Katha Pollitt on blasphemy. She starts with a public radio chat in which John Hockenberry said to BBC chief Jeremy Bowen:
Hockenberry: I’m wondering if it’s possible for the United Nations to create an initiative that would talk about some sort of global convention on blasphemy, that would create a cooperative enterprise to control these kinds of incidents, not to interfere into anybody’s free speech rights but to basically recognize that there is a global interest in keeping people from going off the rails over a perceived sense of slight by enforcing a convention of human rights, only in this particular case it would be anti-blasphemy?
So he wants a global convention to enforce an anti-blasphemy convention of human rights…not (of course) to interfere into anybody’s free speech rights, but to –
Well how would you enforce an anti-blasphemy convention without interfering with free speech rights?
So the only thing preventing some sort of international convention against “blasphemy” is that people can’t agree about what it is? Perhaps the UN could ask Vladimir Putin, who was eager to send three members of Pussy Riot to prison for appearing at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to perform an anti-Putin “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary. Their crime: “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The rise of the Russian Orthodox church in the former Soviet Union, and its connections to a corrupt authoritarian regime, shows that Islam has no monopoly on religious freakouts or their exploitation for political purposes.
Quite. We also know that the only reason the Vatican doesn’t do the same thing is because it can’t. When it could, it did. It didn’t stop because it got nicer; it stopped because that wouldn’t fly any more.
Sorry, John and Jeremy, there is just no way to “control these kinds of incidents” without suppressing free speech, because the very concept of “blasphemy” entails powerful clerics deciding what a religion “really” says, and what questions about that are legitimate. And why shouldn’t religion be fair game for rude remarks, mockery and humor, to say nothing of bold challenges and open expressions of disbelief? Ethnic attacks like Geller’s ad are disgusting—calling Muslims savages is like calling Jews subhuman—but I’d say on the whole “blasphemy” has been a force for good in human history. It is part of the process by which millions of people have come to reject theocracy and think for themselves.
When it comes to ideas—and religions are, among other things, ideas—there is no right not to be offended.
Happy blasphemy day.