22 January, 2015

Liberté, tyranny and the removal of nuance.

This  year, 2015, is the 800th anniversary of the “signing” of the Magna Carta at Runneymede just outside London. When King John, probably unwillingly, put his seal (he didn’t actually “sign” it)  to the document in June 1215 it is likely that both he and his enemies would have been astonished had they known that the Great Charter would live on and be celebrated 800 years hence. In 1215 it was little more than a peace treaty between the king and rebellious barons. Within weeks both sides had repudiated this Charter of Liberties, and, within a few months it seemed completely dead; John had got the Pope to quash it.  However, this  document which was merely intended to solve the legal and governmental issues and anxieties of the thirteenth century has become the bedrock of democratic systems throughout the world. A number of revisions over the years after 1215 made it an increasingly important part of the nation's and society's legal and constitutional fabric. Magna Carta, in its original form, is unashamedly an elitist document but by the end of the thirteenth century it was known and recognised throughout society, its ideas and requirements increasingly having a universal appeal and application. Its appeal lay not in its precise details, but in its clear assertion of the general rule of law. The inherent themes of the Charter spread quickly and still today, when human rights are trampled on across the world, they are still recalled and quoted. What happened in that Thames side meadow 800 years ago was hugely significant - not only for England - but the wider world; the rights enshrined in the Great Charter increasingly became  protective bastions for society’s most vulnerable. 
The Magna Carta coins minted this year to celebrate the 800th
 anniversary of the event. There has been an outcry since the coins
depict King John holding a quill pen - he did not sign the document!

The Magna Carta, although intended to solve fairly parochial problems of thirteenth century England deals, by default, with the  idea of “the free man” and his relationship with the State. Critically, it asserted a fundamental principle – the rule of law; the king  could no longer treat his subjects in an arbitrary fashion. In short, he could not behave like a tyrant. For this principle the Charter was cherished by opponents of Charles I, and quoted by the Founding Fathers of the United States. When on trial for his life in 1964, Nelson Mandela appealed to Magna Carta, alongside the Petition of Rights and the Bill of Rights:“documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world”. The Charter, of course, was of its time – the thirteenth century - and its “rights” were granted not to all the men but to “all the free men”.  But, as the years passed it became the watchword of all men and implicit in constitutions throughout the world. It is one of the cornerstones of democracy and the first line of defence against tyranny for at its core is the notion of freedom of thought, word and action. It is about freedom from oppression and within it are the seeds of what we today talk of as “equality.” No matter what our station in life or our beliefs – be we King John or the village blacksmith - we are all equal in the eyes of the law. It is what is inherent in the French ideal of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”

I have thought about this much in the weeks since Christmas. The “peace and goodwill” of the Christmas season were still fresh in our minds when we all watched wide eyed as Paris and wider France were the centre of world attention and opinion as the killings of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, French policemen and Jewish hostages unfolded on our TV screens. Suddenly notions of peace and goodwill looked terribly shallow and out of place. In the aftermath of Paris we have again listened as world leaders, ordinary people, religious groups and representatives the security and military services  have vented their spleen, given their opinions and  pledged that these problems will be resolved. “We will do whatever it takes” say world leaders. But, for me, I'm not quite so sure it is as simple as that. The whole issue is far more complex.

We are indeed all "Charlie" -  ready to
confront all who oppose us and fight for what we believe
As crowds across the world turned out in shows of support professing “Je Suis Charlie”  I became increasingly concerned. Interview after interview reminded us that freedom of speech in an inviolable “right” and I wondered. When events of the type that occurred in Paris happen then it seems to me that attitudes on all sides harden. There is no room for compromise or manoeuvre; if you are not with us then you are against us. We are now, following the Paris killings, increasingly in thrall to the “war on terror” and security services will, I suspect, have little difficulty in gaining greater “rights”,  and demand to intrude on people and their various communications more freely. Freedoms once held dear will be once more chipped away a little further. The French, traditionally sceptical about security measures like CCTV, are now we are told more likely to take it on board. I read yesterday that the French government is reversing previous plans to make defence cuts and to greatly increase the numbers of personnel involved in security surveillance. These actions, given the recent events and political climate, are perfectly understandable but the unavoidable consequences are that they increase the “us and them” climate, ramp up the potential for violence and ever so slowly reduce freedoms in favour of a slightly more tyrannical government. In France and across the rest of the “free” world those noble words  Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” mean just a little less than they did a few weeks ago. And against this back drop of hardening opinion, the far right is on the march and various groups such as Jewish people feel increasingly threatened.

