Could culture shock lead to barbarism?

Soon, France will dry its tears, finish mourning and life will resume in France. One will need to find out the sequences which helped lead to barbarism, understand how we got there. At the risk of having to relive a similar drama that would plunge France (of all countries?) into even greater sorrow. The line of thought I propose is to analyze the situation from the perspective of culture shock, i.e. the meeting of two concepts which are accepted as legitimate by everyone, and yet are incompatible.

On the one hand, freedom of expression.

This is a concept for which many French citizens fight, and which most French people consider a fundamental right (at the time of the attack against Charlie Hebdo). Freedom of expression is an important value for the entire Western world, but France has added something special to it : the freedom to be impertinent and to mock, which is particularly obvious in the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. French society, still struggling in its powerful hierarchical structure, cannot live without this liberating practice of impertinence and derision of power and authority.

On the other hand, the sacred.

This is a concept as old as time. This is an idea, concept or person that a culture seeks to place above all else in its own value system, without explanation, without justification. The sacred is a signal emitted by one culture with respect to all others to claim: Do not touch this value, because it is too precious to me.

A more scientific definition : the sacred is a notion of cultural anthropology allowing human society to create a separation between the different elements that make up its world. Sacralisation serves to distinguish the profane and the ordinary from what is considered spiritual or divine. In the drama at hand, Islam has warned the West for a long time not to touch the sacred figure of Muhammad.

We are really in the context of a “culture shock” because two respectable notions taken separately are competing in a brutal way on a small territory: culture. On the one hand, French culture defends its irrepressible need to express itself on its own territory, even making fun of religious authority, wherever it comes from.

On the other hand, a religion from the Middle East, demands respect for a sacred image. Barbaric terrorists are growing up on this French soil in a climate of lack of respect for, and ignorance of, others.

By 2060, the world population is expected to reach 9 billion people. We will have to find a way to respect each other, a way to live together in peace on the same, small planet. Even if we don’t fully understand each other’s value…..charlie-hebdo-cartoon2

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5 thoughts on “Could culture shock lead to barbarism?

  1. I don’t believe this event or the issues presented fall into the realm of culture shock so much as culture clash. Culture shock will become subdued with time and cultural exposure as any long-term traveler has experienced. The clash of deeply held cultural values, or what is considered sacred, can lead to a personal war as was demonstrated here. I think many will say that was a lack of cultural understanding, but I don’t believe that was the issue that triggered this event. What I observed as a reader of this events on the other side of the globe was a lack of respect from both culture groups. The killers didn’t respect French freedom of expression and took out their rage on the society at large. The local French media what this group considered a sacred, and I’m guessing there was a feeling resentment over territorial ownership (i.e. “you can’t come to my country and tell me what I can say”).

    1. Eventually, we will agree. You acknowledge a lack of respect of the French, and lack of “adaptiveness” (if it exists) of the Muslims. At the other side of the globe,you must know that the French call here “freedom of speech” is “Freedom of mocking” and making people ridicules and vulgar. The killers are inexcusable, but I know these cultures : lose of face, respect of “sacred”, community reactions are cultural foundations. One will never escape it! It is to us – Occidental individualists – to take into account the sensitivity of the collectivists cultures to make sure we don’t “light the fuse of the barrel”. Sometimes, we have to allow ourselves to be somehow superior – I mean, in terms of consciousness – and therefore accept more responsibility than the other party. I invite the French to calm down, not because they give up, but because their level of consciousness is higher.

      1. And adding to that, it’s not only the French who need to calm down. The story is always two sided at it’s simplest. I agree completely the killings were inexcusable, as is most killing globally. Culture-clash reactions are inevitable as it’s part of who we are. Possibly the striving for all of us is to respond thoughtfully and not emotionally react in the heat of the moment–easier said than done, but it is the ideal. I believe your first statement is true, eventually we will all agree, but the road to that conclusion is long. In my classes I teach similar lesson:

        Many of you have heard the cross-cultural teaching that “it’s not wrong, it’s just different,” but I say sometimes it’s just “wrong”! The list of examples for this is too long. A key to thriving in another culture is figuring how you will deal with the thing you consider “wrong” and still “fit” without wanting to hurt your neighbour.

        Our classes are centred on helping Asian families integrate better into foreign societies. Completely different people groups than the Islamic groups moving into France, but the integration is a choice by anyone moving there. The groups I’m watching on TV appear to not have chosen to integrate, but to change the world around them. That may be too simply stated as a newscasts by nature give the short story.

  2. Jean-Pierre,
    If you consider that the barbaric terrorists responded to a provocation by Charlie Hebdo, which did not respect the sacred figure of the Prophet (something several Islamic scholars would contest), how do you explain the assassination of innocent Jews in the hypercasher? Being Jews was their only provocation!
    As much as I value your promotion of mutual understanding, as much as I share your goal of helping to bridge cultural gaps, as much as I respect the Islamic culture, I believe cultural relativism has a limit. Some behaviors – in this case a perverted version of Islam – are simply inacceptable and should be condemned.

    1. Thanks Philippe for your valuable reaction. Nothing to say about the limits you mentioned. Except maybe one thing……Why is it that, in pationned debates, we often reach a point where one confuses EXPLANATIONS and EXCUSES. I am not trying to excuses murderers, I am trying to explain the situation of those millions of people – the Muslim community (the umma) and all the nuances of their feelings. It is my job to (try to) dismantle the mechanics and understand the cultural actions/reactions which – here – leads to barbarism. Probably, there are a lot of elements I ignore, but I am totally sure culture plays a role in here. And therefore people like me have to find the courage to stand up and try to explain. I salute my Muslim colleagues who do the same in their group. I dont’ know what to think about the dozens of intercultural specialists I read when one are talking about business problems, and who keep so silent now…..

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