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December 20, 2004

Freedom to offend!

Sikh protesters storm theatre:

HUNDREDS of Sikh protesters stormed a theatre and clashed with police during the performance of a controversial play depicting rape, corruption and murder in a temple.

India? No, Great Britain!

Offensive to religion? Why yes! I listen to the BBC a lot and they've been running interviews with "Sikh spokesmen." These individuals have been saying things like, "freedom of speech does not mean freedom to offend." Or alternatively, "these people must realize that we live in a multicultural society." Or, "one must take into account sensitivity." One spokesperson asserted that "when you have your toes stepped on you have a right to fight back!"

Here is a quote from the article above:

Sewa Singh Mandha, the chairman of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras, said of the theatre: “They keep saying the playwright has the right to her imagination but these imaginations could harm a community. This play will not help race relations in the city.”

What harm can an imagination inflict!?!? You'd think these people were Post-Modernists who confused text with reality.

I understand that like our northern brethren the Canadians many Europeans "respect" rather than "worship" freedom of speech. Americans are a peculiarly pious folk. So be it. If a woman walks into a drunken fraternity party in a thong bikini, she should not be shocked if she is greeted by obnoxious and possibly threatening behavior, no matter the justice of the matter. But perhaps after any such event the authorities in question should look into dispersing the disruptive and dangerous fraternities and reabsorbing their drunken members into the general student population. Collegial civility might depend upon it (I prefer the retention of attractive women walking around in thongs as the greater benefit in any calculus).

To be less cryptic, if one had to make a Manichean choice between, a) multicultural society, or b) a society that tolerates radical and deviant and offensive visual or verbal dissent from established mores and codes, what would you pick? Yes, many will protest that this is a false choice. Sure, perhaps this is an isolated and abberant event (though Muslims during the Rushdie affair and the recent goings on in the Netherlands are starting to make it a mini-trend), but thousands of pounds of damage and a riot can not simply be dismissed (I'm sure some will disagree with that sentiment too).

Related: Is Christian religious traditionalism going to be the bulwark of the liberties won by the Enlightenment? Don't be so sure:

But the play itself came under fire from Birmingham's Roman Catholic Archbishop, who described it as offensive to all faiths.

In a statement, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols said: "In recent weeks the Sikh community has acted in a reasonable and measured way in representing their deep concerns to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

"I regret that the Repertory Theatre, in the interests of the common good, has not been more responsive. Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion."

I smell a new modus vivendi in the air here. Liberal Democrat MP, Dr. Evan Harris, an honorary associate of the National Secular Society speaks for the Enlightenment Remnant:

"While any offence caused by a play or a novel is regrettable, it is vital for free speech and the future of our creative arts that this production is not closed on the basis of protests or intense lobbying.

"These protests and the calls for the end of the nativity display at Madame Tussauds have been fuelled by the Government's ill-judged proposals to ban the incitement of religious hatred.

"It has created a climate whereby any religion's assertion is that their beliefs, leaders, icons and places of worship are protected from criticism, ridicule or parody."

I disagree with Dr. Harris that it is vital that the play not close because of protests or lobbying, it is the right of those who object to engage in peaceful measures to counter what they see as blasphemy. Where the problem occurs is when people move toward acts of violence.

More related: In Defence of Militant Secularism (via Randy). I'm not sure I would call myself a "militant secularist." I would be lying if I said that I live in fear of an established church if that establishment basically meant a few de jure platitudes and a subsidy here or there. I am not in favor of it, but I have a sense of proportionality. What I oppose though rather stridently, and I see in the guise of religious & racial communalism is the revival of pre-modern corporatism, that is, the injunction that individuals must be part of a group, as only groups are treated as atomic autonomous entities. I reject this conception of rights and duties, which I see being resurrected in the identity politics of the Left and sneaking into the West via the communalism of non-Western immigration. I do not expect other human beings to be unmoored, unhinged, unattached and egoistic in their orientation, but I expect those individuals who are communal in orientation to give space to those of us who live the lives of freelancers, who are defined by an unstable fluidity in our relations to the outside world. We will never be a majority (I suspect that cosmopolitans have lower "fitness" in terms of offspring and might emerge as a byproduct of selection forces which actually favor other personality conformations), not even a large minority, but I believe that the intellectual tumult of the past 200 years, for all its folly and error, was in large part a revolt of cosmopolitans against the strictures of communal order and conformity. We are particularly ferocious in our use of the tools that modern civilization offers. The soulless freedom, the liberty that we have won to be apart from corporate entities, is worth preserving (after all, it is in my personal interest!). I am not a utopian, I don't believe that all the world can be university educated and have a greater love of ideas than of cousin, evolutionary psychology tells me that won't be so. My aim is to make the world safe for my people, who are not defined by blood or belief, but a quirky disposition to dance with ideas and explore the bounds of our brains as if that was the end of life itself. I have suggested that my people should not deceive themselves into thinking that all are as they are, that ancient and deep bonds of belief, family and ethnic blood will be worn away by the application of ideas or the distribution of texts or even the compulsion of the gun. But neither should we accept our fate meekly and be bound again by dogmas, rites and rituals, in the straight-jacket of custom and tradition.

Addendum: I think it should be no great surprise that archbishops, CEOs and "community spokemen" should be eager to usher in the new era of "communal sensitivity" and "multiculturalism" and "ethnic harmony." Groups need leaders just as bodies need heads, and in the age of the cartel and guild there was always a big man at the apex of the chain of command. Surely many of these bureaucratic types would be pleased if the cacophony of discord and individualistic choice was suppressed so a new "order" and "harmony" was to arise in the place of the constant shifting of alliances and relative rank fluidity that characterizes the modern mob. The fact is that the super-elites will always be taken care of, and in a relatively authoritarian society power will accrue to them. A community is not an integrated superorganism, it is a social entity which in its day-to-day activities relies on the "guidance" of its leaders. Such creatures surely exist in the form of political leaders, but they do not have sacral status, but are more like hired hands for the mob. Some in the elite, either consciously or subconsciously wish to return to the pre-modern "harmony" of "order." That is why they use terms like "self-hatred" or "traitor" for individuals who seem to be acting in their own interests, because such individuals are disharmonious singletons, and their existence has no meaning outside their group. Yet I submit for some that the betrayl of the self is the cost of submission to the group.

Did I mention I wasn't a conservative?

Posted by razib at 02:18 AM