The news from France this week was as shocking as it was sad to hear. What is sadder and more shocking was the reason given for the slaughter.
In my experience, I have learned that as human beings we are all basically the same inside, we all have the same fears and desires indelibly stamped on our psyches. Yet we go through great lengths to point out and criticize those we perceive as different from us.
The French satirical magazine was fond of poking fun at everyone, from the Pope on down sparing no one particular political or religious bent. That in the end is the equivalent of someone saying, “I’m not prejudiced, I hate everyone.”
When I was a child, I was the only Mexican in my school. I was 18 before I encountered another Mexican in an academic environment, and that was at college. I endured a lot of taunts and ridicule at the hands of my peers, who incidentally for the years before high school were mostly black. They mercilessly teased me and told me to “Go back to my country.” There was not a lot I could do about it, the few times I did lash out physically I was the one who got in trouble, I remember a teacher telling me “Don’t forget, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”
But words do hurt, beyond measure. It’s easy to spout a platitude, not so easy to live by it. And as human beings, we are hurt and bullied collectively and lash out collectively in a lot more dangerous and final ways than a punch ion the face in the playground.
Hitler started a war because of hurt feelings and low self esteem, he was able to sell it to the German people because the German people were collectively suffering from hurt feelings and low self-esteem. During the war, German soldiers wore belt buckles embossed with the words: “Gott mit uns.” There is a funny line in William Wharton’s Midnight Clear where an American soldier tells a dead German soldier “We got mittens too.”
We use humor to entertain ourselves, and sometimes to assuage our fears. Making fun of someone else’s looks, customs, or creed is a direct result of that fear. An enlightened person knows this, knows you are making fun of him because you are afraid, and either forgives you or tries to enlighten you.
An ignorant person reacts with pure visceral emotion, lashing out with as much violence as they can get away with, it is the only tool they have and know, how they have been brought up. An eye for an eye, and so forth.
The argument that most terrorists are young immature people reacting emotionally is a weak one though, because they have been nurtured and trained by older men (and women) who should know better but find it easier to continue to hate and fear than to try and establish a dialogue and rapport with their tormentors, and tormentors we are, the civilized Western nations that care not a whit about the customs and traditions of the less powerful. And we pay for our arrogance in blood.
The world over it is the same old story, the Catholics vs. the Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, and even more paradoxically to a westerner as myself, Sunni vs. Shiite all over the world.
In the 8 years I lived in Williamsburg this last time, I saw a lot of Hassidic Jews, pretty much every day. On Saturdays during the summer an Amish family would come up from Pennsylvania to sell fresh produce a block from my home. The Amish women would all go to McDonald’s in the morning for breakfast, and watching them walk down the block together I thought it was remarkable how much they resembled the Hassidic women in the neighborhood.
I’m not an expert, I only know what I have observed and been told by Muslims and Jews alike, but to me the fundamentalist sects seem to share just about the same customs and world views. They are pretty much the same except for the name. I know they don’t see it that way; all they can see is the differences and find a way or reason to fear them and keep them separate.
Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing, without it I wouldn’t be able to express these opinions, but the one thing I’ve learned is tolerance and acceptance, and in learning that I know that ridiculing others for any reason at all is not a good thing. It didn’t feel good when others ridiculed me, and I try not to do it anymore. Yes, I am as guilty as the next guy of rolling the shit down the hill. But I’ve learned that my life is much less stressful when I worry about myself and let the other guy worry about himself, and let him be himself.
I wish others would do the same; the world would be a kinder, less violent place if we would only learn to accept our differences rather than to ridicule them or react to the ridicule in such a violent, irrational way.
The rich and powerful Western nations have an opportunity here to teach tolerance and understanding, to not react emotionally, to look at our part in this whole quagmire of conflicting yet comparable ideologies and beliefs. We have the power to teach and help eradicate ignorance by power of example.
When I was young there was a song that played on the radio, I liked it, but a lot of my friends ridiculed it for being “soft.” It was called Everybody Get Together by a group called The Youngbloods. The lyrics exhorted us to “Smile on your brother,” and for everybody to “Get together and love one another right now…”
Here’s the link if you want to hear the song: http://youtu.be/kRAhTY3Dwl0
I think that song should be played everywhere all the time until we all get it, collectively as a human race. Then we can call ourselves human. Till then we are still animals with machine guns and atomic bombs instead of teeth and claws.