Wednesday, March 12, 2008
A TV ad for a hair styler has been judged offensive by the Advertising Standards Authority. The ad uses part of the Lord's Prayer - 'Thy will be done' - and the initial 't' is made to resemble the cross. This is combined with erotic images of women. There's a very pale echo here of Theo van Gogh's film Submission in which verses from the Koran were projected on to the naked bodies of women. Van Gogh was killed, the ADA only requires the withdrawal of the ad and I don't think there are many British Christians like Mohammed Bouyeri. Then, of course, there were the Danish cartoons of the Prophet. Here's the question - is blasphemy a category of expression so distinct from any other that it cannot claim the defence of free speech? The strong liberal position is that it cannot, people are free to believe anything they like but must accept that those beliefs are open to criticism and abuse. The strong anti-liberal position is that a religion embodies a final truth, insulting which represents a crime against God. To permit such insults in the name of preserving freedom or social order is to misunderstand human destiny. I incline towards the first position for many reasons, not least because the second position is self-compromising - if a truth is so final, how can a few earthly insults be so important; indeed, how can they happen at all if the truth has been so thoroughly finalised? On the other hand, religious belief is, to a rough approximation, a universal human phenomenon and insults to belief do cause believers real anguish. The more genuine and pragmatic liberal position, therefore, might be an acceptance of this and the proscription of certain levels of blasphemy. We do, after all, proscribe racist 'hate' speech. The problem is that blasphemy is too easily self-defined and, as a result, this latter sort of liberalism is now being abused by Muslim extremists whose agitators are trying to turn almost every non-Muslim reference to Islam into blasphemy. Theo van Gogh's film is the flip side of that - religious extremism produces liberal extremism in response. The ordinary, respectful and very English acceptance of the faith of others that requires recourse to neither law nor murder seems to be a thing of the past. Which is a pity because, on the whole, neither lawyers nor murderers are the best hope for the future of the species.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:08 am