To ban or not to ban. That was the question facing the artistic board of Newtownabbey Borough Council regarding the launch of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s three-month UK tour of “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)” at the Theatre at the Mill.
The play – which eventually opened on 29th January – had been cancelled because it was deemed to be blasphemous, an offense to Christians, offensive to God, contrary to morality, and much else besides. Of course, the real irony of the ban was that it provided widespread publicity for the play. In fact, before the ban – and the inevitable publicity it generated – only 150 of the 800 tickets for the show had been sold. When the ban was lifted the show sold out within hours, and due to demand more shows are now being planned for Northern Ireland. Define counter-productive. It reminds me of the old Father Ted episode where a certain risqué film was to be shown at the cinema in Craggy Island and the hapless Father Ted and Father Dougal Maguire are sent by the bishop to protest outside – with banners reading “down with this sort of thing!” and “careful now!” Of course, all they manage to do is publicize the play and guarantee a massive rise in audience numbers. Seemingly real life is as humorous as fiction.
The play’s cancellation caused widespread anger in wider society – particularly the arts community – and attracted international attention. Northern Ireland was, once again, some silly little fundamentalist backwater. Most of the reasoning behind the various arguments in favour of the ban related to its blasphemous nature (despite the fact that those who banned it hadn’t seen it), and the offense it would cause to Christians.
[I want to note in passing that the situation is slightly complicated by the fact that the play – like most arts events in Northern Ireland – was publically funded. However, it seems that for most Christians this didn’t ultimately matter – even if the play was totally private it still, according to them, should have been cancelled.]
The issues of blasphemy and offence are tricky beasts, not least of all because they are incredibly subjective. Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” might be offensive to some Christians, but not to others. It’s often a matter of taste, and, frankly, maturity. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the play is indeed blasphemous and offensive to the majority of Christians. Is this good enough reason to ban it? Surely not.
“I’m offended.” These two words are incredibly irksome, not least of all because they are constantly abused, misused and overused. It’s becoming something of a societal creed that we have some sort of right not to be offended. Of course, the correct response to “I’m offended” is, to put it bluntly, “so what?” You’ll survive. The sun will still rise tomorrow. The rain will still fall. Nothing bad is going to happen to you because you’re offended. It would be obscene if we lived in a society where a small number of people could get anything they like banned on the basis that they find it offensive. Given the subjective nature of offence this would be an incredibly dangerous road to go down. I wonder what kind of world these people wish to live in – a nice little toy world full of cotton wool and cushions where everyone is always safe and protected, regardless of the damage to our freedoms? I find that the level of maturity – intellectual and emotional – displayed by a person is inversely proportional to the ease with which they are offended.
Taking offence, as I said above, is an entirely subjective matter. Everyone and anyone can claim anything is offensive, and subsequently demand the corrective of censorship be applied to ease their pain. Laws and policies are at their most dangerous when they are defined in subjective terms as opposed to objective because no one really knows where they stand, and the only boundaries are the ever changing whims of peoples feelings.
It seems to me, however, that calling for bans in the face of offense is ultimately damaging to those who claim to be offended. Take the case of Christianity. When Christians call for bans on plays or publications which ridicule their beliefs they are asking for the machinations of government to protect their beliefs, and this implies that those beliefs are not robust enough to stand in the arena of ideas on their own two feet. Moreover, it looks as if Christians are incapable of rational discussion and persuasion. I can’t remember a single case of a Christian group seeking a ban on something which was anything other than a public relations disaster for the gospel. It all adds to a generally negative image for Christianity. Why couldn’t Christians have taken a totally different approach in the case of this play? Perhaps they could have bought tickets for their non-Christian friends and gone to watch the play with them. Maybe afterwards they’d have an excellent opportunity to chat to their friends about their faith and issues raised by the play. Wouldn’t that have been far more constructive and much less damaging to the public persona of Christianity?
Most importantly, however, allowing freedom of speech for critics and “blasphemers” is a guarantor of free speech for the Christian. Take one other example: a few years ago a number of homosexual groups produced an advertisement linking homophobic attacks to the Bible; while Christian groups produced advertisements linking homosexuality to the breakdown of family life in Britain. Both sides wanted the adverts of the other lot banned. This tit-for-tat scenario means that by calling for the other side to be silenced you are, in effect, risking being silenced yourself by consenting to the principle that crying “offense!” is a good enough reason for censorship. In the case of the Bible play, if the Christian councillors are supporting the premise that they have a right to ban it because they are currently the majority, then I hope they are prepared to gladly swallow their own medicine if ever the tables are turned. A much better scenario is to allow individuals and groups to argue and market their case and allow people to use their own rational powers to decide whose case they support. In other words the only rational and moral solution is to allow everyone to take their chances in the arena of ideas wherein force becomes persuasion, bans are replaced by arguments, and personal rationality triumphs over moral authoritarianism.
With the free speech that is left to us we must shout, scream, rage against the growing culture of inoffensiveness. We don’t need protecting from “offensive” speech, plays, music, or advertisements. And we should not pander to the subjective feelings of thin-skinned, hyper-sensitive souls.
Freedom of speech means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t include the offensive, the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative. As Gareth Crossman of Liberty says, “In a democracy, criminalizing even the most unpalatable, illiberal and offensive speech should be approached with extreme caution.”
Amen to that.
Stephen J Graham