9 Jan 2015 - Charlie Hebdo attacks: On freedom of expression and being offended

I've been pretty disappointed in the reaction of progressives to the aftermath of the Paris massacre, in particular the debate over satirical imagery of Mohammed. A fair few progressives are saying that it's wrong to publish such satire, because it's known that it will offend people, and deliberately offending people is wrong. This initially sounds like a reasonable position, but as a progressive it disappoints me for two reasons.

The first reason is that just a few weeks ago, many of these same people were arguing in exactly the opposite direction:

a) a mother was breastfeeding in public and was given a towel to cover her breast. This towel had absolutely no impact on her ability to breast-feed, or the on baby, but there was nevertheless outrage from progressives. Let's be clear: many people are offended by exposed breasts in public. The reaction of progressives was to organise a mass public breast-feed - a deliberate attempt to offend those who are offended by that.

b) a gay couple kissed in a supermarket and were warned not to by security. Not kissing had no impact on their ability to buy milk, and no one has such an urgent need to kiss that it can't wait 3 minutes till they leave a shop, but there was nevertheless outrage from progressives. Let's be clear: many people are offended by homosexual displays of affection in public. The reaction of progressives was to organise a mass public gay-kiss - a deliberate attempt to offend those who are offended by that.

Numerically, many more people in the UK (and probably most countries) are offended by homosexual displays of affection, or exposed breasts in public, than are offended by images of Mohammed. Progressives are displaying a good deal of prejudice here on who it's OK to offend, and that's a shame.

The second reason this disappoints me is the inability to grasp why satirical imagery of Mohammed might be necessary:

a) an image is worth a thousand words. Satirical imagery is far older than written language, and far more effective. Religion needs to be satirised. To disallow satirical imagery of a religion is to throw away the sharpest tool in the box of satire - and it would have consequences.

b) when someone who has no right to tell you not to do a thing tells you not to do a thing, the simplest, most direct, and most effective response is to deliberately and publicly do that thing, repeatedly. This is how people defend their freedoms, and it always has been. Public defiance and civil disobedience is the cornerstone of peaceful protest - and long may it continue. Keep doing that thing, until the person telling you not to do that thing gets it into their head that they have no right to tell you that, and won't succeed in that.

Finally, Islam is a religion much like any other. Having read the Koran I can say with certainty that the Koran is much like the Bible and other religious texts. To argue that Muslims are uniquely unable to come to terms with that fact that non-Muslims do not share or obey their taboos is actually a deeply racist viewpoint, and I expect better of progressives. To quote Maajid Nawaz, founder of the Quilliam Foundation (an anti-extremist think-tank), on an image of Mohammed that he tweeted, "as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that".

This article by Mark Wright was first published on the website Lib Dem Voice.


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