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.