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Oct 02 2013

The return of the pineapple

Rory Fenton has a very apropos article at the Rationalist Association calling for non-religious students to resist the tide of religious privilege at universities.

What happens when you go to university? New stuff! New ideas, new people, new categories of ideas, new all sorts.

In the midst of this, many find themselves doubting or losing their religious beliefs. For them and for those who have never been religious, non-religious societies on campus, whether called “atheist”, “humanist”, “secular”, “freethinking”, “rationalist” or “ex-Muslim” (and non-religious groups can rival the gay rights movement for the sheer number of inclusive terms they use), can be a second home. At their best they are oases of free debate and discussion, challenging their members as well as the wider campus community to question dogma and speak up for reason.

But then that’s exactly why some people hate them, isn’t it. It’s also, depressingly, why some other people feel the need to support the people who are threatened by the questioning of dogma at the expense of the people questioning dogma. Last year at Reading University, for example.

It all started with a pineapple.

The pineapple in question was sat on the stall of Reading University’s Atheist Society. The pineapple was called “Mohammad”, as indicated by a sticker, and was there to promote an upcoming discussion on freedom of speech and blasphemy. Reading Students’ Union soon received complaints from Muslim students. Rather than defend their members’ rights to free speech, the union demanded the pineapple be removed. When Reading Atheists refused, they were kicked out of the Freshers Fair altogether. The union then updated their behavioural policy to forbid societies from causing “offence” to other students or even to members of the wider local community. The policy offers no definition of offence, creating in essence a blasphemy ban. The policy remains unchanged, forcing Reading Atheists to choose between signing the document and leaving the union altogether.

And, indeed, as I noted, the union has kicked Reading Atheists out of the union altogether.

The religious privileges that have censored atheist societies have also allowed religiously inspired bigotry to march on unheeded on UK campuses. Christian and Muslim societies regularly invite speakers with deeply homophobic and sexist views to their events, including those who have advocated the death penalty for homosexuals. Fortunately, the speakers are not permitted to air these views on campus, focusing instead on more general topics, but being invited to these universities lends them a perverse legitimacy.

It’s necessary to push back. Do what you can to help the student atheists, secularists and humanists.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    latsot

    You’d think having to live in Reading would be punishment enough. The best thing about Reading is what Jerome K Jerome wrote about it: http://www.authorama.com/three-men-in-a-boat-16.html

  2. 2
    Al Dente

    The union then updated their behavioural policy to forbid societies from causing “offence” to other students or even to members of the wider local community.

    Muslims, especially whiny ones who don’t take criticism of their religion well, cause offense to me. The same can be said of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, animists, etc., etc., etc. So why isn’t Reading University taking my feelings into consideration?

  3. 3
    Minnow

    I think the Uni were right. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to mock or intimidate within a Fresher’s Fair, which is a private event. If you won’t be polite, it is fair enough to ask you to leave. It is just silly to pretend that the pineapple wasn’t designed to offend Muslims or to provoke a response, and a bit whiny to complain when you get the response and publicity that you were looking for. How about a pig labelled ‘Rabbi’, would that be OK?

  4. 4
    David Hart

    Actually, freedom of speech does mean freedom to mock. It has to. If you aren’t allowed to subject ridiculous ideas to ridicule, then you don’t have freedom of speech. But note that you are using a slippery equivocation, implying that mere mockery of silly ideas is on a par with intimidatory threats against individuals. Maybe that wasn’t what you meant, but that’s what it sounds like.

    Would a conservative political group at a university be forbidden on ‘offense’ grounds from having a stall with a motto that made fun of liberal beliefs, or vice versa? I would sincerely hope not. And it should not be any different for groups that promote religion or secularism:- all ideas must be open to debate and mockery (and if by questioning or mocking an obviously sound idea, you make yourself look hateful or foolish, then that will be its own reward) but if we allow offence to be a valid ground for preventing an idea from being satirized, then there is no telling what we will end up not being allowed to say if we start following that logic.

  5. 5
    Minnow

    David, yes it does, but not necessarily at a private function. I think a political society at a Fresher’s Fair that displayed negative posters of an opposition leader or perhaps a poster that said ‘socialists are traitors’ (Daily Mail style) could be asked to remove them, yes. The thing is, this is a private event run for a particular purpose and deliberate provocation is against the rules. Mockery is not always on a par with intimidation, but it might be. Imagine if the Rugby Club displayed a dildo with the label ‘feminist’ against it. It would be fair to ask that to be removed from a Fresher’s Fair, right/ Even if many people thought it was harmless fun, or even a legitimate raising of questions of free speech and the limits of prudery etc. Some people would be offended, some would be intimidated and those that were would be likely to belong to a vulnerable group. Those things matter. Again, this isn’t to say that all this stuff should be forbidden tout court, just that that when you are taking place in a private event, it is fair to ask you to abide by the rules.

