Events in France: The tale of recurring themes

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There is always a dynamic play of plethora of variables that precipitate into something quantifiable

By: Umar Peerzada

The chronicle of events that unfolded in France after the reprinting of offensive caricatures by Charlie Hebdo in the first leg of last month are re-opening sine qua non, yet formidable chapters of both- the civilizational divide and the liberty-responsibility debate. The significance of the debate lies in its potential to rupture the already frail social fabric, or otherwise expose the distorted paradigms that are often being sold in the political markets.

Attributing the incident’s postmath spats to only religious factor would be a logical blunder as the episodes of such potential geo socio-political ramifications doesn’t erupt out of one factor alone. There is always a dynamic play of plethora of variables that precipitate into something quantifiable. For example; with GCC in doldrums and OIC’s legitimacy nearly eroded, the leadership’s void in Islamic world is incentivizing Turkey to try its cards. Turkey is also actively involved owing to its long standing rows with France over Gas reserves of Cyprus and over the wars in Syria and Libya while France is also encouraged by strengthening of his international profile. With the Brexit’s fanned abating of European Union and the NATO’s role depleting due to Trump’s questioning of it, the international calculations create a space for France to vie its regional influence. Macron is also eyeing the right-wing voters ahead of presidential elections in 2022.

Of the factors of dependent origination, the scope of the article will be restricted to philosophical underpinnings as it’s the recurring themes that translate into events of scale.

In the given episode, central themes are two; French Principle of Laïcité (state secularism) and the eternal political debate on where lies the golden mean of Liberty-responsibility matrix. The first theme is in fact a subset of the second. In order to make sense of the present it is pertinent to unturn the pages of history and see aspirational future from the lens of the past.

The debate is, should there be liberty without stipulating responsibility for the people? Or is absolute responsibility sans liberty the foundation of a peaceful society? Here, its important to understand that there are three stakeholders in the debate; an individual, the society and the state. Now, to answer these questions, consider the two poles between society and state first. First pole is, absolute liberty without being responsible to a sovereign: The state of this society is predicted by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan. It is considered as earliest and most influential examples of social contract theory. The book describes a world of unrelenting insecurity without a government to provide the safety of Law and Order, protecting citizens from each other and from the foreign foes. He argued that civil war and the brute situation of a ‘state of nature’ (hypothetical life of people before societies came into existence) could be avoided only by strong, undivided government. His view of government was positive but negative about the humans. He argued the state can take any rights of citizens as her aim is for greater good. Interestingly the book was written during the time of English Civil war (1642-1651) which witnessed unprecedented violence and also marked the execution of the then king of England, Charles 1.

Second pole is, absolute responsibility enjoined upon the citizens without having them have any liberty. This is when state becomes all pervasive. Its what a totalitarian or an Orwellian state would look like, where there is no regard for the human freedom or rights so to say.

A dystopian view of such a society is documented by George Orwell in his book “1984”. Its a prescriptive and pervasive state where the social order is established at the cost of rights and liberties of the people. In such a society only the state enjoys all the rights while the people have all the responsibilities.

Now, if both extremes are chaotic where lies the golden mean- the utopia? The sociologists and political theorists have wide range of theories but there is no one-fit-all model. The eternal strife between sovereign’s authority and citizens rights and liberty has given to nearly all hues of political structures. But the convergence of all schools of thought is towards the essentiality of both. Citizens are obliged to give up some freedoms to the state for the sake of their security, and the state shall make efforts to maintain that order i.e; there shall be equilibrium of the two between state and the society as was vouched by Lao Tzu as well. Even if it comes to religion, the state shall intervene but as last resort to establish peace, as is beautifully enshrined in Indian constitution under article 19(2)(d).

The other dimension is between an individual and the society. The renowned author and professor of history at University of Warmick, Peter Marshall in one of his best selling book Heretic and Believers elegantly remarked; “May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right”. He’s emphasizing that liberty shouldn’t be curtailed but at the same time the individuals must ensure they are not using it to cause greater injury to another person by way of malafide defamation, or to the community at large by scandalizing what they revere, the faith they adhere to, or the way they live. To make people realize the importance of responsibility, one of the greatest psychologist and the founder of logotherapy Victor E. Frankl proposed a statue of responsibility be built on the western coast of USA as on the eastern coast lies the statue of Liberty, to give due importance to both. As he argued, responsibility and liberty are two sides of same coin. Personal responsibility can’t exist without liberty, and liberty will not endure without responsibility. Liberty without responsibility is licence for chaos.

When society gets all the rights with no responsibility, it turns oppressive and violent. The social identity is then forced upon the minorities or on the individuals, and if they resist, society has its own way to make them fall in line. E.g; Khap panchayats of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh which are notorious for their rulings against exercising individualistic freedom. On a larger scale the impact is seen during social tensions. E.g  genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 where more than half a million Tutsis were brutally slaughtered. India-Pakistan’s partition of 1947 was no different either. This state of nature meant war of all against all to Thomas Hobbes.

On the other hand, if a person exceeds his rights and disregards his responsibility, he can jeopardize the social harmony. As is remarked; the holocaust didn’t start in the gas chambers but began with the rhetoric of hate. The violence in Myanmar started due to an irresponsible fake news that was posted on Facebook. The riots in India, mostly they are due to fake news only, and if not as a cause, they fan the already social divisions.

The anatomy of these stages is; the individual first acts irresponsibly, he makes his hatred against a community to translate into society’s hatred against that community. At this stage social riots happen, if not controlled by state, they are further fueled. At this stage the state either acts impartially and sets peace in motion, or state acts partially and favours a particularly community, this then catalyzes the social tensions and may force the other community flee the place. This leads to refugees crisis or in the worst case to genocide.

How can then we deal with it? The answer assumes a lot of subjectivity. But whatsoever be the opinion, the ultimate aim should be to establish and restore the harmony. I believe only a graded approach is a remedy provided either of the three stakeholders take charge of the responsibility at their respective stages.

First, the individual shouldn’t exercise his right to free speech to jeopardize the social order, also his right to free speech doesn’t provide him the right to hate speech. Second, if the individual has exceeded his responsibility, the society or the community should assume the responsibility and shall act to harmonize the order. If the community at this stage exceeds its responsibility, it will pave way for unleashing a series of retributions from the other communities or the society at large. It then becomes a vicious cycle of attacks and retributions. Third, is the role and responsibility of state. State should intervene as the last resort to punish those who violated their responsibilities and establish the peace for greater good.

While the most important responsibility lies on the Individual, the biggest responsibility is on the state. The right and mandate of the state in the modern world is what can bury the ever-resurrecting themes of civilizational-divide.

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