12/01/2015 | The other way around from the famous Hegelian maxim, a fact repeated itself first as farce and then as tragedy on this turn of the year. The murders at the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo this week is to the Western world’s core principle of freedom of expression the tragedy following the comedy surrounding the spat between the US and North Korea over the screening of comedy film The Interview featuring the fictional assassination of Kim Jong-un.
In substance, they hit at the very same thing: the status of freedom of expression in the 21st-century globalized world. And the question that follows the universal condemnation of the terrorist brutality is, which is the most intelligent way of defending freedom(s)?
The world became in fact a global village over the last decades but it still lacks universally accepted rules. In his recently published book World Order (Allen Lane, 2014), Henry Kissinger says that, despite his book’s title, there is actually no such thing as a world order right now, as the different traditions that have guided most of humanity throughout history are not finding common ground. Kissinger follows an approach that separates from Samuel Huntington’s more simplistic “Clash of Civilizations,” and he sketches the core traditional values and world views that make up four great “world orders”: Europe, China, the Islam and the US.
After three centuries of dominance, the West still has to swallow the idea that its universality never actually was. Globalization does not work in exclusive Western terms, like a couple of decades ago. As it gives recommendation to his fellow Westerners, Kissinger says, “Order must be cultivated, it cannot be imposed.” And he then presents a fundamental dilemma that applies to the events this week, “(The new order) must reflect two truths: order without freedom, even if sustained by momentary exaltation, eventually creates its own counterpoise; yet freedom cannot be secured or sustained without a framework of order to keep the peace.” Order and freedom, he concludes, should be understood as interdependent. Trade order for responsibility, if you will.
The natural reaction by the Western public of defending the trenches of absolute freedom of expression is welcome but it does not solve the riddle. A universal condemnation of murder is not necessarily matched by a universal consensus that being Charlie is the right thing to be at a time a nation is in a virtual state of undeclared war. Irony and satire works when the audience (but also its object) shares the language and the tone. Otherwise it is either useless or even offensive. And in the world today, the audience is not only your immediate readers but the entire planet.
Western governments and societies are fine to defend a way of life to its limit, which does not mean avoiding some self-introspection and a better understanding of the post Western-dominated world. Most especially in the case of governments, whose first and foremost mission is to protect the lives of their citizens, the beginning of all freedoms. The last time of many Charlie Hebdo had been targeted by extremists, both the White House and the Élysée had urged the publication, which calls itself “irresponsible,” to be otherwise for a change, arguing that it would serve the greater good and prevent unnecessary violence.
“We don’t question the right of something like this to be published,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney on September 19, 2012, “we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/19/press-briefing-press-secretary-jay-carney-91912 ). The French foreign minister at the time, Laurent Fabius, echoed Washington’s talking point and questioned the timing of the publication, “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?” The publishers did not pull back, and the French government ended up shutting down Embassies, cultural centres and schools in some 20 countries where protests were anticipated. Financial Times writer Tony Barber chipped in a line in the same direction shortly after the massacre this week, “some common sense should be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo.”
There will be no common sense until the actors make sense of the world, which does not share a common set of rules that could create something similar to a world community. The War on Terror declared by George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 destroyed the last remnants of credibility in the Westphalian-like United Nations system introduced in the mid-20th century. The West will hardly manage to become universal as it once thought it would be until life is worth as much in a Paris newsroom as it is in a school in Pakistan (where for example 141 people, mostly children, where shot dead last month). A much larger compromise is needed to guarantee that.
The leaders of this century have the tough task of crafting a new world order, by working both at home and in their international relations portfolios (both increasingly intertwined). Kissinger believes that to achieve a genuine world order, “its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural and juridical – a concept of order that transcends the perspectives and ideals of any one region or nation.” This might mean dropping the absolutes and embracing the relative, even when it comes to freedoms.