27th September 2012

The importance of allowing idiots to have their say

Emma Bean discusses the importance of free speech in light of calls for Blasphemy laws to be re-introduced in the UK

In the wake of the offensive amateur film Innocence of Muslims there have been calls from some quarters for new blasphemy laws in the UK.

Whilst there can be no doubt as to quite how offensive this film is, to Muslims, or anyone who has ever seen a half way decent film before, the re-introduction of blasphemy laws could surely only have negative consequences for us all.

The crime of blasphemy was formally abolished in the UK in 2008, under the Criminal Justice and Immigration act, a relic of the old dark days of British history, where Quaker’s could be branded and flogged (poor James Naylor in 1656), Protestants burned at the stake (see Mary Tudor’s rule) and Jews flung down wells (as punishment for their perceived causing of the Black Death).

The last person to be sent to prison for blasphemy was John William Gott, in 1921, he was sentenced to nine months’ hard labour, despite suffering from an incurable illness, and died shortly thereafter. The case became subject to widespread public outrage, and since then there has been only a few other cases of blasphemy and the courts.

In 1976 the newspaper Gay News published the poem, ‘the love that dares speak its name’, a poem written from the perspective of a Roman Centurion that describes him having sex with Jesus after his crucifixion alongside a verse mentioning Jesus having sex with his disciples, Pontius Pilate and Herod’s guards.  Mary Whitehouse, a socially conservative social activist of the time, took objection to it and launched legal proceedings against the editor and the paper.

To give a little context about Ms. Whitehouse, she also despised Doctor Who and campaigned against it, describing it as “teatime brutality for tots” and the coverage of the terrors of the Vietnam War, fearing it could encourage pacifism and “sap the will of the nation to safeguard its own freedom, let alone resist the forces of evil abroad”.

Salman Rushdie’s infamous novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ sparked anger and protests in Muslim communities across the globe in the late 1980s, for the feeling that the book insulted the prophet and their holy text the Qur’an.  When a prosecution was attempted to be brought against the novel for blasphemy it was clear that it was no possible, as the blasphemy laws covered only Christianity.

Whilst it might been seen by some as a conflation of ideas when people describe insults towards religion as merely ‘freedom of speech’, as it would seem to serve no positive purpose for the public discourse to have cartoons of the prophet Mohammed published, for instance, it is a necessary, though perhaps uncomfortable, part of free speech.

Some might regard such a measure as merely a pragmatic attempt to limit public unrest, but a logical and sensible attempt to minimise distress and upset and maximise a situation of happiness where there aren’t mass protests against the West flaring up across the globe whenever a slight of Islam is published it is also quite wrong to think that that is the problem that we have to deal with.

If we were to have some form of curtail on freedom of speech based on when people are insulted, it would be fairly impossible to find any metric by which this could be done. When would the required level of anger and distress need to be hit? And what would it be? Presumably, it would have to protect non-religious interest groups also, such as the LGBTQ community in which case there seems to be a fairly large clash of what people would then want to protect and prevent.

There is a reason why people hold the value of free speech so highly. Whenever you have a situation where one person, or one group indeed, decide what is or is not permissible for publication you run into an awful lot of trouble. How could some sort of consensus be reached on what is or is not permissible?

For one thing, the various interest groups involved. Whilst with blasphemy laws you would say that this is only concerns religion, so you would legislate to protect the major religions in a country. In the UK, we have many religions (including Jedi Knights, which became an officially recognised religion in the UK in 2001) many of whom would have fairly conflicting ideas on various topics that would involve making logically consistent blasphemy laws that protect all religions fairly equally surely impossible. Then there are also other groups, such as the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) community. To try and reconcile protecting certain religion’s rights to criticise certain ‘lifestyle choices’ as they might refer to them in a fire and brimstone manner with the LGBTQ community’s right to exist without constant attacks from hate speakers is one that could not be done easily.

Of course, we should protect religious communities’ right to exist without fear of hate based attacks, which is why in 2006 the Racial and Religious hatred act was passed. It made it a crime to incite hatred of a certain group or individual on the grounds of their religion, thus protecting against an awful lot of the problems that we would not want to see.

There is a difference between insulting a religion, even insulting believers, and inciting hatred against a religious group.

There are certain minority groups such as the Muslim community who are treated poorly within our society, but it does not seem sensible to pursue such a regressive policy as an attempt to tackle this.

There does need to be tolerance even of absolute idiots saying absolutely idiotic things if we are to have a situation where the state does not interfere with what its citizens say.

Emma Bean

Emma Bean

Middle Eastern studies at the University, originally from North Yorkshire

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