Which values, if any, matter to societies? Nowadays we talk of our ideals like the airiest of evangelicals might speak of their’s – the ones who’ve been to Greenbelt but never read the darn Bible. Hartosh Singh Bal writes on one of them, pluralism, at 3QuarksDaily, and considers the Charlie Hebdo cartoons…
…from an Indian context, it is because Islam and Christianity cherish different values that it is possible to argue for the mockery of Christian religious figures and argue against the same freedom when exercised against Islamic religious figures.
This is not meant to even remotely justify the response to the cartoons or the satire. It is only to suggest that there are certain ideals which will be in contradiction. A tolerant plural society and an absolute freedom of expression cannot be simultaneously achieved. Even more problematically, the European way of thinking fails to understand the need to make distinctions based on differing group values that lie at the heart of any diverse society. To make rules that impose the same constraints and allow the same freedoms for various religious groups is to avoid facing up to the fact they are different to begin with.
Bal is correct that freedom of expression is hard to align with a pluralistic society. Religious and cultural sensitivities are often so acute that if they’re offended – as is nigh-on inevitable where people are allowed to question and even mock whatever values they desire – there’s likely to be conflict. Bal’s assumption, though, is that this means the freedom of expression must be compromised so we can sustain pluralism.
Well, I guess this makes sense in India, where pluralism has been a fact of life for centuries and freedom of expression is a relatively new development. For much of Europe, though, the freedom of expression has developed over many centuries and it’s pluralism that – to the extent that it exists now, at least – is a new phenomenon. Why should we prioritise the latter value, the virtues of which have yet to be established, over one that’s helped give rise to much of what’s great about our world – all the products of the freedom to adopt and question beliefs, tastes and practices? The answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t, and besides there is another model of pluralism that allows people to live according to their sensibilities insofar as they allow their fellow man to live according to their own.
Still, even if we accept the conflict of ideals we can’t deny that it often leads to conflicts of, well – weapons. But, again, is this a reason to compromise ideals of free expression or pluralism? Well, I don’t see why the peaceful and tolerant should be obliged to change their ways to accomodate the violent and authoritarian. Here’s the thing: if this meeting of ideals is a cause for violence or compromise to the irrational and doctrinaire it’s hardly a virtue. Thus, pluralism is a value worth defending only when people within it are prepared to live by their own sensibilities without contesting someone else’s freedom to do the same. If this is impossible it shouldn’t be advanced.
Still, in establishing the limits of pluralism we’re forced to recognise the limits of liberalism. Free expression has been prized because, for one thing, it supposedly allows different viewpoints to conflict but then arrive at mutually satisfying conclusions. Admitting that you’re forced to defend it from ideas, by excluding some ideas, thus admits its ineffectiveness. I guess societies can’t be founded on theory alone.