Book Reviews, Secularism & Security after Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo, purity, danger and taboo: Lessons from Mary Douglas

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The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome this piece from our own Paul Mutsaers, the first in a new forum “Secularism and Security after Charlie Hebdo

It is the habit of anthropologists not to cave under the pressure of mainstream discourse. Here at Anthropoliteia we particularly like to think of the anthropology of policing and security as a critical mode of thought that addresses central issues in society. The attack on Charlie Hebdo obviously belongs to that category. I would like to make a short statement to intervene in the debate about this horrible event by revisiting Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger.

In my own country, the Netherlands, mainstream debates in politics and the media on Jihadism have been of the kind that the Dutch sociologist Willem Schinkel would typify as “social hypochondria” (Schinkel 2007). Public debates about Jihadism echo debates about disease: more and more cells are contaminated by carriers that go viral in society. Radical action (purification) is needed lest we are all in/affected (images of people like Morten Storm, the converted al-Qaeda militant and reconverted CIA spy, have much sway over the political imagination). Here, radical action means disrupting families, doing whatever it takes to get terrorist suspects behind bars, even if that means suspending the law, and so on and so forth. Under the guise of pro-active policing many human rights are violated as we learn from a recent Amnesty International report on pro-active policing in Europe, the Netherlands in particular. Be it said in passing that we should think carefully about how to balance what Peter Manning has called the “supply side” and “demand side” of policing.

That, however, is not my main point. What I mean to say is that purification and taboos are of all times and all societies. That is, they are cultural universals that can be found in all stable human groups. They protect ‘the local consensus on how the world is organised. [They shore] up wavering certainty [and reduce] intellectual and social disorder’, as Mary Douglas writes in the preface to the Routledge Classics Edition of her Purity and Danger (1966 [2002: xi]). She also writes that ‘the taboo-maintained rules will be as repressive as the leading members of the society want them to be’ (p.xiii).

There is no discussion, merely assertion. This attack was an attack on our freedom of speech, on our public liberties, and it should be stopped.

What struck me in the debates in Europe in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo was the repressive face of our taboo-maintained rules – that is, the taboo to have any meaningful, let alone dissident-based, discussion on “our” public liberties and freedom of speech. There is no discussion, merely assertion. This attack was an attack on our freedom of speech, on our public liberties, and it should be stopped.

In the discussions we recognize a lot of Orwellian doublethink: the simultaneous affirmation and negation of the conditions favorable of freedom of speech and peace. Taboos and censorship stemming from radical Islamic movements are constantly drawn into the limelight, while “our” own taboos remain undiscussed

In the discussions we recognize a lot of Orwellian doublethink: the simultaneous affirmation and negation of the conditions favorable of freedom of speech and peace. Taboos and censorship stemming from radical Islamic movements are constantly drawn into the limelight, while “our” own taboos remain undiscussed (e.g., what to think of the taboo to criticize freedom of speech, and the banning of Imams who do so?) While religious violence is anathema to European societies (the manhunt for the brothers Chérif and Said Kouachi – understandable as it is – is exemplary), Mosques that have been under attack, of which there are many, barely receive extra protection. What to think of the terror of any one US missile flying over the heads of children in the Middle East? What to think of the fact that “our” freedom of speech is a valuable resource for our intelligence agencies, who constantly invade our private lives? What about the constraints on the freedom of speech of people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange? What about the death threats that some of my left-leaning colleagues receive from right-wingers? We choose to ignore these matters in the discussions that unfold right now.

Douglas lucidly observes that dangers are manifold and omnipresent, particularly so, I would add, in our risk societies. Societies would be paralysed if they would attend to them all. ‘Anxiety has to be selective’ (p.xix). By implication, so do taboos. They have a protective function and create ‘unity in experience’ (p.3) and force us into ‘good citizenship’ (p.4). However, in the selection processes some forms of criticism will be suppressed. Let us be inspired by Douglas and not forget that all societies have taboos. Right now we are at a pivotal moment; a moment that forces us to stand still and think about how open our societies really are.

Paul Mutsaers works as a researcher at the Police Academy of the Netherlands and a PhD candidate at Tilburg University, where he concludes a dissertation on law enforcement and migrants in the Netherlands.
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