In an ordinary crime, how does one defend the accused? One calls up witnesses to prove his innocence. But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims – and they do testify, the children certainly do testify.
- Deputy Governor Danforth, The Crucible, act III.
The problem, of course, is that this gives anyone the power to claim victimhood and so to convict the accused by the mere act of accusing. This creates an incentive to make opportunistic accusations.
Just as there is no place for an unfalsifiable hypothesis in empirical science, so is there no place for an indefeasible charge in a system of legal (or moral) judgement.
And so to the issue of religious ‘offence’ and ‘respect’, which has so tediously flared up again following Salman Rushdie’s knighthood. The parallel is clear: there is too much acceptance of the idea that causing ‘offence’ – as defined by the ‘victim’ – is reprehensible.
Giving someone the (unreciprocated) right to determine how you should engage with them licenses an increasingly extremist narcissism. Here is what happens when you try to negotiate or compromise with a person who has such a right:
1. Give them a little of what they demand.
Surely we know by now that appeasing the unreasonable only increases their unreason. For this is just what happens when you start to suggest any sort of ‘balance’ between freedom of expression and a sense of entitlement to have certain sensibilities ‘respected’.
To take a notorious example: those Danish Mohammed cartoons were low-quality and ignorant (a Sikh turban?). The world would have been no worse a place had they never existed, and they – as distinct from the ensuing furore – will have influenced nobody’s opinion of Islam. I personally find such crude attempts to sneer and to provoke anger distasteful and boring.
But ridicule, mockery and insult of ideas and customs, mindless or not, should be protected as much as ‘serious criticism’. As Matthew Parris says:
Many faiths and ideologies achieve and maintain their predominance partly through fear. They, of course, would call it “respect”. But whatever you call it, it intimidates. The reverence, the awe — even the dread — that their gods, their KGB or their priesthoods demand and inspire among the laity are vital to the authority they wield.
Against reverence and awe the best argument is sometimes not logic, but mockery. Structures of oppression that may not be susceptible to rational debate may in the end yield to derision. When people see that a priest, rabbi, imam or uniformed official may be giggled at without lightning striking the impertinent, arguments may be won on a deeper level than logic.
Social progress comes about through criticising received wisdom. Sometimes, as old ideas become besieged, their adherents will be upset – but the alternative is intellectual and cultural stagnation. Sometimes the new ideas will turn out to be no good – but heaven forbid that some official body should adjudicate on which ideas should and shouldn’t be open to debate.
Things like the cartoons may act a little like lightning conductors: while lacking intellectual merit themselves, they attract so much ire that space is created for more measured criticism of certain doctrines and practices. If law or self-censorship meant that the most prominent disparagement of some group or tradition were of the calmer, analytical sort, then the apostles of the lightning gods would start to strike there instead.
Muslims (or rather Muslim groups) are notably ready to take offence. Is there something distinctive about the context in which ridicule of Islam takes place? Perhaps. There are good grounds for saying that Muslims across the world have been subjected to prejudice and discrimination because of their religion (although much mistreatment of Muslims is of course done by other Muslims). Given this, insults that might in themselves be trivial can be greatly magnified by being added to real injuries.
This is a fair point; but its importance is missed if it is taken to justify clamping down on mockery. If an insult becomes painful only in the context of broader discrimination, then why not focus on getting rid of the greater problem?
There’s a very basic question that cuts to the heart of this business: what attitude are we entitled to expect from each other?
‘Respect’ may suggest admiration (which must be earned) or deference (which in a context other than professional expertise is a morally dubious notion). ‘Tolerance’ may be the best bet: we are entitled to have others accept that we may go about our lives without their hindrance, assuming that we in turn do not hinder others. We don’t need to like each other’s lives, nor need we refrain from expressing disapproval.
But this business purporting to worry about ‘offence’ isn’t so straightforward. There are plenty of ways to offend someone: you can unfairly call them a miser, a coward, a hypocrite, a bad parent… People have all sorts of weak spots open to verbal attack. But nobody is calling for such ‘offence’ to be banned (where it falls short of slander).
Put the question differently: have you ever heard of the Generous People Unfairly Called Misers Council of Britain? Or the Consistent People Maligned As Hypocrites Public Affairs Committee? Of course not. ‘Offence’ and ‘respect’ only become a political issue when it’s convenient for religious groups.
This isn’t about people feeling offended and thinking that they deserve not to be; this is about group identity politics, victimhood chic, community leaders and special treatment. Being able to claim ‘offence’ and to demand ‘respect’ is a bid for political status – and the more they get, the more they’ll want.
Unless we hold fast to the liberal principle of tolerance, the holy men will find more and more witches to accuse.
I’d have liked to close with that thought, but I really have to give the last word to Stephen Fry:
So you’re offended. So fucking what?