Danna first used this blog to share news about her husband Mike's battle with a brain tumor. After Mike's death in July 06, the blog became Danna's place to process grief, reflect on the world, and share thoughts relating to her life and research on media and politics.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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, email@example.com