Saturday, November 14, 2015

On the Recent Events in Paris

Jerome Delay—AP
What happened yesterday in Paris is a tragedy. The loss of human life is always a tragedy. The murdering of innocent people is an unqualifiedly terrible thing. 

Many people's instant reaction will be anger - this is normal and justified. However, if we react and form judgments solely from that anger, we are bound to perpetuate a global cycle of violence that has plagued humankind since time immemorial. We need to take the time to calm ourselves, to regulate our emotions, and then to think and make choices that will transform the landscape of how we respond to such terrible acts.

When something awful happens that doesn't fit our current worldview, our minds demand an explanation. Such gruesome acts of human-on-human violence, especially when they happen in a modern, “Western,” urban centre like Paris, do not fit most people's view of how the world is supposed to be. It shakes the foundational beliefs that we operate with in order to function in the world – beliefs regarding our safety, the progress of human civilization, and justice. Because of this discomfort, this anxiety-producing cognitive dissonance, we need demand quick answers. We need quick, simple, understandable explanations to contain the anomaly of human carnage that we have just witnessed or read about. And to this demand, we all too often rely on others – the media, our friends and family, etc. – to offer us easily digestible accounts of what happened.

This is where language serves a vital function for us. We rely on words: terrorism, evil, Islamic fundamentalism, psychopaths, radicals, etc. These words are powerful because they denote and contain within them an entire range of complicated human problems. Most vitally for us, they act as containers for our anger, our rage, and our disbelief at the cruelty we are capable of as human beings.

When we resort to these labels, we form conclusions that allow us to distance ourselves from the anxiety and difficult questions that we may otherwise have to face when we learn of such horrendous events. We other the individuals responsible for these heinous acts: terrorists, savages, madmen, barbarians, etc. In essence, we contain the anomaly within subgroups of people – other people – that we insist we do not and could never belong to. This becomes even more destructive when we overgeneralize based on these labels: Islamic fundamentalism becomes “the Muslim world,” “Arabs,” “Muslims,” “Islam,” etc. Some of us become racists and bigots who feel justified in our reasoning. We become as rigidly attached to our own fundamentalist beliefs as those who belong to the target groups that we dehumanize and demonize (if you really want a sampling of the kind of ignorance and racism I’m referring to, just read the comment sections of news articles and YouTube videos covering these incidents on the internet. Also, bring a barf bag).

By relying on these mental heuristics, these labels and stereotypes, we don’t need to fully confront our own difficult emotions that have been stirred up by the news. We don’t need to think and ask important questions about these events (e.g. why do these things keep on happening over and over again in our world?). We already have our answers. The problem is them, and we are not one of them, so the solution is simple: continue to try to fight and kill them before they kill us so that the rest of us can go on with our merry lives. Look at the example of America’s response to 9/11. Nearly 3000 Americans were killed in the World Trade Centre attacks. The response: all-out war against those who were perceived to represent the reason for this attack. The results? To date, approximately 6,800 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, most of them civilians (actual numbers vary widely depending on reporting sources).

But let’s interrupt that process for a moment. Let’s take the time to calm ourselves before we form our conclusions; to sit back, think, and ask ourselves the important questions. Most importantly, why does this kind of shit keep happening? I don’t claim to have all the answers for this question, but if you’re willing to actually do some research, there are many who have written about possible causes.

For a brief review of terrorist incidents in France, here’s a Wikipedia page:

Note that, like the history of most places on this planet, incidents of human terror against other humans is not limited to recent times. You’ll also note that many of the incidents that have happened in recent decades are attributes to “Islamists,” “Jihadists,” or “Fundamentalists” of one kind or another.

Here are just a few perspectives on how Muslim people in general have been received in France:

Here’s a Wikipedia article about the history of racism in France:

AP/Laurent Cipriani
The point of these examples is not to “blame the victims” of yesterday’s events. The purpose of this writing is not to blame France for its own racism or history of Colonialism. These mass murders cannot be justified. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be explained and understood.

France is just one country representative of problems that have been replicated on a global scale over and over again by different people and nations over history. Localized events like this are microcosms for global events. The global history and climate of oppression, of imperialism and colonialism, of exploitation, inequity, and state-funded terror against entire countries is part of this problem. The Paris attacks are a symptom of a divided world based on a history of broken foreign policies.

There are many in this world seething with anger and rage against the “Western world” and all that it represents. We are the other that is responsible for the death, destruction, and despair faced by millions of people in the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the globe. In the eyes of those who we brand as terrorists, we are the terrorists. And if you look simply at casualty rates, maybe we are, as many will label us, “the real terrorists.”

Andy Singer

So where does this leave us? How can we all respond differently to these events so as to not perpetuate the same cycles of violence, death, and despair that continually plague the human race? 

I can only share with you my own reaction and process to hearing the news.

When I read the first headlines, I was alarmed, but not surprised. My worldview is one in which I think that such events are commonplace and I’ve come to consider them as horrendous but expected occurrences given the type of world we live in. I got angry. I thought of all those people who were out living their lives and were murdered while innocently doing so. But the anger quickly left me – I let it go. And that’s when I felt the core emotion underneath my anger: sadness. I feel deeply saddened by the recent events in Paris. I am sad that we do this to one another over and over again. I am sad because I believe that in the grand scheme of things, the world’s reactions to these attacks likely won’t result in anything changing for the better.

As much as I am upset and saddened by the actions of the people who carried out these attacks, as much as I want to hate them and demonize them for their cruelty, I refuse to. I refuse to other the people that did this. As I’ve mentioned, I think that this “othering” process is a core part of the problem in how we treat each other as human beings. But on a more fundamental, personal level, I cannot other these people because I acknowledge that given the wrong set of circumstances, I could have been one of them. Had any one of us been born into the environment that these people were born into, been exposed to whatever experiences, horrors, and ideologies these people were exposed to, we could have been them.

We all have the capacity to be monsters. We all also have the capacity to be more than that. Those of us who are privileged enough to have the relative peace, safety, security, and time to reflect have the opportunity to consciously choose how we want to be in the world. We need to exercise our responsibility to choose.

So today, despite my anger and sadness and fear, I choose not to hate. I choose not to demonize the people who carried out these attacks. I choose to strive to understand rather than to contain and separate myself from the horror. I choose to write these words to help me process my own experience, and hopefully make a difference in how you process yours.

What do you choose?

Christopher Mulligan/CBC News

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