Je suis Thomas…

Posted on January 19th, 2015

When I was a teenager, I was invited to do my communion, a Catholic ritual that all my classmates went through without questioning its meaning. Thing was that I didn’t believe in God. And even admitting He existed, did He really care whether I’d go through such a ritual ornot? I doubted it! So I looked at the priest and asked him “What’s in it for me?”. The poor man stared at me, speechless, left and never mentioned it again. Were all my classmates pious teenagers? I don’t think so. Then how come I was the only one questioning the meaning of communion? If it wasn’t for the love of God, why did they all do it? Well, the answer to that seems pretty obvious to me: conformism. “Everybody does it so what’s gonna happen if I won’t? What will people think?”, the poor things wondered. The easy way out was to please everyone, parents, priests, society as a whole, go through it quickly and not think too much about it. I was lucky enough to have open-minded parents: they never tried to force religion, or any other intellectual idea, on me. When I declined to do my communion, they simply said it was a personal choice for me to make, and that they entirely respected my decision.


This whole experience taught me a great lesson: it’s not just because everybody’s doing something that you have to do it, too, if it doesn’t make any sense to you. The way the priest looked at me, his silence even, were very judgmental, though. I got away with it because my parents stood for freedom of thought, but the man tacitly expressed his disapproval. Without doubt, to him I was some kind of freak for daring to question the ways of the world. Well, I say screw him! I am not a freak. I am Thomas and if God exists, I was a wonderful thing for Him to create!



About thirty five years later, that is last Christmas, I visited the Great Wall of China and caught myself thinking of the effort it took, over the course of several centuries, through the work of thousands of men, to build such a construction. I caught myself wondering what was the motivation behind it. I mean I knew it was a protective construction, aimed at preventing the “Northern Barbarians” from invading the Great Empire of China, but what struck me is the determination it must have taken to do it! It sure was no small thing at the time! All in the name of safety and isolation. In other words: fear. Fear as a societal choice. China, indeed, wasn’t an empire open to cultural exchange. Contrarily to India, which was always willing to absorb other cultures, China was the most extremely isolationist society you could think of. Not only did they consider everyone outside their borders barbarians but, unlike Europeans, they weren’t even fond of trying to spread their own values on the rest of the world. This is not to say the violent ways of European colonialism and evangelism were cool, all I’m saying is that at least Europeans were willing to be part of a larger universe, even if at some point it meant little more to them than dominating it. The ancient Chinese, oppositely, didn’t care about the universe around them: they only wanted to ignore its mere existence and be left alone. They had their ways, every good Chinese citizen was expected to conform to those ways, and that was it. Had I been born there at the time, I wouldn’t have been “Thomas”. I would have been “a Chinese”, before anything else.

Strangely enough, it’s as I was standing on the Great Wall that I remembered the communion “incident”. Why did this place, of all things, bring back old memories from my long gone childhood? Both reminded me of everything I’ve always tried to keep away from my consciousness: herd mentality, isolation and fear. Secular as it may have claimed to be, the society I was living in back in the 70’s was still viciously pressuring its children into following a path regardless of their personal convictions. It did so, and still does, in many ways. Children themselves, from a very young age, tend to exclude whoever is different in any possible aspect. I don’t believe this to be a natural human instinct: I think this is something that children are being taught. Not necessarily explicitly, but through a never-ending series of comments, remarks and pressures. You know, the “stop drawing attention to yourself” and “Mr. Smith is kind but still, he’s a little weird” mantras most kids have to deal with all throughout their formative years. This is how it starts: putting notions of fear and intolerance in the subconscious; and this idea that you should never, ever, let others think you’re different. And this is how so many people end-up living someone else’s life because they’re terrified at the idea of living their own, because who knows who may be disappointed or angered by their own, little personal eccentricities. I could also start on all those parents who expect their kids to be a carbon copy of themselves, or even worse, to realize their dreams (“I don’t want you to be a bum like me, you gonna be a doctor!”). GIVE THE KIDS A BREAK, GODDAMMIT!!!

Problem is, one can hardly ever be happy living someone else’s life. Why do you think so many people end-up lying on a sofa, trying to figure out with a shrink what’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with them is that they’re afraid of being, doing and saying what they believe the rest of the world thinks is wrong!

