1.09.2015

Je suis Charlie: The futile efforts of religious extremists in a digital world

Drawing by Natalie Hope McDonald, Philadelphia 1.8.15


The fatal shootings at the headquarters of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, make one thing very clear: Extreme fundamentalists are desperate to control our information environment.  In today’s digital world, these efforts will only prove to be futile.


For individuals who adhere strictly to the literal scripture of a faith, be it Islam, Judaism, Christianity or Bokononism, the separation of the secular (worldly) from the divine (God) is central.   For such individuals, debasing or trivializing the sacred through irony or art is unnatural and immoral.  Through the act of play – or even through mere representation of the divine  – we, mortals, impose our own meaning on an idea or concept.  And in so doing, we reduce the distance, bringing ourselves closer to God, or bringing God down closer to us, depending upon how you view it.  


Interestingly, the main religious texts of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (whose combined followers constitute about half of the world’s population) seem to share this concern, as all discourage the representation of the divine in the secular world.  And we’re not even talking about trivializing the divine through humor or play.  We’re talking about a prohibition of any worldly reconstruction of the sacred. 


Like most religious texts, the Qu’ran warns against idolatry, or the worship of false prophets. But, among Sunni Muslims, whose faith centers around not only the Qu’ran, but also the spiritual readings of the hadiths, the rules surrounding symbolic representation through visual imagery are even broader and the warnings are even more dire.  “Verily the most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens of Hell on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures.”

Comedians, writers and artists are often confounded by the faithful’s unquestioning reverence for a moral code that would impose such strict separations.  After all, through irreverence artists and comedians try to impose order and control over those aspects of the human condition that are unfathomable or untenable to us.  By deliberately bringing sacred ideas or concepts into the liminal space of play and art, we become their master, rendering our emotional responses no longer at the whim of the fickle universe, but instead up to us. 


Some of us create meaning through the explicit representation and reframing of sacred ideas through words, symbols and even mockery. While others revere the divine in a way that prohibits its mere depiction.  So, some of us draw pictures of Jesus playing poker or Muhammad taking a shower, while others see these as profoundly sacrilegious.


This would all be no big deal… if we lived in separate homogenous cultures, where people espousing distinct belief systems were separated from one another geographically and physically, particularly if the ideas of one group stayed in and among its members, without interference or challenge.


Of course, we no longer live this way.


You see, living in an insular homogenous society is simply not possible in a networked world.  And yet, certain authoritarian leaders (i.e.; Kim Jong Un) and extreme fundamentalists (i.e.; ISIS) insist on scrubbing the message environment clean of heresy. But their mission here is futile.  They have missed their window of opportunity, which closed somewhere around 1400 A.D.  What they are trying to do literally cannot happen in today’s digital world.   


Maybe they know this, which is why they’re literally killing the messenger instead.


Consider the fact that scholars in the field of communication refer to the invention of the printing press, not as the “invention of the printing press,” but as the advent of the “printing revolution.”   
Why?  Because the mere fact that words and ideas could be recorded in a permanent way, and efficiently replicated over and over was literally revolutionary. The leaders of the church, who previously provided the public with answers and understanding, now found themselves supplanted by … books.  The elders, on whom younger generations relied for institutional knowledge and moral allegories, were replaced by …books.  With information no longer confined to elites (clerics, elders, political leaders) and now accessible to everyone, the social distance between the masses and the power-brokers shrunk.  Societies very quickly experienced the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.  The French and American Revolutions followed not so far behind. 


Once ideas leave the confined domain of one’s own mind and are translated into a format that can be replicated and shared, all top-down systems of control become threatened.  Hence, the internet – and digital technologies in general – are at the heart of the most profound transformation we have witnessed since the advent of the printing press and moveable type in the 1400s.


Digital technologies, intentionally designed to decentralize control of information by replicating it across a networked system, are fundamentally democratic.  If information is not held exclusively by one person or institution, but is shared openly in an ownerless system (aka: the internet), then who really has the power?  Answer:  people.  Normal people.


And if these technologies are inherently fast, borderless, horizontal (person-to-person), and networked (one-to-many, many-to-many), then this mass empowerment becomes even more profound. 


Of note here is that many fundamentalist ideologies actually see their tactical efforts as quasi-democratic.  They see their beliefs as those that are being maligned or marginalized, and so will use this digitally networked system to impose their own philosophy on the world.  Ironic, no? This may work – in a limited way -  for a time.  It allows them to mobilize and increase the numbers in their ranks. It might even aid in their tactical efforts.

But, any attempt to muzzle others in an effort to impose rules on this shared information space simply misunderstands the horizontal, decentralized, reciprocal nature of these technologies. They can employ fear and hate all they’d like in an effort to construct an unchallenging environment for themselves.  But someone somewhere will always be busily publishing satire or uploading artwork.  Someone will always be making a joke that they think should not be made.  Someone will always be saying something with which they disagree. 


Since the digital world is inherently a shared one, they will come across these messages from time to time – and they won’t like it. But they also will never succeed in destroying it.


Now… did you hear the one about the masked men who killed a dozen cartoonists and robbed a Quickie-mart in the name of Allah?

 
Dannagal Goldthwaite Young (PhD, University of Pennsylvania, 2007) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware and a Research Fellow with the University's Center for Political Communication. Young's research on the role of political satire in the changing political environment has been published in numerous academic journals and edited volumes. Young is a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a research fellow of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and in 2014 received the University of Delaware's Excellence in Teaching Award.
Contact:  Dannagal Young, dgyoung@udel.edu

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