In an article in the Guardian a month or two ago comedian Alexei Sayle commented that “Tyranny is the removal of nuance”.  Sayle's comment was not in relation to terrorism or  security but as I watched the events in France I thought about his words and was taken back to September 11th  2001 when the planes hit the World Trade Centre. I can vividly remember that evening going to a local football match. I was the Club Secretary and it had already been agreed that the players would have a minute’s silence prior to the game for the victims of the tragedy. When I went into the changing room to tell the players of the plan  all the conversation was understandably, about the events that were still unfolding in New York. And the solution then from these young men was easy -  America should send in the B52 bombers and flatten everything. We all felt it – revenge was the name of the game, there was no room for compromise or reasoned debate, there were no shades of opinion, everything was black and white – all nuance had been removed.

A contemporary cartoon depicting
Robespierre guillotining the
executioner after he has guillotined
 everyone else in France - but,
Robespierre explained, it was "justice" 
And as I watched the people all over the world reasserting their desire for freedom of speech and for “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”  I heard a senior French politician say that the ideals and values of the 1789 Revolution must be reborn, and I wondered. The Revolution of 1789 is rightly close to the hearts of all Frenchmen and indeed all the free world  but by the Easter of 1794, that same revolution  which once proclaimed freedom of conscience for all had embarked on a “reign of terror” led by Citizen Robespierre.  In 1789 Robespierre, opposed the death penalty, advocated the abolition of slavery, supported equality of rights, universal male suffrage and the establishment of a republic. Yet by 1794 he was able to promote and “justify” what has been termed by eminent historians “an archetype of modern genocide” – the reign of terror. Robespierre, a man noted for his clarity of thought and word was clear: Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue...... To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity." There we have it; terror and mass execution justified and designated a manifestation of "virtue". Should any leader -  Islamic or otherwise – make such a pronouncement  today then one shudders to think of the outcry.  As in 1794 "If you are not with us then you are against us" is the overt and covert message. All action can be sanctioned as righteous. Hitler did it, Stalin did it, Pol Pot was a master at it, Idi Amin, Mao Zedong and many others were all quick to ”justify” their actions. In regimes such as theirs all nuance was indeed removed – in the name of “justice” and the benefit of the wider society which they ruled. Last week British PM David  Cameron said it was a "sensible, precautionary measure"  to "reassure those [various religious and ethnic] communities......" Cameron went on: "We face a poisonous and fanatical ideology that wants to pervert one of the world's major religions, Islam, and create conflict, terror and death......With our allies we will confront it wherever it appears."  Few would disagree with his words or intent – but their consequence is a ramping up of the volume, the splitting of the society into camps and everything  black or white - there are no shades of grey. It is, both in words and essence, confrontational. And, I wonder, is this the way forward? As a society we should be very careful in what we demand, fight for or wish for.  It is a fine line, indeed, between  freedom and tyranny. As Orwell prophetically told us in his novel “1984” of  the Ministry of Peace  which waged a perpetual war, the Ministry of Plenty  who rationed food, the Ministry of Love  that controlled and “converted” people and their every thought and action, and the Ministry of  Truth controller all information. In Orwell's dystopian world – tyranny ruled in a deformed version of democracy.

In the immediate aftermath of the events in Paris we were reminded that freedom of speech was a basic human right – and, indeed,  it is. The Charlie Hebdo magazine in its follow up edition published more satirical cartoons in support of their beliefs and those of their dead comrades and what was previously a small, little heard of magazine became a worldwide phenomenon. Stocks ran out, extra print runs had to be ordered. So vital and “right” was its message, the whole world wanted to be part of it. But then I wonder........? I read that many people were re-selling their copies on e-bay – charging many times its cover price - and somehow, for me at least, this seemed to slightly marginalise the ethical standpoint so many had professed as they marched and displayed their “Je suis Charlie” posters on the world's streets and on line. And, although I would fight to the last to defend freedom of speech and the rights of satirists, newspapers and anyone else to their viewpoint and the publishing of that viewpoint I cannot but wonder if some viewpoints, some speeches are of more or less value than others. Did Magna Carta and the many great documents and constitutions of the world it underpins  really set out to defend for all time and in any circumstances  what is all too often little more than scurrilous scribbling – befitting more some immature  teenager than a great nation's constitution or some passionately  held human ideal?

