Back at the end of 2013, I spent a couple of weeks at a psych hospital. I had been dealing with depression and anxiety for some time, and it had gotten to the point where a weekly counseling session wasn’t enough to keep me afloat. So I started a “partial hospitalization” treatment program, which meant that a) I got to drive myself there and back every day, and b) they fed me lunch.
One of the first things we were taught in this program was to become mindful of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors at any given time. To pay attention to how we were doing, particularly as it related to input we received from others. In other words, to become mindful of triggers—events, words, or actions that have the potential to “trigger” a negative emotional reaction, and lead to a depressive episode.
But we were also taught that all input from others is ultimately neutral. In other words, anything that another person says or does only carries meaning because of how we judge, color, and interpret that input. This idea was concisely summed up in the following phrase: “We trigger ourselves.”
If I get angry, or depressed, or anxious, it’s not really because of a situation, or a person, or anything external to me. It’s because I have, almost reflexively, made a connection between what is happening now, and some negative memory or belief that I carry around in my head. And it is my responsibility to be aware of these reflexive connections, and to challenge them. Is someone insulting me? Then I can ask myself what value I place on their input, and what I believe about myself. Am I feeling overwhelmed? Then I can ask myself why I feel the need to manage and control everything around me. And so on.
This was life-changing for me. Through practice, I have been able to see with ever-increasing clarity how much control I really have over my emotional state, and how little other people have over it. As with everything else I write about here, this is definitely a work in progress. But I have seen a lot of success with it so far.
But there’s a reason why I am bringing this up right now. As we all know, about a week and a half ago, the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamic terrorists, who forced their way into the building and opened fire, murdering twelve people and injuring eleven others. The reason for the attack? Charlie Hebdo had a history of publishing cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Islam prohibits any depiction of Muhammad to begin with, and the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo often lampooned Islamic extremism. (The image to the right reads, “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing!”)
In the aftermath of the attack, a debate surfaced about whether or not Charlie Hebdo was in some way complicit in what happened. Had they provoked a violent backlash by knowingly causing insult to Islam? Many seemed to adopt the line that of course, violence is terrible and wrong, but neither should we deliberately inflame tensions by insulting religious beliefs. Pope Francis himself, in addressing this issue, said “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.”
But why not?
It’s important to remember what “faith” is. “Faith” refers to a belief system which has been adopted by an individual. Whether someone grew up in a particular religious community or converted to that religion later in life, there is still at some point a decision made on the part of the individual to affirm the truth of that belief system. “Yes, I believe this to be true.”
Certainly, each person has the right to make such an affirmation. People can choose to believe whatever they wish to believe. But of course one person’s beliefs have no bearing on anyone else.
Or do they?
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that a corporation’s religious beliefs can exempt that corporation from providing access to employee medical coverage that violates those beliefs. Notably, Justice Alito (in the majority opinion) wrote the following:
In other words, one person’s beliefs (in this case, the Hobby Lobby corporation) do in fact have bearing upon other people, regardless of whether or not anyone else shares those beliefs, or whether or not they are even true.
According to this logic, Charlie Hebdo was wrong to print cartoons of Muhammad. It didn’t matter that they didn’t believe that depictions of Muhammad were blasphemous. It only mattered that someone else believed it.
And once a belief is called “religious”, it is automatically excluded from debate. We can never question the validity or veracity of a religious belief; that would be offensive. We must simply accept that it is someone’s “faith” and remain hands-off.
Because if we don’t…
If we don’t, people holding that religious belief will take swift measures to prevent such offense from occurring again. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was horrifying, but the same religious impulse—the need to force non-adherents of a belief system to be subject to that system—informs the Hobby Lobby case, as it also informs the current flood of “religious freedom” laws in our state legislatures aimed at keeping homosexuals out of cake shops.
And why is non-adherence to someone else’s belief system so offensive? You’d have to ask them. Ask them why they can’t abide dissent. Ask them why they insist upon having their beliefs enshrined in the public square and even in the law itself. Ask them why they can’t handle someone else not believing what they believe.
Are they being offended by blasphemous non-believers, or are they just triggering themselves?
It is not my responsibility to avoid “triggering” people who choose to uphold a certain belief system, and who cannot handle it when I do not. I am not responsible for the existential need that drives people to religion, nor is it my responsibility to tiptoe around their beliefs, lest I tread on one and reveal just how fragile they are. These people are responsible for managing themselves.
“Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) has become the rallying cry of those supporting Charlie Hebdo. I am also Charlie. I am also the woman affected by the Hobby Lobby decision. I am also the gay man facing discrimination from the workplace to the wedding altar.
It all springs from the same source.