Thoughts on the Christchurch tragedy and the aftermath

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I live in Christchurch, New Zealand. As a community, we are no strangers to a bit of trauma (after a couple big earthquakes in 2010-11, more than 150 killed, 80% of our urban buildings needing to be demolished, and 10,000 perceptible aftershocks, some flooding, and a major bush-fire or two)... but nothing could have prepared us for what happened at two mosques on Friday, 15 March 2019. I was working that afternoon in my home office, with the radio on, listening in horror as the story unfolded. My wife was in lockdown where she works at the nearby polytech, and my boys were in lockdown, unaware of what was going on, in their primary school across the road from us.

There is nothing good about what happened, and my heart breaks for those promising lives cut short or indelibly altered, and those others directly affected, every time the though occurs to me (as it does many times every day). The idea that anyone should experience pervasive fear for their own safety, or that of their loved ones, in my home city, is devastating. It's not the sort of place I want to live.

He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata

The title of this section comes from a whakataukï or Māori proverb: Hütia te rito o te harakeke, kei hea te kömako e kö? Kï mai ki a au, 'He aha te mea nui i te ao?' Māku e kï atu, 'He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata'.  It is translated to "If the heart of the flax is pulled out, where will the kömako sing? If you ask me what is most important in this world, I will reply, 'People, people, people'."

Although I don't have many direct links with those affected, I recognised amidst the shock and anguish, that we needed to respond as a community, and show solidarity with those - our neighbours and fellow people - who, as part of the Christchurch Muslim community - were singled out by these hateful acts.

I was very heartened to see the response of our government, in particular our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who was measured, thoughtful, sympathetic, and decisive. She's stated that her response was largely intuitive, and I think her instincts were sound.

She, and the people of Christchurch, and broader New Zealand, stood with the people of NZ's Muslim community affected by this act of hate, and demonstrated love. Across traditional boundaries of space, language, culture, and belief.

To me, the message was clear: it doesn't matter what you think or believe, we value you, implicitly, as people. And I found that sentiment extraordinarily hopeful.

I was deeply touched too, by the symbolism of many in the broader community with some wearing hijab and many (often for the first time) visiting mosques in a tangible display of solidarity.

Response to Hate

Of course, many of us wanted to enjoy the fairly simple warmth and immediacy of the response without diving straight into addressing the underlying, complicated causes of the division in our society... that remain largely unchanged.

But even before we lost the momentum of the positive response, we started also heard the questioning: how could someone develop so much callous hatred in our community, which most of us see as unusually peaceful, even idyllic, and harmonious in comparison much of the world we see in the news media.

We heard calls for acceptance, tolerance, and, fairly quickly, an evaluation of our cultural and social mores related to "freedom of speech". And, inevitably, the distinctions between "challenging", "contrary" and across the continuum to "offensive" and "hateful"... the inherent subjective process of distinguishing between challenging ideas and unacceptable behaviour - at what point personal freedom tips over into  "hate speech".

We need to confront these difficult problems so that we can do more than the much lampooned American response to mass atrosities, the morbidly farcical: "Thoughts and Prayers"...

What is it in our society that allows people with this propensity for violent hate to exist within our society, never (it seems) recognised as a real threat until it's too late. Intolerant people can fester within even the most embracing community. It's probably a mixture of nature and nurture - as part of a global society, people with this incendiary mix of qualities can turn up almost anywhere. We need to be on the lookout for them people and notice them, and both work sincerely to include them  - but, simultaneously, accept the possibility that they can or will not accept positive overtures.

Popper and Tolerance

In the day or so following the traumatic events, I was reminded of the work of a philosopher, sociologist, and all around sound thinker, Karl Popper. He wrote a book called The Open Society and its Enemies. Around that same time, he developed some thinking about societies and the desire for "tolerance". Out of that came his Paradox of Tolerance.

Popper, who was an Austrian Jew, came to New Zealand from Austria in 1937, at a time when Austria was becoming an uncomfortable place to be Jewish. Coincidentally, he composed his famous works here in Christchurch, while he was lecturing at the University of Canterbury.

The paradox is that the only thing a tolerant society cannot afford to tolerate is intolerance.

That, allowed to exist within a tolerant society, intolerance can slowly grow within quiet sub-communities that typically exist at the fringes in all societies (note - many fringe groups in society also exhibit some of society's most admirable qualities, so being "fringe" is not in any way a bad thing!).

