Charlie Klendjian of the Lawyers’ Secular Society gave a talk yesterday at UCL ASH. He pointed out that “offence” is, in some contexts, code for blasphemy.
So, somehow we have accepted that we are allowed to cause offence generally, and we’re even allowed to offend virtually all religious sensibilities, for example with films such as the Life of Brian, artwork showing a crucifix in urine, or plays about Mormonism.
So it appears there is one exception to this rule that we’re generally allowed to cause offence. That exception, as we have seen, is Islam. Islam is refusing to play by the rules. We are not allowed to offend Islam.
I think we need a different word to “offence” for the purposes of this discussion. Don’t you? How about, I don’t know, the word “blasphemy”? Shall we just call it what it is? It’s blasphemy.
Because when we use the term “offence” we are really using a code word for blasphemy.
Today, we are living under a blasphemy law. And the saddest thing is, most people can’t even bring themselves to admit this.
I wonder if the not admitting is partly because people think it’s not a blasphemy law when it applies only to someone else’s god – when you obey it to be generous to others, as opposed to when bristling in defense of your own gods. Vicarious blasphemy doesn’t count as blasphemy, perhaps.
Unfortunately I have to report that nothing has really changed since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as far as I can see. Of course everyone found it very easy to condemn murder, as they should, but they didn’t find it quite so easy to unequivocally defend the right to free speech – and in particular the right to depict Mohammed. And they found it harder still to actually physically exercise that right to depict Mohammed.
Charlie Hebdo wasn’t a turning point; it was just the next step in a rapid downward spiral.
If anything was going to be the turning point, it should have been this. If anything was going to create the “I am Spartacus” moment across the media and the press, it should have been this.
Unfortunately it didn’t happen. There were some exceptions, for example theIndependent and even the Guardian of all newspapers printed an image, and the BBC showed an image on the 10 o’clock News, on Newsnight, on Panorama, and on its website.
But the other papers bottled it, the Spectator bottled it, and even Private Eye bottled it.
The New York Times bottled it.
What can we do? Blaspheme more.
But let me end on a positive note by talking about the solution. I know my speech has been downbeat. Forgive me, but as a secularist and an Armenian and a lawyer I occupy a unique position on the Venn diagram of pessimism.
How do you solve the problem of this blasphemy code? It’s so easy, it’s embarrassing. You don’t have to lobby Parliament, you don’t need to start a political party, nothing like that. There’s only one way to repeal this blasphemy code – and that’s by breaching it. Over and over and over again. Do it loudly and do it proudly, and don’t apologise. If someone asks you why you’re depicting Mohammed, say “someone has to”.
Is it scary? Yes of course it is. But the more of us who do it, the less scary it becomes. We have to spread the risk, and we have to use the power of ridicule to isolate the nutcases – and their apologists.
Well, I now have my blasphemous copy of blasphemous Charlie Hebdo.