Are we really the pen?

8 Jan

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack the symbolism of the pen and the pencil has been used as a sign of protest and revulsion. People have been holding them aloft at rallies, and social media is full of images of the pen versus the Kalashnikov. The point is simple and well meant: the pen is mightier than the sword; reasoned argument is better than violence; culture and civilisation will triumph over barbarity.

It is worth asking though: Are we really the pen? Can we really look at our own societies and equate them with literate sophistication, reason and rationality? While comforting, I am certain that the simple binary of the pen versus the sword (the cartoonist’s pencil versus the Kalashnikov) is inaccurate. The message behind this is that ‘our’ societies are civilised and sophisticated and theirs is not. Are we really all about the arts, reasoned argument, back and forth, culture and witty repartee in the face of the ‘uncivilised savages’ that mount attacks in the west? Are they really completely without reason?

These binaries just do not work. All of our societies are much more complex. The us/them, pen/gun narrative gives us comfort but it also means that we do not have to look at ourselves too closely. Can we really overlook how our societies organise themselves? How they are armed? How violence by drone in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere has been normalised? This is not a matter of pens and swords. It is a matter of ‘pen-swords’, or implements that have a pen at one end and a sword at the other. It is just at the moment we prefer to look at the pen.

None of this is to justify, in any way, the gruesome attack on Charlie Hebdo nor give comfort to anyone who uses violence in the name of religion. The blame for these attacks lies squarely with the perpetrators. But we can also use these dreadful events to take a cold, hard look at ourselves.


7 Responses to “Are we really the pen?”

  1. AvidScribbler1 08/01/2015 at 12:51 pm #

    Really enjoyed reading this! Summed up all of what I have been thinking and feeling for the past 24 hours.
    Thank you

  2. brunobraak 08/01/2015 at 10:25 pm #

    Thank you for this. Clear, critical but fair – a sound not often heard these days.

  3. Simon Broomer 11/01/2015 at 3:25 pm #

    I am amazed that you can call yourself a Professor of Peace & Conflict. More like a Professor of Fantasy and Fallacy. Your vitriolic, hateful and untruthful posts go no way to creating peace or understanding in our world today. Most of your posts claim that almost every current global conflict and incidents of terror today is a direct or indirect of some wrong-doing by the West, Zionists or another peaceful democratic society. You have used the same warped thinking to explain the awful events that have taken place in Paris this past week. You do Manchester University a great disservice.

  4. brooms 12/01/2015 at 9:51 am #

    Clearly Roger, you share none of the values of freedom of speech that you advocate in your articles, and for which millions of people in France marched for on Sunday. I dare you to put my comment from yesterday back on your web site.

  5. brooms 16/01/2015 at 6:31 am #

    Please also take a good hard look at why muslim fanatics have alongside their terrorist atrocities have specifically killed jews in museums, schools and supermarkets in Bombay, Paris and in Brussels. And please don’t use Gaza or Charlie Hebdo as an excuse.

  6. brooms 16/02/2015 at 6:49 am #

    Look at your self closely too Roger. The emotive and profoundly inaccurate articles you write about the conflicts in the Middle East, and in particular the way you vilify Israel, feeds the distorted minds of the Islamic terrorist who are looking for any excuse to murder Jews on the streets of Europe’s capital cities.


  1. ‘All you need is Ecuador’? Some reflections on the ethics of tourism and international volunteering in the wake of Charlie Hebdo | aspiration&revolution - 17/01/2015

    […] it. And this brings me back to Charlie Hebdo. One of my colleagues has questioned in a recent blog about the attack and its aftermath whether ‘our’ societies are really civilised and […]

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