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Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Identity, Bias, and Outrage

In the wake of the attacks at Charlie Hebdo I've found myself thinking about fairness every day. The attacks have dominated public discourse over the past week. My previous post, Je ne suis pas Charlie, has been viewed about one hundred times per day. I've gotten into debates because It gets everyone engaged, and for good reason. The case is tied to the limits of free speech, to belonging, to security, to identity, and most importantly to fairness. One of the other reason why this event has been so - to put it mildly - polarising has been because of the degree to which it highlights the connections amongst three key items: identity, bias, and outrage.

It took me quite some time to determine which word would best encapsulate the reactions to the events of last week, but outrage seemingly does the trick. I came across it after realising that everyone who had a grand opinion, myself included, was expressing outrage. The targets of this could be Charlie Hebdo's drawings, the terrorists, religious extremism, unrestricted free speech, high rates of immigration, failure to integrate immigrants, islamophobia, or whatever else depending on your perspective. In each of these cases, we are outraged by what we perceive to be unfair and these are value judgements.

Accordingly, how we justify this outrage is key. Our perceptions of injustice are informed by the other two pieces: our identity and our bias. What I mean by identity is a bit complex, but it essentially refers to the elements of who we are and how we see ourselves reflected (or not) in society, notably in media and government. Naturally, our identity has a great impact on our bias. Therefore, if we strongly relate to an aspect of our identity we are biased to see it under attack. A few examples:

Many westerners perceive Muslims to be victims of marginalisation, oppression, and hatred.

Many westerners see Islam as getting special treatment and endangering secularism and freedom of speech.

In both cases, the crime is different. Moreover, the victims and perpetrators of injustice are different. This explains why people who value multiculturalism are recoiling at the rise in xenophobia. This similarly explains why proponents of free speech have been so offended by the attack, hence all the drawings of pencils fighting AK-47s.

This should highlight to complexity of dealing with inclusion and fairness. I have a bias, and I will admit it: I believe that it is important to stand up against oppression and xenophobia. We need nuance in a time like this, not volatile cartoons, threats of violence, or faux solidairty. This vicious attack was the product of numerous factors, not merely religious zeal. Pinning the attack on Islam is so superficial it is painful. This, especially, when merely criticising the state of Israel in the west is viewed as anti-semetic.

Despite the complexity of the reasons behind the violent attack, I condemn it unequivocally. However, while freedom of speech is central to democracy, it should not be limitless. In principle, we should have the right to be critical (which is what I presume the function of free speech to be at its core), but it should not be used to promote hate or as a tool of oppression. In my professional life as a teacher, I respect the right of my students to express themselves, but should I allow them to bully one another? I don't feel like giving someone the right to use their privilege to the disadvantage of others is fair, but of course that's just my bias talking.

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