  6. 6
    AJ Milne

    If ‘intimidation’ and ‘insults’ are the concern, here, I do hope any Muslims’ student society presentations didn’t have on hand any copies, say, of the Koran:

    ‘As for the Disbelievers, Whether thou warn them or thou warn them not it is all one for them; they believe not. Allah hath sealed their hearing and their hearts, and on their eyes there is a covering. Theirs will be an awful doom.(2:6-7)’

    But they who disbelieve, and deny Our revelations, such are rightful Peoples of the Fire. They will abide therein. (2:39)

    (On that Day) neither the riches nor the progeny of those who disbelieve will aught avail them with Allah. They will be fuel for Fire. (3:10)

    … I mean this not particularly flippantly: religions being what they are, they aren’t ‘polite’, by definition, pretty much.

    … and seeing as this double standard has been in force around religion since time immemorial, and various none-too-bright flacks regularly try to equate atheism with religion anyway, the rationalist’s association should probably just insist pineapples named after so-called prophets are a sacrament of theirs.

    Somewhat more seriously, I think the reality is: mocking others beliefs has long been considered unacceptable, antisocial behaviour, in an awful lot of contexts, especially provided the belief manages to get stamped ‘religious’. Outside that, provided those beliefs were in very particular social categories, and generally held by those very low on the social totem pole, you might get away with it… I expect you’d be considered terribly rude for putting up a poster saying L. Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith were con men (which, of course, they were), too. You could probably get away with a poster saying there’s no bigfoot, no UFOs, but these beliefs fall outside the ‘religious belief’ exemption long salted into our cultures… You might get an argument, but I doubt it would get itself ‘forbidden’ in nearly the same numbers of venues.

    University, however, especially, is a place where I think people need to be able to let their freak flag fly. And when you start bringing these rather-convenient-to-ugly-old-traditions table manners into places like this, it has the obvious result: mouldy old dogmas get elbow room like mad. While, in contrast, to anyone saying they consider them nonsense, it’s nuh uh, shut up, pipe down, be polite. Which, to me, doesn’t really seem to me to fit the mission of such institutions.

    The pineapple, I think, is in fact a quite graceful gesture, given the context. University. A place of argument. Not a cathedral, a place of hushed reverence, however much certain groups would be delighted if all of existence were hushed in reverence to their particular god or prophet. So yeah, graceful. A sign saying in hot pink letters six inches high ‘Mohammed was a paedophile’, okay, that’s pretty déclassé. A pineapple makes a point, and a good one to make: that your attempted proscription of others‘ expressions should be denied you (and especially here). You don’t get to set such rules unilaterally, and such a rule is very out of character for a place of higher learning, of all places.

    I wonder, if someone present were asked, at the frosher’s fair, say, what they thought of Mohammed, and they said, simply: ‘I think he was in all probability a fraud, and a shameless one, who played people like a fiddle, with perhaps the one out I might give is that he may have been genuinely suffering hallucinations at some point and may like a lot of such figures eventually have really come to believe his own line’, would this be acceptable? Or would you be expected politely to decline to answer, while others proudly proclaimed ‘Well, he was divinely inspired, of course!’…

    Sound right? It sounds, honestly, to me, like what the standard social practise has been at certain dinner parties, and has been forever. For such are the inequalities the demand for ‘respect’ for religion continue to enforce. They are not trivial. The curious reality is: you can generally say you think all other religions are wrong, so long as you do so you by professing one of your own; if you do not, socially, this is over the line.

    And it isn’t right, and it shouldn’t be the rule, of all places, at a university. This isn’t a dinner party. This is where people go to work things out, shake up the world, shake up themselves and each other. I think, given this, the pineapple was pretty good. I might even go as far as a poster: Mohammed, Jesus, Smith, Hubbard, maybe a few more modern self-styled ‘gurus… Moon probably belongs in there’, tagged with the line: ‘Would you buy a used dogma from any of these charlatans?’