A healthy community, like a healthy body confronting a tumour or rallying to control an infection, has an immune response to such behaviour - it either embraces and attempts to dissuade (via peer-pressure, rational discussion, or enforcing cultural expectations) the intolerant of their intolerance... or, alternatively, it ostracises them, and limits their ability to grow by isolating them. Either way, the response is human... and non-violent.

Tolerance Tips into Intolerance

In some societies, particularly those with gross inequity, the immune response is compromised. The intolerance gains a foothold and grows, finding enough dis-enfranchised folks to increase its numbers relative to the rest of society. In these cases, a tipping point can eventually be reached... There are many examples of liberal, open societies in which this has happened, with devastating effect. Germany in the late 1930s. Iran in the 1970s.

My family (on my father's side), who have been Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends) for many generations, have connections to the city of Philadelphia, founded by Quaker William Penn (Pennsylvania means "Penn's woods" in Latin), as a city of religious freedom, which had a similar tale: 

The early Quaker settlers who founded Philadelpha ("The City of Brotherly Love" in Latin - also the first capital of the federation of states, the original USA) wanted to create a new sort of city - a city, unlike those in England from whence they came, of religious freedom and tolerance - one whose culture was focused on acceptance, a commitment to "understanding", and non-violence. A city in which all people, each with an "inner light", were respected and valued for who they were and what they could contribute.

The Quaker founders of Philadelphia developed a cooperative, friendly, egalitarian relationship with local native tribes with whom they traded and socialised fairly harmoniously (although to be fair, the cultural differences were still vast).

The Quakers also welcomed others coming to Philadelphia, many fleeing religious persecution back in England. Many of those newcomers, however, did not share the Quaker's tolerant view points or other values. Many of these new-comers held non-Christian people in a much different (lower) regard than their fellow believers. In a few short years, the unassuming Quakers - with their utopian dream - became a marginal voice in the community they founded, and the values of tolerance and acceptance they promoted were lost. Also, tragically, another profound loss: the respectful relationship they created with the native tribes.

Valuing human dignity, not beliefs

The Prime Minister's gesture of wearing a hijab should not, I think, be interpreted as either conversion to, or even acceptance of, Islamic beliefs. I think it was a display of respect for people who do hold those beliefs, and recognition of their culture. To me it was clear that it was about people respecting and accepting people, and wanting to recognise their inherent right to dignity. It was about accepting, not adopting, their beliefs. And I think that is a very crucial distinction. 

We all love people whose beliefs we don't fully share. I suggest that we'll find that everyone we love, if we know them well enough, harbours beliefs we don't share. We're good at loving people despite that - it creates no contradictions. We can love the person and accept (or not) their beliefs on a case-by-case basis.

When it comes to religion, I feel very strongly that theistic belief can only be adopted or rejected by an individual, it cannot be legislated or forced upon someone externally (indoctrination of children and other impressionable folk is a separate issue, but beyond the scope of this reflection). I think it's vital that people be allowed to believe what they do, even if I strongly disagree with it.

I can act on my disagreement by using rational discussion and by showing good faith, and sincerely trying to understand the basis for their belief.

If, on the other hand, a person's religious belief leads to language or action which encroaches on the freedom of others to be free of that belief and its related dogma, then my feelings change markedly. If that belief is intolerant, as is common to theistic religions which tend towards exclusivity, like "I am the one God"... and if adherents to those beliefs harbour inclinations like "infidels should be killed", then we have a problem.

Unless we are open to reason, we cannot change our understanding of the world when we encounter compelling evidence that is contrary to our previous understanding. To addess intolerance in our society, we need to employ not violence, not law, but encourage education and seek inclusion. We need to demonstrate the dubiousness of the sources of these beliefs, with rational arguments. The "great books" of the world's main theistic religions are deeply flawed. The only way we can get people to alter their beliefs... is to convince them that they want to, because they've come to the realisation themselves. As many say, it is the book that leads many people to religion. It is actually reading it, and comprehending it, that leads them away from it again.

The idea that "blind faith" is a virtue is fundamental to all theistic religions... but blind faith should never be held up as virtuous. We always need to be open to reason.

The key lesson I've learned is that the only way to sway people's beliefs is not to attack them but to sincerely seek to understand the motivations underlying their positions... and who knows, maybe one of them will convince me that I'm mistaken... so far that hasn't happened, but I must leave open the possibility that it could. Because, while I don't harbour any belief for any of humanity's many gods, I do believe in the kindness of people and that each person is capable of grace, has an implicit value, and is worthy of dignity. And it's a belief I can actually validate, every day.

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