After two harrowing weeks in Paris, it behoves me to make a few enlightened comments. I use the word ‘enlightened’ not as a means to flatter myself into brilliance but instead to indicate that I am making observations based on the thinkers of the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.
For those of you not formally introduced, we are referring to an era in which notable thinkers shook up society. Thinkers who are largely credited with the paradigm shift that led to the French Revolution, as well as major economic, philosophic and scientific upheaval.
Among them: Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Voltaire and Hume, to name but a few.
Without derailing too much from my remit as your friendly in-house etiquette specialist, I would like to draw your attention to a few very specific points that might prove interesting, for no other reason than to alert you to the intricacies of what it means to be socially sensitive. This is neither political nor has it much to do with religion; etiquette oblige. Instead, it is a short history lesson relating to the social model of France. Or, how it was, up until last week.
The key parts of this lesson are to be found in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man written at the outset of the 1789 revolution, after what is widely considered the overturning of society, complete with rather a lot of bloody beheadings.
Until recently, France has ostensibly lived under a social model based, loosely or otherwise, on the 17 points raised in that Declaration, ranging from legal issues, property, rights and freedoms. Revisions, general strikes and constitutions have come and gone, but the core values stay the same. Until this week, anyway.
What I wish to draw your attention to are some of the articles that are being challenged by a significant part of the population at the moment. I do not mean that the population is wanting to change or challenge the articles in question, but instead, to point out that by the very nature of the protests in favour of ‘liberty of expression’ (semantically, the French use the word Liberty over the word Freedom, but it means essentially the same in this case), they are challenging the foundation of Liberty as described in the Declaration; hence, they are challenging its very core.
Article 4: Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
If one accepts the core values of the Republic that is France, that means admitting that Freedom does have a limit, and it always has. That limit is the edge of the next person’s freedom. While over a million people took to the streets in order to defend their right to freedom at all costs, they were, possibly, misguided. It’s not their freedom that is at risk; it’s their abuse of that right that is in question.
Without over simplifying: don’t lose sight of your manners just because you can, legally. The law is one thing but social customs and graces are themselves responsible for the smooth running of a civilised society and as such, deserve as much respect as the letter of the law.
And another thing …
Article 10: No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.
‘Disquieted’ is the word chosen (not by me) to translate the French ‘Inquiété’ which essentially means worried or stressed. I can say that I have been ‘disquieted’ many times whether it was deliberate or otherwise, by people making fun of my faith and other people’s faith. I have chosen to turn the other cheek because that is what I was taught, but for someone whose faith or culture makes it a sin to depict their Holy Figure, WHY. WOULD. YOU. DO. THAT? Again, I call upon society as a whole to be sensitive to others. To poke fun, make jokes or insult outright is provocative, mean and utterly abject.
The takeaway from this is pretty straightforward … Liberty, Freedom of expression and religion are all privileges and principles that are to be defended wholeheartedly. The events of these past weeks are tragic, horrific and shocking and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But it could also be argued that they would not necessarily have happened if people were respectful of one another, their beliefs and customs.
Be nice to each other. It’s that simple.