  7. 7
    Minnow

    “And it isn’t right, and it shouldn’t be the rule, of all places, at a university …This is where people go to work things out, shake up the world”

    But not at a Freshers’ Fair, that is for something else altogether. And you can’t ignore the fact that Muslims are a vulnerable minority group and this sort of gesture is excluding and possibly even intimidating.

    Another analogy: wearing a T-Shirt saying ‘I am not a Skepchick’ is well withing anyone’s rights and is non-offensive free speech. But a speaker wearing it at a conference where a small number of people are attending as ‘Skepchicks;’ becomes something else, likely to make those Skepchick women feel vulnerable and even intimidated. Context matters. If you set out to cause upset to a minority group, it shouldn’t surprise you if you pull it off.

  8. 8
    AJ Milne

    Uh uh.

    (That’s a sarcastic uh huh, Minnow… Such are the limitations of the medium, regrettable.)

    Did religious groups have tables at this conference? What did their booths say?

    If you’re prepared to tell them they may put up their posters declaring their creed, the rationalists should be able to say, lovely, thanks, this are ours.

    Oh, and re:

    … you can’t ignore the fact that Muslims are a vulnerable minority group and this sort of gesture is excluding and possibly even intimidating.

    On the contrary: I consider it a lovely way of saying: ‘Welcome to university; prepare to be challenged.’

    And I think your attempts to equate your contexts are very, very broken.

  9. 9
    Minnow

    “On the contrary: I consider it a lovely way of saying: ‘Welcome to university; prepare to be challenged.’”

    yes, but the people it is aimed at don’t consider it that way, and I think we should take their preferences over yours (or mine). Just like with the Skepchick T-shirt.

    “If you’re prepared to tell them they may put up their posters declaring their creed, the rationalists should be able to say, lovely, thanks, this are ours.”

    I am not quite sure what you mean by this, but everyone at a Fresher’s Fair have to obey the same rules. A fundamentalist Christian group displaying a poster saying, for example, ‘If you are gay you are going to Hell’, would be asked to take it down, regardless of the free speech issues that pertain elsewhere.

  10. 10
    AJ Milne

    …the people it is aimed at don’t consider it that way, and I think we should take their preferences over yours (or mine)…

    Very big of you. And what other rights of people not at all yourself will you happily surrender to whichever religion so demands?

    The point of this is–and the part you ever so surprisingly didn’t get–making a religious edict general for all persons–including those not of the religion–flies in the face of secular principles. It is no more valid to say ‘no one may depict Mohamed in any way’ than it is to say ‘no one may drink alcohol’, or ‘no one may speak ill of my belief’. And the rationalist’s society has every right to speak to this creed. Indeed, I’m glad someone is.

    Seriously, you really did go too far with your ‘yes, but’. You would have been fine at ‘yes’.

    And I don’t believe everyone at the fresher’s fair really does obey the same rules. As pointed out, above. What’s happening, here, is the same special rules for those arguing against religion are being imported forcefully into yet another space. Declare you believe in god? Fine. Declare you will not abide by this alleged god’s alleged edicts, however obliquely and humorously? Forget it. Whatever excuse we can find, the godly get to speak, and you get to shut up.

  11. 11
    Omar Puhleez

    AJM: “Whatever excuse we can find, the godly get to speak, and you get to shut up.”

    Very good.

    The problem in this discussion is that it is a race to the bottom. If we concede Minnow’s argument that at a ‘private’ university function (?) the right to free speech one would have in a ‘public’ space has to be shelved, then clearly the only speech which will be allowed is that which offends nodody: present or absent.

    For even if there were no Muslims actually present, a pineapple named Mohammed, Mo or whatever could still be ‘offensive’ – those Muslim students who though absent, subsequently found out about it.

    If we grant a right to be not offended then we gag all speech, and become the equivalent of Trappist monks. There are 7 billion people out there, and no passage of speech: from the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita…. Shakepeare…. Beatrix Potter…. Andy Pandy….. is going to offend absolutely none of them.

  12. 12
    Minnow

    “If you’re prepared to tell them they may put up their posters declaring their creed, the rationalists should be able to say, lovely, thanks, this are ours.”

    But you are not being asked to cede that. You are only being asked, at this particular function, not to make provocative or insulting statements. It really isn’t that unreasonable. When people can’t abide by such simple and reasonable rules in order to attend a freshers’ fair, I suspect that their only motivation is self-publicity. Well, they got it. I just wish they wouldn’t whinge about it now that they have.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh yes, objecting to religious privilege and power to silence is “whingeing.” Spoken like a true reactionary.