I was reminded of this a day or two ago when I picked up my Guardian. The main cartoon was, as usual, by Steve Bell. It depicts the English Minister for Communities Eric Pickles, a man for whom I have little or no time – I dislike his politics and indeed his public persona. As far as I am concerned he and his policies are fair subjects for ridicule and satire. Earlier this week Pickles sent a letter to Moslem leaders in the UK in which he suggested that they had a role to play in ensuring that young Moslems are not easily radicalised and turned into terrorists. Unfortunately a number of high profile Moslems took some exception to the letter. From my viewpoint the letter was reasonable, although I could see the viewpoint of the dissenting Moslems – that they were being cited as potential terrorists whilst other religious groups were not being reminded of their responsibilities. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation the issue was certainly worthy of satire and ridicule – "fair game" as they say. The cartoon produced by Bell, however, was unworthy. It was not subtle, incisive or clever. It did not ridicule the important factual aspects of the situation but instead concentrated on “fat blokes” – reflecting the fact that Eric Pickles is a rather overweight gentleman. It was the satire (if it can be rightly called that) of the school bully and of scribblings on toilet walls. It was the sort of depiction that might be sent by some unpleasant teenager via a social networking site to some “victim” and deemed to be cyber bullying. And that is the problem in a nutshell. Does this nebulous thing, “freedom of speech”, for which several journalists and others died and the whole world stopped to profess  its  commitment to maintaining  mean that all speech and all comment should be protected without thought no matter how base its content? If that is the case then the world might become a very hateful - in its most literal sense - place. It cannot, however, mean that. In the UK we have endured the Leveson Inquiry following the various scandals relating to the actions and subsequent printing of items by various newspapers about prominent people. We have well established statutes relating to speeches and comments that incite racial hatred or violence. In short we recognise that “freedom of speech” is in many ways a relative term – we are “free” within some very wide limits.
This is not "satire" - it is the "art" and "humour" of the public toilet and the immature.
 To "right" depict this is not, I believe, a "freedom" Magna Carta envisaged. We must protect our "freedoms" - especially freedom of expression  -  but in the end all "justice" and "freedoms" are based in what we as a society value as good and worthwhile and, yes, virtuous.

Of course, given that we live in a “free" society we are all, on occasions, going to be offended by the views or the comments of others. I am often offended by Eric pickles and his views. Indeed, the older I become the more and more easily I feel  offended – my wife calls it being a grumpy old man! - but that’s another story. As a correspondent to the Guardian recently wrote:

“Some of your correspondents have argued that the right to free speech must be tempered by the avoidance of offence. Whilst I applaud the humane values underlying this claim, I must disagree. There is not – and never could be – any universal definition of what is offensive. we all have our own internal calibration of what offends; I cannot know what you think or might feel and so any stricture that bars me from saying something offensive will inevitably fuel a creeping self-censorship which is the antithesis of freedom of speech.
To live in a free society is to risk being offended. We can complain; we can retaliate; and we can shout aloud our discomfort. What we cannot do is shoot those who offend us.”

The lady who wrote this was exactly right. If we dislike what is said about us or about things we feel passionately  about then we can complain and if we feel strongly enough we can go to law – that is what freedom of speech is about. But it is, too, I venture, about something else. A man beloved of all Frenchmen, Voltaire, was once asked what tolerance meant and he answered thus:
“It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each others’ folly – that is the first law of nature.”  
There is the crux: reciprocity – we each have a responsibility to respect or tolerate  the follies, the frailties, the errors and thinking of others. We each have a mutual responsibility to tolerate each other’s thoughts and actions for we are all human and built of “frailty and error”.

And to this I would add three other thoughts. Firstly, whilst I would not dispute that people should have the freedom to give offence, free from fear of violent reprisal, just as, for example, they should be free to commit adultery, it does not follow that they are right to do so. Secondly I am of the view of two other Frenchmen – one Voltaire (again!) and the other the  former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Voltaire in his “Treatise on Tolerance”  argues in favour of toleration of religious belief, while reserving the right to argue strenuously against it. He said “Tolerance has never provoked a war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage.”  And finally to Dominique de Villepin who a decade or so ago led opposition to the Iraq war. He recently described  the rise of Muslim anger and the “war on terror” as the “deformed child” of western policy. The west’s wars in the Muslim world he suggested “always nourish new wars” and “terrorism among us”. He was right - intolerance and violence, the removal of nuance begets intolerance, violence and the removal of nuance. If you are not with us you are against us.
One of the four original "Great Charters"

The recent events in Paris, the increasingly strident calls - be they the unthinking “band wagon” that is ”Je suis Charlie”,  the language of the far right or the insidious moulding of opinion by right wing media such as Fox News - are increasingly  ramping up the discord. You are with us or against us,“...we will do what it takes to defeat terrorism”  are calls to arms not to understanding and reciprocity of belief. And all the time respect and tolerance is being lost, new wars and discord are being conceived and nourished and all nuance is being sidelined. We fear the tyranny that the terrorist might bring into our midst – as he did in Paris earlier this month - but as toleration and understanding are weakened  in favour of security being ramped up, as armed police guard media outlets and religious meeting places, as Jews feel it increasingly necessary to take refuge in Israel  then we are sleepwalking into our own self imposed tyranny by failing to reciprocally understand, respect and, yes, tolerate others who do not share our beliefs, ideals and desires.