By James Black
The death of 26-year-old Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch on July 15 exposes more than just the victimisation of women in reactionary Islamic countries.
Baloch’s murder at the hands of her deranged brother reveals an inherent tension between repressive religion and the emancipatory power of social media.
Baloch had hundreds of thousands of subscribers and followers. Her posts frequently flew in the face of popular conservatism. She was unapologetic about her sexuality and unapologetic about her opinions – two things that made her a marked woman in Pakistan.
Social media, for all its faults and its tendencies towards shared solipsism rather than actual communication, threatens any kind of power founded on suppression of the individual.
The greatest fear for any vested interest, of any kind – corporate, religious, cultural – is people thinking for themselves; people expressing who they really are, and determining their projected selves.
To hold power of any kind, you must be able to make people, as Aldous Huxley put it, “will their own slavery”. You must have power over the way people come to terms with their individual experience.
It is too much to say the digital revolution has changed culture as much as the introduction of the printing press. But a comparison is legitimate.
After people were able to read, translate and interpret the bible in their own way, and mass distribution of literature gave people access to the primary sources of the established Church in Europe, the Reformation was inevitable.
Reformist churches all share the same emancipatory idea, to greater or lesser extents. The consummation of the Reformation was in allowing individuals their right to form their own relationship with the divine.
The Puritan iconoclasm that stained the name of most reformist movements actually evolved out of a suspicion of ritual as a form of mind control. They sought to emphasise the need for an active choice in moving towards God, rather than being hypnotised into needing God.
This primitive emancipation of the individual was a necessary step to what became the Enlightenment and it was the direct product of a technological revolution.
Thinking for yourself, putting a primacy on personal conscience and personal liberty, is the basis of western democracies. It is the very opposite of the reactionary creed, which is to induce others to submit to their will.
Social media does not have the emancipatory power of the printing press, and anyone who says so, is being trite. However, it does have revolutionary aspects.
The horrifying death of Qandeel Baloch shows that reactionary religious and social control is in its final days. Even the remotest, most suffocating societies are under threat from technology that gives the individual the tools to express their truest selves in a space that the reactionary cannot control.
Baloch was killed not just by small-mindedness and hate. She was killed by the forces of desperation. Her death, and hundreds others like hers, are not signs of the strength of fanatical control of dogmas that rest on suppression of individuality, but they signal the death rattle of such dogmas.
Social media has many disturbing faults. It is addictive, breeds narcissism, entrenches unreal, consumerist forms of sexuality, and it can actually alienate us from friendships rather than strengthen the bonds of human community.
It is, however, a form of individual emancipation. Even advertisers are being forced to streamline their message and cater to the particular tastes, not just of demographic groups, but individuals.
Qandeel Baloch’s story is tragic and outrageous, but it is also the story of a martyr.
Above all else, reactionaries, control-freaks, repressives and fascists share a hatred of individual self-determination.
In the world of social media, how you see yourself, rather than how the world tells you to see yourself, takes centre stage; and there is little that anyone can do about it.
For this reason social media strikes terror into the insecure, fanatical obsessives that have run the world for too long.
There are pitfalls to a society focused on individuality. However, the deeper and more nuanced the ideal of individuality, the less selfish and narcissistic such a society will be.
Tolerance versus pandering
There is nothing bigoted about saying a set of ideas is incompatible with critical thinking and civilisation.
Too many people are too scared of being called a racist to admit that certain religious doctrines are not compatible with what modern societies are founded on.
Personal spirituality is one thing, but very few religions are content to confine themselves to this sphere.
Most of the time, being a fundamentalist is a bad idea. But sometimes it is a good idea.
Being a fundamentalist about free speech, about rights for women, about not torturing babies – these are things we not only can be fundamentalist about, but we must be fundamentalist about.
Otherwise, a soft-bellied version of tolerance turns into moral relativism. Being pluralistic, requires the mutual adherence to certain hardline fundamentals.
That’s what secularism and true multiculturalism are all about. They are not about being relativistic and nihilistic, and pretending we don’t have any values at all, so that everyone feels nice and warm and included.
The fundamental of all fundamentals in a secular society should be the principle of liberty.
That means that any doctrine, or indeed individual, that treads on the personal liberty of another, must be considered an anathema to the society.
Being a liberal does not mean being universally tolerant. It means that you believe moral stability and equity can only exist in a society where each individual understands that the self-determination of others is essential to preserving that of one’s own.
This means, yes, you get to practice whatever religion you want in the privacy of your own home and the sanctity of your own conscience.
You cannot, however, claim special privileges at the same time. You must accept other people’s rights to disagree and even pour scorn on your religion.
If you cannot tolerate that, then you cannot claim the right to your doctrine.
Free speech and freedom of religion come hand in hand. It is just that exact freedom to have your religion pilloried that guarantees equality of religion.
If you can’t accept that fact, then you must admit to demanding special privilege, and as such you are rejecting the very fundamental freedom of secular society.
Propagandists are fond of using tolerance as a way of seeking protection for their views. In truth, tolerance must come hand in hand with the readiness to be criticised and ridiculed.
True tolerance is simply treating all religions and world-views with equal critical reception.
The basis of a truly tolerant society is the willingness to subject all ideas, religions and theories to equal scrutiny.
Claiming special protection is not tolerance. It’s actually intolerant. It is anti-pluralist.
The fundamental unit of a secular society must be the individual, and the individual only.
Instead of apportioning rights to groups and ideas, we apportion them to individuals, and society’s role is to preserve the right for each individual to determine their own destiny – as much as is possible.
We measure our tolerance by critical thought. If we are all equal, we are all equally subject to criticism. Our religions are equally irrelevant to the state.
If you don’t believe that, then you don’t believe in civilisation.