Part Three in the Certain Violence series. Main conclusions and observations from last time:
- Man is fallible, in spite of any and all knowledge
- Man’s grasp of knowledge is never static, and never complete
- Be it mind or soul, the Inner Light is sacred to believers and unbelievers alike
- Fallible men cannot judge the inner lives of others, only choices revealed as behavior
- Enlightened belief will not extinguish the Inner Light, but nurture its growth
- Respect of beliefs applies to those who recognize the logical equal standing of each Inner Light
- Behavior, and policies that enable evil acts, are objects of fair scrutiny
- There is no need to untie any theological knots seeking moderate elements of doctrine
The next problem we face in responding to religious and other extremism is in formulating thoughts and responses in such a way as to not inspire other political or religious extremes, while not cooling off so much that the innocent continue to die, and words become so much posturing.
Absolutists and Their Thoughts
Absolutism is the belief that one has arrived at or been given a final and unopposable truth which is not subject to falsification or further amendment, and inevitably leads to the idea of having perfect command of that knowledge. The purges in absolutist circles, the fratricide, is about establishing that perfect command. Stalin. Pol Pot. And what we have now in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. In general, civil government is weakened from a permanently questioned legitimacy when faced with absolutist religious thinking.
Examples of absolutist religious and political violence abound in history, and it wasn’t because the people committing those acts were atheists or believers. They were following an absolutist position of some form, having lost the ability to observe clearly, learn, and change with the appropriate level of humility.
Absolute dogma is thought either eternally and literally true, or historically inevitable, or held patently obvious without need for any reasoned argument. It petulantly abhors critical examination, possessed of itself.
Worst of all, it ignores the imperfection of its human proponents, as if messages had no messengers, and would have deed follow literal word without thought.
It allows you to play God. And believe you can do that while not thinking. Toxic! Answers are fine… but final answers are deadly.
Mortal Enemy of Democracy
Absolutism is the direct and mortal enemy of the social contract, the idea that the ordering of society is the legitimate right of each and all, equally, absent force, as a product of unrestrained consensus among free men and women. It is toxic to the very roots of democracy, let alone any particular constitutional or legal expression of its ideals. It would throttle and bury modern thinking in a moment. It is freedom-killing mind poison. And absolutist thought is everywhere, not just in radical forms of religious belief.
Mortal Enemy of Faith
For my believing friends, let me stress that I do not hold that certainty of the existence of God is a failing of any kind, but a valid and private choice, and that one can believe that many articles of faith are quite simply true. To the contrary, I wish to support the freedom to so believe. An absolutist religious position will target many innocent religious lives, principally people of the same faith to purge, and then people of other or no faith for obvious reasons, taking away this same freedom.
It is this horrid presumption that human knowledge can be complete, final, and full in understanding, requiring no future growth, indeed, that Man can in his hubris fully match the heart and mind of God, and make final judgment of others in His name, to which I feel we must all utterly object.
The same might be formulated similarly in lay terms for any given political or social theory. It can be debated perhaps that the willingness to exact the death of innocents for one’s ideas can be owed to bad doctrine or not, but in every case it is the product of the arrogance of Man himself, a sin of pride.
Perfect and final truths, on human faces, always become a death mask. Both reason and empathy die first.
Facing the Certain Violence of Absolutism
To defeat any aggressive religious, political or social theory that makes absolute claims, abrogating rights unilaterally, the absolute claim to truth must be taken head on, defeated, and delegitimized in what is foremost a war of ideas. Not only the content of the doctrine, but most importantly the claim to its infallible universal application by mortals. This is the main engine for radical behavior, the “mind juice” for crazed slaughter.
I did say I would not shrink at times, so let me call it by name: the absolutist stance of any belief is the head of the snake. All legitimization of violence stems from it. (The rest, or much of it, however, is protected free speech in the case of religious belief.) The enemy of peace is this claim, no matter what form it is taking at the moment. This head must be cut, allowing its poison to do no more harm.
Religious beliefs, or political or social theories, have no need to make all reasoning or rationalizations make sense or sound nice (only tempting), and so can trend ever more closely to very ugly derivations of doctrine that themselves become an equal problem, providing abundant mental short-cuts that dehumanize non-adherents and silence own conscience. This was the case in Europe roughly three quarters of a century ago. It’s not always the case, but it does seem to be a phase in a sort of ideological pathology inherent to absolutist positions.
As Daniel Goldhagen pointed out in a New York Times article late last year, How Auschwitz Is Misunderstood, “…above all, the ideology that motivates them all to believe that annihilating the targeted people is necessary and right. This, rather than its technical specifications, is why Auschwitz is so important. Auschwitz is a symbol of the broader, and little understood, racist revolution that the Germans were bringing about in Europe that sought to overturn the fundamentals of Western civilization, including its core notion of a common humanity.” (Emphasis added.)
In all cases, there are clay feet to be smashed, a core claim of a perfect and asymmetric right to deny the rights of others. This claim must be denied as simply, firmly, and completely unacceptable – as a sworn enemy of the Inner Light. This specific claim, the right to impose on others and deny their rights, cannot be taught to children, in person or via the internet. It cannot be stated policy, especially not in so-called alternative human rights declarations. It cannot inspire civil law.
That speech which would advocate extinguishing, denying choice to, or harming the Inner Light of any individual or group, outside the protection of innocents, is hate speech.
