As a writer, I am committed to free expression. I don’t find it easy. I worry about being ignorant and rude. I do not believe anything goes – as far as I am concerned.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
However, I admire robust satire. I rejoice that we have The News Quiz and Ian Hislop. I want comedians to take a swipe at those who ought to serve us. It’s an effective way of speaking truth to power. See how many dictators have tried to suppress any form of ridicule.
Matters change when the balance is different. Abuse of those with less status than the majority is wrong. For example, promoting racist, homophobic, or gender hatred is unacceptable. Any incitement to violence against people regarded as ‘other’ is not a matter of free speech. It is evil.
Freedom of expression means we can take these vile opinions to task. We can call out the prejudices of UKIP, Britain First and The National Front.
I have not read any Charlie Hebdo articles – but two cartoons stand out.
Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists: “It’s hard being loved by idiots”
I find it hard to argue with that point of view.
I could do without the dribble – but Love is Stronger than Hate is a message of hope.
So now comes the tricky bit. I am conscious I may seem to be hijacking the appalling news from France. I do not wish to be in the same Venn diagram as Nigel Farage or Donald Trump. But I have to say something about this from Salman Rushdie on the PEN website:
“Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.” my emphasis
That little phrase, hidden in a dependent clause, is poisonous. Not because I am a person of faith, and I feel offended. No. I agree with him here:
“Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
But that jibe is the same as using expressions like ‘sky-fairies’ . These are nothing to do with honest debate about ideas but act as signifiers. It tells the like-minded ‘I am enlightened and any other view but ours is ridiculous.’ It excludes, makes religious people ‘others’, untermensch.
I hope that was not his intent. I am a person of faith – a ragbag of concepts and beliefs and errors like many others. Debates with open-hearted atheists, agnostics and anyone else can be deeply worthwhile. I know absolute fundamentalists – of any belief system – cannot be reasoned with. Nonetheless I maintain this :
freedom of expression should not promote disdain – but discussion.
Thanks, Philippa What an interesting post. Made me think – is all religion a medieval form of unreason? By its nature faith must be unreason to some extent – otherwise it would be reason and not require faith. So is it the word Medieval that is disrespectful and I agree with you that Salmon Rushdie sounds disrespectful. It seems to me that much religion stopped developing ages ago which is a tragedy.
Deb – thank you very much for commenting. Always good to hear from a writing friend. You have a point about the unreason bit. I also feel the binary nature of the word he chose is pejorative – rationalistic and demeaning as though only that which can be measured exists or matters. As we know, using medieaval as an insult is trite. I am very interested in how religions evolve – it seems to me any one worth its salt grows along with its adherents.
Excellent piece. I tried to articulate in my own blog how this segregation (or ‘apartheid’) between secular and non-secular causes enormous dangers for all of us who live in democratically based countries. I think that you have done this much better than I!
I’m also concerned that we don’t have the spaces or chances to debate and discuss these issues – especially amongst young people who need to learn that in a world of social media ‘just coz i fink it don’t make me have to ink it’.
I’m also of the opinion that when we refer to certain religions as being ‘medieval’ – this gets my back up (as a historian, I guess) .Most of us (who don’t study history) don’t get to hear about the mystics and progressive Islam and Christianity in previous centuries…
Same as now really… there are so many moderate and progressives out there who follow a faith… but their stories and words don’t sell the newspapers.
I too call for more respect and discernment. I find the whole ‘I am superior to anyone who has a faith in something beyond human matter’ to be very disturbing. And these sentiments DO add fuel the fire and stifle debate.
Thank you so much for commenting Chris. Much appreciated -makes being a bit brave and writing what I really feel & think worthwhile.
I find dogma limiting – but spirituality of all kinds fascinating in a profound way. “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life”
I need to learn more myself!
Philippa – thank you so much for this post. The awful events in Paris have provoked lots of discussion – and like you, I have felt v disturbed by the way that this seems to have unleashed a sense that it is OK to talk about people with disdain just for having a religious belief. This will include people who are not powerful, who are suffering, who deserve respect, who are not extremists or full of hate, and have done nothing to deserve being sneered at or looked down on. This will not help develop culture of Peace and mutual respect.
My pleasure Anne – in a rather sombre way. I am saddened by any notion that tries to split people into us and them.
peace to you – and thank you for taking the time to comment.
I think the key word on every debate to do with religion has to be mutual tolerance. No one knows if there is really a benign God, no one knows what happens when we die and anyone who claims to, with absolute certainty, is arrogant and stupid. When they try to impose that certainty on others using oppression and weaponry, it becomes evil. Every major religion has been guilty of this, however, including Christianity. Freedom of speech and expression is a vital part of an enlightened, civilised society but if it is used hatefully, intolerantly or even tastelessly, the user risks forfeiting that freedom.
Thanks for responding Peter – and so thoughtfully.
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