Je suis Joe. Je suis Charlie.

10Jan15

Joe Sacco’s experience as a comic journalist who’s embedded himself in places traumatised and divided by sectarianism, and then sensitively – even beautifully – reported back his observations in a format with multiple layers makes him well placed to comment on the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

I had a religious upbringing that inevitably affects my morals and global viewpoint. While I strive to think outside that framework, my exposure to that culture of beliefs has also given me an appreciation of faiths with moderate and extremist sections. I’ve not been involved with a faith since I could choose for myself but I’m aware of why it’s important and can be valuable. Of course, I also see the extremist’s position as being both silly and potentially dangerous, especially when a defiance of logic and tolerance is proclaimed and celebrated.

As a psychiatrist, I sometimes come into contact with people of faith among the patients and families that I see. While at times, I’d like to expose such inconsistencies (usually among those from Christian faiths; it’s rare to see people of Muslim faith attend mental health services, particularly Muslim women), not only would it distract from the issue at hand, it won’t work. What’s more likely is that people who already feel persecuted and suspicious will have their own prejudices reinforced at a time when they’re already feeling vulnerable.

Clearly in any society, it’s impossible for people with sensitivities not to be offended by someone who doesn’t get their thing. Often differing groups for differing reasons can become united by their offence of the same thing. That can be comedy gold though it’s also tragically sad when the extremist demonstrates how out of touch they are by failing to see the humour in themselves.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian worked because it satirised the zealot who continues to build ever more elaborate justifications for their faith to accommodate further inconsistencies and perceived threats to their integrity. That sending up of the thinking of those with blind faith, rather than attacking the faith itself, is generally accepted as being the most effective means of higlighting inconsistencies.

If only it were that easy as rather than suffering a loss of face (or faith), even some moderates can be as determined to cling to their beliefs with as much strength and rigidity as those with a delusional disorder. Still that considered approach does seem the most humane and sensitive way of demonstrating what a tolerant multi-faith and non-faith society is like, rather than being blatantly blasphemous and deliberately intending to offend.

In my work I know all too well that there are a small but real minority of narcissistic, disenfranchised and psychopathic individuals who can be both vulnerable and capable of causing great harm. They may still find targets to attack with their rage; usually its within their relationships and families. Humour is undoubtedly important in a mad world but so is respecting the potential for triggering extreme responses in those who feel threatened and detached (deliberately or otherwise) from the mainstream.

Je suis Joe. Je suis Charlie.

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