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The main task before Islam today, as I see it, is for Islamic institutions to unambiguously define and then implement in policy what peaceful Islam is, specifically with respect to the core tenets of the faith; “un-Islamic” means nothing without this. To be peaceful and respectful will require full and unfettered acceptance of non-believers, those of other faiths, and those that leave the faith, as free and equal men and women in society. And that they be accorded the respect they deserve. More on this later in the series.
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In the EU, we still have remnants of Old Catholic and politically inspired fascism to deal with, and in the US, strains of Protestant and faux economic fundamentalism that so resemble other militant extremist ideas, capable of inspiring misguided military action. Add Russian authoritarianism, Chinese doublespeak… er, doctrine; all are rooted in a deadening fixed understanding, or dogma cynically used as proxy in justification for unrestrained action by the opportunistic. Also prone to military action. The increasing strength of this form of thinking is an equally troubling sight to old-school conservative and sober liberal minds, and very much intimately more so for its past, present, and future victims (a ‘when’ and ‘how many,’ not an ‘if’).
But because absolutist thought, and just plain bull-headedness, are common, all care must be taken not to create new sources of future woe. Care with allies, argument, and policy. Calls for reinstating the death penalty in France following the Charlie Hebdo and now later attacks, for example, running directly counter to what we know and can cherish about life, are a terrible response and simply show that policies many times do not follow much logic, and often only passion.
Clearly, one would have to take on most of the world to be consistent in opposing tyranny. One chooses what saves most innocent lives for most attention and effort, and keeps to message otherwise. But it is good to remember not to over-encourage other forms of absolutist thought that arise as guardian angels for the moment, demons the next.
I Should Be So Jewish: A Reflection
Judaism is so complex in its tapestry that I know I am quite ignorant about most of it, with only my “Old Testament” exposure to speak of. In entirely practical terms, among the major faiths in the region and the world, Judaism has been at this the longest, and the practice shows. Though tribal in origin, Judaism can, and does, speak universally. Historically in the West, it is our very conscience. Militant extreme beliefs are not.
For to speak universally is to allow for change, the visible constant of the universe, and the known constant of Man’s evolving understanding.
In the case of Islam or other faiths with final prophets, taken too literally, discovery has ended and God is now silent. It is harsh to say, but in this sense any strictly literal form of Islam or Christianity lacks an important mechanism for easier ethical progress; it is too easy for a prideful man to conclude these truths are enough for him to be wise. This situation is no one else’s doing, is not just a function of the faith but of the men and women espousing it, and is something for moderates of those faiths to fix.
The legitimate question remains regarding whether or not there is sufficient space in the Sunni, Shia or other derivations of the Pillars of Islam to afford a peaceful doctrinal interpretation. Does Islam need to be locked into the hatred of others that extremists show the world in its name, and constantly fear deeper perspectives? Indeed, if Islam and Christianity consider themselves part of the same traditions of the Prophets and the later or last expressions of that tradition, love and respect for all the Prophets and their peoples should ensue. That this has not been the case relates to the absolute authority their followers have felt possessed of, allowing them to inflict deadly harm on others.
Christianity goes and has gone in many directions, but has historically suffered from the that same mistaken divorce, of confusing new understanding with sweeping rejection of the long journey that brought Man to that place and moment. Where some form of structure or hierarchy exists, it progresses or can progress, elsewhere it mostly retreats in lockstep with contemporary absolutist foolishness. Aspects of its very ancient dark side still dominate mainstream opinion in many European countries.
Judaism of course has its own strains of less fortunate thought. As it is the Jewish people who are the object of much of the recent and past senseless violence, I will leave those derivations to the reader’s own analysis. I think the timing, in my case, would be inappropriate.
But as a resident of Europe, I see the Jewish people thinking about and indeed leaving Europe, once again fleeing violence and hate. No long argument for that: Not on my watch!
And because that opens another line of possible objection, let’s agree all innocent potential victims of violence deserve equal protection.
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Maybe we all need more (of what this writer thinks of as) Jewishness! By that I mean that (what I see from the outside as) the long waiting on the Messiah, seeking news from God while wrestling with the evils of the world, is a wonderful way to keep perspective and avoid the temptation to place others in judgment with a definitive and final vision. It places the onus on Man to always examine himself, and continually look for new instruction or learning: ever open to change and growth (if I’ve not horribly mischaracterized; tricky business, this). One does not need to be Jewish to adopt a similar view, only making the important recognition of our real human limitations is required.
Whenever learning stops, the mind closes. Whenever hubris grows, the heart withers.
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Conclusions and thoughts from Part Three to take forward:
- Perfect truths, on human faces, always become a death mask. Both reason and empathy die first.
- Absolutism, in all its forms, is the enemy of the Inner Light.
- Claims of enforceable truths, of infallible universal application, are the main engine for radical behavior, and provide its rationalizations.
- Care must be taken in choice of allies, arguments and policies so as not to foster more absolutist woe.
Next in the series: Protection of the Innocent (or similar title)
(I will get the next article up and online as soon as I can. I hope to delineate, finally, those actions I feel are warranted, and which can erode the enabling infrastructure for extremism. However, some time might go by before I can do so, unfortunately, as my ability to work is an iffy proposition at best. My apologies.)