Contempt is not enough

I suppose it was inevitable that the Charlie Hebdo killings would result in an(other) unpleasant swathe of Islamophobia (even though blaming Muslims for terrorism is as logical as blaming everyone in the disc jockey profession for child abuse). I usually read about it second hand, given my general avoidance of comments on the Daily Mail website (not to mention the Daily Mail) and I wasn’t expecting to be confronted by it in Stephen Fry’s blog.

He probably doesn’t see it as Islamophobia, though his phrase ‘reasonable people’s dislike of the faith’ suggests as much. The word he chooses is contempt: whether it is a Christian or Islamic nutter in the news, he tells us, the result is that his contempt for religion increases. Since contempt is what Charlie Hebdo stands for, he sees now as an appropriate time to reiterate his own. (It rather sidelines the issue of freedom of speech, something it is possible to stand up for without either agreeing with or reiterating the thing that was said in the first place.)

I find contempt troubling. Contempt can only exist in the absence of respect or empathy. It is the primary instinct of bullies (and indeed terrorists). I also don’t think it is useful in defining satire, which surely seeks to hold a mirror up to the world and make us confront it: satire doesn’t just mock, it exposes the truth, it asks questions. The enduring quality of The Life of Brian is that it is no mere piss-take but a discourse on faith, and the saddest thing about Malcolm Muggeridge’s smug dismissal of the film was his failure to engage with it, even as John Cleese sat telling him ‘the important thing is that people should be open to the various possibilities and that they should take a critical attitude to them’.


It is equally sad to see a man as erudite as Stephen Fry dismissing Christian and Islamic texts (and presumably all other religious texts by association) as ‘dumb, semi-literate, ill-founded, unreasoned drivel’. It’s as disingenuous a non-argument as Muggeridge’s – moreso, if you consider the wealth of narrative, poetry and history he is dismissing, not to mention that it has inspired. If Anders Behring Breivik and Said and Charif Kouachi increase Fry’s contempt, does he feel it diminish when he hears Bach’s B Minor Mass or sees the roof of the Sistene Chapel? Or is his view of religion informed only by this most selective cross section of Malcolm Muggeridge and the aforementioned deluded pricks?

Because there are plenty of others running food banks or visiting sick and vulnerable people or offering support to those in crippling debt or showing love and bravery in the face of hatred. I know faith is not a prerequisite for any of those activities, but for large numbers of people it is what inspires them. Yes, the same people ought to be able to weather contempt – actually, plenty of us do, though since Fry asks why people are ‘so fucking sensitive about their knowledge’, I would suggest that he of all people should understand how fragile human beings can be when something they care about is laid into (who can forget the haunting sight of Michael Palin on the verge of tears as The Life of Brian is unthinkingly sneered at?).


Which is why contempt is not good enough. Even, dare I say it, when terrorism is involved, because if we make no attempt to understand the human failing that drives ordinary people to such extremes, if all we can offer is contempt, then it will only breed more contempt. Certainly if we don’t show the Muslim community respect, empathy and understanding, it will feed into an isolation that extremists will exploit in recruiting people to their cause, however deluded.

If that’s what comes out of the attacks in Paris, perhaps Said and Charif Kouachi were not so bowel-shatteringly dumb after all.

2 thoughts on “Contempt is not enough

  1. Thank you for this. I have been made as fearful by the reaction to the terrorist act as the acts themselves. Yes it is gratifying to see people banding together to honour the dead and the principals of free speech but it has released many dormant negative attitudes to all religions.
    Don’t let’s dismiss the good work that is done in the world, no entirely, but principally by many who are inspired by their faith.


  2. We should not lose sight of the fact that the people who commit murder in the name of religion are not representative of the religion. Like any sort of belief, religion can be misappropriated to justify anything; the difference is that many of the major world religions promote blind faith as a matter of life or death, to such an extent that a significant minority of true believers are prepared to die in the name thereof. Many suicide bombers genuinely think that, in blowing up a crowded bus, they are doing their god’s work and will be whisked straight off to an idyllic afterlife. This is slightly distinct from being prepared to die for a cause without anticipating any personal benefit, which tends to be as far as any political partisan would ever be prepared to go (I doubt that Emily Davison’s motivation in jumping in front of the king’s horse was the thought of going to heaven *by virtue of* undertaking the stunt; rather, she was prepared to take what proved to be a fatal risk to draw attention to the cause of female suffrage).

    The difficulty in asserting that “contempt is not good enough” is that delineating between intelligent satire and insensitive insult is far from an objective art, and the people at the receiving end of satire are rarely the best judges. When self-censorship, abetted by the brutal forces of a brand of capitalism that protects the powerful and divides the powerless (so that their rights can be stripped away — just look at all the rhetoric on making the laws on public-sector strikes even more restrictive than they already are: if the Tories really cared about democracy, they would consider allowing trade unions to use online voting as well as postal voting to solve the issue of low mandates for strike action), is so prevalent in our supposedly “free” society, it is dangerous to oil the cogs of political correctness. Sometimes, causing offence is necessary to make an important point, and, since judging which points are important is such an inexact science, it is important to protect the right to offend. The UK already has very (some say too) robust libel laws to protect people from outright defamation; further restriction, whilst it may reduce the distress caused to some, would come at a price that would be unacceptably high. To quote Ian Pace, “the freedom to say things which are cruel, very offensive, and may be designed to wound, is fundamental in a democracy”.[1]

    Another concern in the aftermath of the shootings in Paris is the double standards that have been exposed: as the /a paper bird/ article you cited says, there has been a remarkable intolerance for anything other than full endorsement of Charlie Hebdo, comparable to the pressure exerted on all in British society to wear a poppy in November (notwithstanding the dissent of some veterans), accompanied by the specious platitude that it is about solidarity, and not about whether you actually agree with the view. I was most perturbed by the arrest of Dieudonné for expressed a sliver of empathy on Twitter for one of the killers (empathy for the souls of sinners is arguably the crux of the New Testament, and not /ipso facto/ inciting terrorism). Finally, Charlie Hebdo is not beyond reproach in defending free speech: in 2009, they fired one of their staff for an “antisemitic” cartoon (it was this bit of hypocrisy which stopped me from taking out a subscription to the magazine).[2]

    It is also reasonable to observe that the numbers killed in Paris pale in comparison to the acts of terrorism abetted by the West on an almost daily basis, whether in Ukraine (proxy war), Pakistan (drone strikes), or Syria (both of the above). Nonetheless, the Western media appear to be only too happy to turn a blind eye to atrocities that happen elsewhere. Finally, the plans to scale up surveillance (despite its having proven totally ineffective in apprehending the killers in Paris, who were already on watch-lists) and ban encrypted communication are a rather chilling manifestation of how politicians can exploit the fear incited by a crisis to push through controversial legislation.




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