A Bit Dramatic, What?

Kings of War (the blog of the War Studies Department at Kings College, London) has a post on freedom of speech as viewed through the lens of an infantry officer. It's a very good piece in terms of its citations, and the officer's own experience, but in the end I find I disagree entirely.
I grew up (such that I have done) as a subaltern in an infantry regiment’s Officers’ Mess, where one of the golden rules was to avoid speaking of three particular topics when guests were present: women, politics, and religion. The reason? Because raising these issues—particularly when surrounded by people with whom we were not acquainted—was known to lead to arguments, which, in turn, were known to lead to fist fights. Since the objective of having a Mess was to create an atmosphere of conviviality—a second home, as it were—our forebears decided (after much trial and error, I am sure) that exercising restraint was a wise path to follow. Of course, this rule was not followed perfectly; when it wasn’t, there were times when the reasoning behind the wisdom of the ages was made plain. (The most popular subaltern we had was a fella who knew how to patch holes in plaster walls.)
A useful skill I've made use of myself. So, how does this lesson from within a self-selecting sub-set of British society translate to the problem at large?
Perhaps the most strident manifestation of this belief can be seen in the oration of Patrick Henry, the American legislator, who famously declared, “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” Rousing stuff, to be sure…but is it a bit, shall we say, dramatic for our own day and age?
Is it?
Rights and freedoms are not ‘God given’ to us on stone tablets; they are human constructions, instruments designed to bring about a particular state of being. We need to figure out what just what kind of state of being we can live with and use our instruments to bring it about. We need to determine the tools, rather than the other way around. We cannot, in trying to free ourselves from the shackles of apprehended oppression, create suicide vests out of our liberties. In order to do so, we must accept that nothing is sacred. We in the West don’t seem to have a problem with viewing the spiritual as profane. We have to start looking at the material and idealogical in the same way.
The question of whether something is sacred is exactly what is in dispute. You may feel free to 'accept' that nothing is, but that is no compromise: your opponent is on the other side of the question.

The same for the idea that rights and freedoms are not "God given." This happens to be a rare point of agreement for American and Islamist political thought. The Declaration of Independence invokes the Creator, who endows men with inalienable rights: and these rights are, then, sacred. The Islamist believes that God crafted a law for men that is perfect and ought to be unchanging, and that this law -- sha'riah -- is the best guarantee of human liberty. After all, no human government can change it, meaning that the freedoms and liberties you have under that form of law are permanent and untouchable.

What is being advised here is a kind of gentleman's agreement that might be pleasant enough, if we were all prepared to be gentlemen about it. Yet even then, I think it would be unwise to abandon the idea of the sacred. For one thing, it's there whether you want it or not. The sacred is -- whatever else you think it is -- that for which you are prepared to sacrifice. Something fills that space, or you would not be a warrior.

1 comment:

douglas said...

I'be heard it said that the only reason Ghandi's tactics of civil disobedience worked were because it was against the British- a people who valued civility. Imagine Ghandi vs. Chinese or Russian rulers for instance. As you note, gentlemen's agreements only work amongst gentlemen.

"The sacred is -- whatever else you think it is -- that for which you are prepared to sacrifice. Something fills that space, or you would not be a warrior. "

I've oft thought that most people would be willing to lay down their lives for their children or spouse for instance- at least they hope they would. This has led me to think that a better measure of what really matters to you is, rather than 'what would you die for?', 'What would you be willing to kill for?'. You have to live with those consequences.