Paris 13-11 Reminder of Intellectual Fascism
On Saturday November 14 last year, much of the world woke to the terrible news that Paris had suffered its worst terrorist attack.
One year ago today, nine young zealots, born in Europe but radicalised and trained in the cauldron of Syria’s civil war, brought death to 130 people and injury to 368 more. Most of their victims were part of their own generation and were simply looking for a Friday night’s entertainment.
The French president called the attacks, the deadliest in his country since World War 2, “an abomination”. Clearly shaken by their speed and ferocity, he immediately declared a state of emergency, closing France’s borders. The next morning, while ISIS terrorists in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were no doubt shouting "death to the infidel", people across much of the globe were crying "Vive la France!"
The horrific events of 13/11, as I’m sure it will come to be known, inevitably cast our minds and hearts back to those of 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London - not to mention a number of other significant attacks throughout the world.
As monstrous and tragic as they certainly were, the events of 13/11 serve as a reminder of three important things.
The first is that civilization is fragile. Our way of life, for all its comforts, is never as guaranteed as we might like to think. Digitisation has produced wonderful opportunities, enhancing our capacity to share ideas. Yet it also enables us to build highly individualised bubbles of existence; cosy enclaves within which we feel we can shut out the many uncertainties of the real world.
Paris reminds us that it is important to engage the real world, if only to stand up for the freedoms we sometimes take for granted. Freedoms which, we remembered this week, millions of men died to preserve in two horrendous world wars.
Paris also brings to mind the emptiness of political correctness, both as a system of thought and as a political doctrine.
Political correctness sprang for a worthy motive - the desire on the part of politicos to encourage groups of people from vastly divergent cultural heritages to live together in harmony. PC was seen as a necessary component of multiculturalism, which was in itself a policy that some of its biggest advocates later recognised as a mistake.
In the end, PC came to insist that all ideas of truth are probably equally true and that all lifestyles are probably equally valid. If we colour everything grey, it said, we will not have to endure any contrasts which may threaten the collective good. This approach, however, has done little but cover over gaping cultural cracks, frustrating our ability to clearly label wrongdoing and to protect ourselves from people with nefarious intentions.
The events of 13/11 remind us that we need social tolerance, but not wilful moral blindness. Some things are right just because they’re right; some things, like mass murder, are wrong just because they’re wrong.
There is no room here for moral relativism. We must approach core societal beliefs like the sanctity of human life without obfuscation or the vague ultra-liberalism which insists that proscribing limits to social behaviour is an unwanted form of invasive censorship.
Taken to its logical extreme, political correctness produces a society in which everything is considered normal. Such a society is self-evidently one without norms, which are a core part of identity and culture and part of what makes us strong.
We have learned at great cost that social tolerance and mutual respect cannot be created by government edict. They must evolve on the back of decisions made by millions of individuals, everyday.
Finally, the tragedy of Paris on 13/11 reminds us of the dangers of intellectual fascism. This is a system of thought which denies to others a right which one demands for oneself, the right of freedom of belief and expression.
This particular menace is alive and well on the internet - particularly in the quixotic world of social media.
More than a few social "networkers" seem to feel that their ideas are the only ones worth propagating and that anyone who disagrees with them should be removed - through trolling, if necessary - from the social media space. Through them, social media becomes anti-social media.
We must be able to disagree - and to do so strongly at times - without resorting to name-calling and threats or acts of violence. We must be free to protest loudly and passionately against things that we believe to be wrong. Yet this right comes with responsibility; we must not act violently toward others, or to threaten to do so.
The recent US election showed up the fact that intellectual fascism has found its way to the very top of the political tree. Both candidates in the race for president reverted at times to name-calling and broad, reductive stereotypes of people on the other side of the political divide.
We must hold our political leaders to a much higher standard. We must also search our own hearts, minds and public discourse for signs of the same type of inconsistency and arrogance.
Paris surely reminds us that, while holding to and insisting upon proven moral and ethical parameters for behaviour, we must also dialogue in a respectful way with those who have different values.
At the end of the day, however, we must not shy away from calling evil for what it is - wherever it originates and whatever pretext it tries to hide behind.