Reframing Charlie Hebdo

By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly

My professional life has involved study of the attitude of individuals towards risk and it is this perspective that I employ to reflect on some aspects of the Charlie Hebdo affair.

My interest in the subject emerged in graduate school when I found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the idealized behavior described in Western textbooks of economics with actual behavior I had observed in South Asia. My conclusion was that context mattered much more than acknowledged, followed very quickly by the realization that context was not constant.

One implication was that attitude towards risk was not a genetic trait – people were not born risk averse or risk preferring – but a behavioral response to specific contexts. I became convinced of this when my thesis adviser mentioned all the radical things he would do once he was awarded tenure.

Not only that, there was no one attitude to risk. Behavior has a fascinating multi-dimensionality in which a person could be cautious along one dimension and reckless along another – think of a chain-smoking miser as an example.

Every context or situation poses certain risks – even the crossing of a street – and individuals decide how much risk they are willing to take in that particular situation to achieve whatever might be their objective at the time.

(This inference is subject to a qualification that is generally missing in Western textbooks: The choice of how much risk to take is not always voluntary – many people are forced to take involuntary risks simply in order to survive – think of workers who descend underground to clean sewerage pipes or ascend flimsy scaffolds to construct buildings.)

In this perspective the editors at Charlie Hebdo either misread the context in publishing the material they did or they knew the risk they were incurring and felt it was worth taking to achieve the kind of world they believed in. If the latter, they were seemingly no different from the many journalists who risk being tortured and killed by intelligence agencies or the students who protest knowing they could well join the Disappeared. Except that the latter act in local contexts while the former were doing so in one that was truly global.

Framing the Charlie Hebdo affair as one of freedom of speech ignores the real world in which we live in favor of a normative one that validates a particular set of values. This introduces a complication that we discount at our peril. For very long most of our actions were confined to local domains where people were aware of prevalent values and had been part of the shared experience in which they had evolved. Today the audience for many actions is global throwing together people who subscribe to very different sets of values. In such a world our objectives and the risks we take to promote them are both confounded and compounded to an extent that calls for careful reconsideration.

Let us assume we subscribe to freedom of speech as a desired end for all but exist in a world with two groups: The majority in one group holds the value of free speech sacrosanct while the majority in the other assigns that status to the value of respect. Both sides contain minorities prepared to exploit the clash of values for political ends. That’s the way it is – nothing much is gained by labeling one group enlightened and the other unenlightened.

Let us assume further that the self-proclaimed enlightened group wishes to engage the alleged unenlightened one to move it towards the objective of recognizing the supreme value of free speech. Would it make sense to initiate the engagement with a gesture of disrespect trammeling the very value that would provide an entry point for reasoned discourse? The fact that anti-clericalism is a venerated French tradition carries no weight, rightly or wrongly, for the audience that is not French. To demand an engagement according to one’s values comes across as a losing proposition from the outset.

It seems reasonable to suggest that an appreciation of the context, no matter how much one might dislike it, ought to govern the nature of cross-cultural engagement. It should also have a bearing on the extent of risks that need to be taken to move that engagement in the desired direction.

Of course, it is ultimately the free choice of individuals how much risk they are prepared to take at any particular time for what they believe in. What one cannot do is wish away the reality that we live in a world comprised of people with fundamental disagreements on how life is to be lived and by what rules. There must be a better way to move closer together than to enter into excessively risky confrontations with unpredictable outcomes.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This reflection appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on February 21, 2015 and is excerpted here with permission of the author.

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