  14. 14
    Argle Bargle

    You do not have the right not to feel insulted. If I say “religion is based on superstitious nonsense” then most religious people will feel insulted. But telling me “if you don’t believe in my god you’re going to be punished forever” is insulting to me. So according to Minnow and other anti-free speech people, all we can say is “have a nice day” because anything else would be insulting to someone.

    We see this all the time. When atheists’ signs saying merely “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” are considered insulting to the religious then what can we say? I wait with bated breath for Minnow to explain how atheists saying anything won’t be denounced as insulting by someone.

  15. 15
    AJ Milne

    Argle Bargle/#14, re that last line: quite. Exactly.

    And at greater length, re Minnow:

    …You are only being asked, at this particular function, not to make provocative or insulting statements…

    Bullshit.

    First, asked? Umm, not so much. Apparently. ‘Asking’ implies one actually has a choice. Oh, and about the rest of the hooey in that sentence:

    First, it’s always ‘just in this venue’, ‘oh, just for today’, ‘oh, hey, this is a special event’. That’s the formula for this kind of gaming, always has been. Oh, not here… Not there… Possibly over here, in a ‘free speech zone’, behind a fence or two, where no one can see you. For now, we will permit this, magnanimous us, almost as if weren’t us in the first place effectively demanding your silence, against all justice, against principles our civilization claims to consider central.

    Oh, and tell me, speaking of, Minnow: just where is it okay to depict Mohammed visually? Do, please, give us the approved venue, as you are attempting to take this authority upon yourself…

    Is it, perhaps, in a nation with a Muslim majority?

    I’ll save you the trouble, and answer that: no, odds are that’s dangerous, provocative; people will get hurt. In some places, it may be in very precise terms against the law. In others, issues of ‘public order’ are more likely to be raised.

    So is it elsewhere? Where Muslims are a minority?

    Well, apparently, no again. For there, see, since the Muslims are a minority, their feelings may get hurt, and now this is the priority. And never mind that, more honestly: it’s mostly just a few obnoxious and probably quite definitively Islamist hotheads will. The many, many reasonable members of the larger faith will shrug, say, listen, we don’t do that, we’re perhaps none too pleased, (and, indeed, aniconism is a very nuanced doctrine within the whole of the Muslim practice, with many cultural exceptions, so even this isn’t quite guaranteed), but we get it: you aren’t us… Not that anyone trying to pull this kind of manipulative de facto extra-religious edict ever seems to notice this, or care.

    Regardless, in short, yes, there’s always an excuse.

    And what’s ‘insulting’ is the notion that any religion has the right to do this: restrict how others may depict their prophet. And yes, it is unreasonable, despite your trying to slime your away around this, as the rule, clearly, is: there is no way. And no place. It may not be done. So somehow even a pineapple is ‘insulting’? ‘Provocative’?

    Nuh uh. That bit where anyone presumes to restrict this for the whole world, that’s who stepped over the line, and where.

    And ah yes, the ‘drama queen’ jibe. They wanted ‘controversy’, they got what they clearly wanted (and ah, dear, were they asking for it, too? how very precious of them), so why the ‘whinging’?

    Let me translate this more simply. I read this as: ‘shut it’.

    Which, I really have to tell you, I don’t find especially novel. But I’m sure the members of the RS will be happy to take your request under advisement, being so surprised ever to be asked such a thing, ‘n all.

  16. 16
    rnilsson

    Wait, I think I just cracked the code book. It’s a dictionary*. “Minnow” is “any of various small freshwater bottom-feeding fish” or similar; so, basically simply bait.
    There. I knew it! I KNEW IT!

    * Webster’s New, old edition

  17. 17
    zenlike

    Minnow:

    You are only being asked, at this particular function, not to make provocative or insulting statements.

    Bullshit:

    The union then updated their behavioural policy to forbid societies from causing “offence” to other students or even to members of the wider local community.

    The policy is not only for this particular function, as you try to assert: it’s a general policy, putting a blanket ban on all speech made by a society, whenever and wherever.

    Why must you lie?

  1. 18
    What if you don’t have a pineapple? » Pharyngula

    […] very silly in their defense of religion. The Muslim groups got very very offended when the atheists slapped a label on a pineapple calling it “Mohammed”, and now the LSE has outright banned atheist groups, and is harassing them for wearing Jesus & […]

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