is a difficult art. CH was a master of the cutting remark.

I find CH offensive. It's racist invective that's selective about whom it offends and whom it defends. However, it's effective precisely because of its selectivity. CH surfaces desires and emotions that we keep hidden from ourselves as much as others. It's even worse if you're on the receiving end for there's the lingering suspicion that the allegations are true.

Malicious critique is particularly important when the offended party is rich, powerful or dominant. It's much too easy to rest on one's laurels as a CEO or president. Gentle humor is no antidote to oppression; only militant critique has any hope of success. For criticism to be useful, it has to offend. Someone has to call me stupid or arrogant in exactly the ways in which I am stupid and arrogant. That they're doing so for malicious reasons is besides the point; as far as I am concerned they are revealing weaknesses no well-wisher will ever acknowledge. Every deva needs an asura. In fact, the asura is always the other guy, continuously playing tricks to get the good stuff while wearing a mask of righteousness.

Meanwhile, the the churning was going well. The seekers found several precious jewels. Then, as a recent space traveller said, Houston encountered a problem. All that stirring surfaced hala-hala, the greatest poison of all. The hala-hala fumes threatened to destroy the universe. The terror stricken gods and demons formed a committee to address the emergency. Somewhat like our truth and reconciliation commissions. The committee went to Brahma, who turned the situation over to Siva.

Siva swallowed the poison without a second thought. His wife, Parvati, stopped the poison from entering Siva's stomach by holding his throat like a tourniquet. Hala-hala lives in Siva's Adam's apple (there's a clash of civilizations!) for eternity. The greatest poison of all is stored in the very place we make speech.

Siva knows a thing or two about destruction. He knows that civilization has an underbelly. The right response is not to run away from offensive speech but to consume it. That's why Siva's marriage procession has devas as well as asuras in attendance.