My Christmas holiday began on a plane ride sitting next to a buddhist man on his way home to Myanmar. We spoke about religious differences and the troubled state of affairs among people quick to judge others for their views rather than trying to listen and learn.
My newfound Burmese friend pointed to the importance in his faith of being mindful of one’s own anger, greed and ignorance. In a constant effort to improve oneself one must reserve judgement and hold true to the principle of “do no harm,” which is at the core of buddhist practice – no difference, I pointed out, to the spirit of deference embodied in Christianity and the golden rule.
As one year ends and another begins, it is a good time to remember these universal values we share. Sadly, as religious conflicts and ethnic rivalries abound this holiday season, a spirit of understanding and respect has gone wanting.
In the wake of today’s atrocious murdering of french journalists by religious extremists, we must be mindful that retribution alone will not solve the underlying conflict. Foremost, our thoughts and prayers must go to the victims of the attacks in Paris. Those who perpetrate, condone or applaud such acts have no place in civil society. As we move beyond the violence, we must look at the broader lessons of this event. Ostensibly, the motivations behind the attacks in Paris are the same as the less violent but equally insidious attempt to extort Sony Pictures in an effort to thwart the Christmas day release of the satirical film based on the fictional killing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Clearly, both events were acts of terror intended to punish and scare the public for exercises in freedom of expression, which in the views of the attackers insulted their own beliefs. While the attack on Sony gives unfortunate credibility to an otherwise idiotic film that deserves to be forgotten, the attack on the cartoonists in France raises more serious issues.
It is valiant that the publics in both France and the United States have taken their outrage against such acts of “domestic terrorism” to the streets in defense of freedom. While rallying for the cause of liberty, though, we mustn’t forget that the underlying dispute remains. What to one person is a legitimate exercise of freedom, may to another be an act of provocation and disrespect that is tantamount to defamation.
Returning to my buddhist friend, we discussed an ongoing case in Myanmar, in which a bar used images of a partying Buddha for promotional purposes, which got the club shut down and the owners arrested. While such an act of “religious insult” may be outlawed in Burma, where a majority of the population is Buddhist, it would be completely legal in the US, France and all western democracies, where Buddhism is followed by only a small minority in society. This begs an important question: just because you can exercise your freedoms to provoke a response or even to criticize rival viewpoints, it doesn’t mean you necessarily should. To some, such “acts of insensitivity” will be viewed as profound transgressions. The boomerang effect of hatred and more disrespect will only lead to an endless spiral of harm.
The right to exercise our freedom of expression is a basic right, but not an absolute one. It is not a blank check to harm others. Like “shouting fire in a crowded theater” there are limits to be defined and observed. We must be mindful of our anger toward others – particularly if we don’t agree with them – and be careful not to unjustly insult the symbols they hold dear. To willfully and repeatedly offend and provoke the different-minded without concern for their well-being is selfish and arrogant. To proclaim righteousness and personal freedom to the detriment of others is greedy.
There is no excuse for the acts of violence and extortion that are in question here. In an increasingly interconnected world, we must appeal to all political and religious leaders to condemn violence in no uncertain terms.
The shift in mindset, though, must begin within ourselves. Without introspection, we are deceiving ourselves. As Pope Francis stated to the highest ranks of an uncomfortable clergy before Christmas:
“A Curia that is not self-critical, that does not stay up-to-date, that does not seek to better itself, is an ailing body. … It is the sickness of the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity, and of those who transform themselves into masters and believe themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.”
The new year brings an opportunity. It is time to view our cultural, ethnic and religious neighbors not as inferior rivals but as members of our own global community. To criticize and condemn adverse *behavior* is fair game in the realm of freedom of expression as long as it is done seriously and based on fact. To defame and insult our neighbors for who they are, where they come from or for the religious beliefs they hold dear is wrong. As in any community there will be differences of opinion and interpretation and these should be discussed openly, sensitively and responsibly. I dare say that disrespectful illustrations of Muhammad may be acceptable in the art and entertainment world, but they have no place in political discourse, even by our western standards of liberalism.