And this is how some German people I know end-up asking me “what’s wrong with you living in a Third World country so different from ours?”. This is how we end-up with huge demonstrations in Germany asking for Muslims to be thrown out of the country. The joke is that those demonstrations, for the most part, are being held in parts of Germany where we have very few immigrants. The very people asking for isolation are the ones who already have it. They do not act that way out of social or economic issues brought upon them by immigrants. They do it out of fear. Fear of the unknown (what the hell do they know about Muslims anyway?). Fear of difference. Fear of other cultures. I mean yeah, there are some issues related to massive immigration all through Europe that must be dealt with, but this is not what this is about, because those demonstrators aren’t personally impacted by those issues. This is about ignorance. And dealing with immigration, in the “small world” of the 21st Century, cannot be achieved by isolation but by learning how to peacefully coexist together in spite of our differences. Because that’s the thing: nowadays China isn’t as far from Germany as it used to. Countries and cultures are being all mixed-up, more and more, this is fact and there’s no going back. So now either you deal with it or you won’t, but History will be running its course regardless and what was shall never be again. You know, going back as far as Ancient Greek literature, you’ll find writers moaning about how it was better in the past, before the youth started to question accepted values and foreigners started to spread subversive ideas all over the place. Are we going to go on like this forever or are we, at long last, going to embrace change and diversity? And I do not only mean cultural and religious diversity, but individual diversity as well. I may be German, I may be European, I may come from a Christian society, but first and foremost: I am Thomas. My values are my own before being those of the society I come from.

Which all brings me to the sad events that shocked the world two weeks ago, the attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Like millions of people, I was outraged by this murderous attack against freedom of speech and, like millions of people, I quickly put a “Je suis Charlie” slogan on my Facebook page without giving it much thought. Then I started thinking: “Why am I doing this?”. The obvious answer is: in support of the victims of this heinous crime; in support of values of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. This is what I stand for. This is what this magazine stands for. So it makes sense to claim that I am Charlie. But sometimes we say things hastily, without questioning the very meaning of the words we say or write. “I am Charlie”. Those words do have a specific meaning. They don’t say “I condemn those ignominious murders” or “I will fight for freedom of speech”. They say “I am Charlie”. What does it really mean? It really means that I am one with Charlie Hebdo, that there are no differences whatsoever between me and this magazine, that our names are interchangeable at will. Only, I realized that I’d never ever read a single issue of that magazine before. From what I know, as said above, it’s a magazine that stands for freedom of speech and thought. This, I can relate to. From what I know, it’s a magazine that likes to be provocative and insolent in order to make a point. This, I can relate to as well. From what I know it’s an atheist magazine. One more thing in common. But from what I know, it’s also mostly a left-wing magazine for example. I see myself more as a liberal than a socialist, let alone a communist, though. That’s at least one difference between me and Charlie Hebdo. Not necessarily an irreconcilable one, but a difference nevertheless. Were I to read several issues of it, I may find out more things that separate us. This is not to say that I would suddenly dislike it or wish for it to disappear. But am I Charlie Hebdo and is Charlie Hebdo me? Well, maybe not. So OK: you’re going to say that I’m playing rhetorical mind-games for the sake of messing with you. Well, a little bit but there’s more to it than just that. I’m just questioning the “apparently obvious” the same way I questioned it when all my classmates “decided” to do that communion thing. And doing it led me to realize that no, I am not Charlie. I support Charlie through this crisis. I condemn the attack on Charlie. I would fight for Charlie’s right to exist if I had to. But I am not Charlie. I am Thomas and that has to mean something entirely different from “I am Charlie”.


And then I think of those dozens of millions of Facebook and Twitter profiles with “Je suis Charlie” as an avatar. Are all those people truly Charlie? Does Charlie Hebdo define each and every aspect of them? Certainly not! Does it make sense to fight for freedom of speech and, therefore, for diversity, by all of a sudden putting a single slogan/picture on all our profiles? I say no, it doesn’t. It had to be done under the emotional stress of what had just happen. I did it too, and I haven’t removed the slogan from my profile, because it represents a movement I wish to be part of. Not because I want to be like everyone else, but because I deeply cherish the values it stands for in that particular context. But deep down, I think that, maybe, the slogan wasn’t the best chosen one if it was to stand for diversity and freedom of thought. The problem with replacing a “me” by an “us” is that we already start giving-up on our individualities. And by doing so not only do we start giving-up on some things that make us happy, we also start defining an “us” that may at some point separate us from a “them”. That’s when we start building Great Walls and here we go again with fear and intolerance. I see society, the world even, as a huge network of “I’s” that must learn to live together. There is no “us”: it’s just me and you and you and you and how we manage to do what we do without stepping on each other’s foot. Call it individualim if you will, I don’t mind: it’s not a word I’m afraid of. I think we’d have a more peaceful world with seven billion happy “I’s” than with fewer groups of “us” being at each other’s throat.

So I’m gonna say it, because it’s an important statement to me: some aspects of me may be Charlie, I may also happen to be a European, a German, a liberal, an atheist, a businessman, a devoted Woody Allen worshiper, you name it…

But I am more than the sum of my parts.

I am Thomas.

I won’t ever compromise on that. Never did, never will.