Update and Apology (11/09/2012): In previous versions, I had said a particular individual had lodged a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission. However, this person, who prefers not to be named, contacted me to say this is factually incorrect. I apologise to this individual for making this claim and thank them for correcting me.
The University of Cape Town’s satirical student magazine, Sax Appeal, has been pulled from shelves. Is there mocking of religious beliefs? You bet. Is it tasteful, reasonable or witty? Not in the least.
To quote from the Galilee International Ministiries (SA)‘s blog, the outcry that led to the eventual shelving of the magazine was the following:
There is an article entitled “Top ten atheist retorts to fundamentalist Christians – Richard Sagan puts them in their place with these handy replies“.
: Jesus died to save us from our sins – “I bet he feels like a tool now”
: Praise the Lord, it’s a miracle! – “No you stupid C.*.*.T. (Christian who Understands No Theorems) statistically they happen every 365 days”
In one picture a man with a megaphone shouts to passing people “I love God”. The caption above him reads; “F**k off to heaven and leave the rest of us alone”.
In another, a women is lifting her leg saying; “pervert” with the caption underneath “God sees everything” In a picture of two men lying in bed at opposite ends, “Without God you will never be happy” – “I’m pretty happy when I’m drunk, high on crack and having freakish man sex”
These and many other exclusive attacks on Christianity are spread throughout the magazine. A full page of Zapiro cartoons mock the Levitical injunction against homosexuality.
The pestilential voice of Errol Naidoo, from the Family Policy Institute, found its way into the inboxes of many Christian groups. Naidoo is quoted as saying the actions of Sax Appeal are “wrong and immoral”. Then, of course, the yard-stick of religious response, namely violent Islamic barbarism, is thrown in as an excuse for their Christian placidity. “If this was directed at the Islamic faith,” said Naidoo, “there would be a massive outcry, maybe even with violence. Thankfully we won’t respond that way, but that does not make us whipping boys.”
Crunching knuckles and shifting their heavy-weight shoulders, they none the less have a mean, desperate look in their eye. Sure, the hanging shadow of Islamic idiocy still has bloody knuckles and that twisted gleam in his eye, but hey! These Christians are not crazy Muslims! At least they won’t bomb or hack or murder or mutilate people because someone drew a cartoon mocking their faith.
If that is not bad enough, a Christian group has filed a complaint with … the SA Human Rights Commission! It seems that mocking irrational beliefs is a gross misconduct of human interaction, to be dealt with by the same body that:
[is] established to entrench constitutional democracy through the promotion and protection of human rights by:
· Addressing human rights violations and seeking effective redress for such violations
· Monitoring and assessing the observance of human rights
· Raising awareness of human rights issues
· Educating and training on human rights
The infringement on our secular society by religious groupings is one we constantly have to push back. It is the “rough beast” of WB Yeats, slouching toward our constitution to be born within its pages. Yet religious bodies forget the primary basis is that human rights commissions judge according to human-rights standards, a framework set up within the UDHR. I have my own qualms with this document but it nonetheless gives no privileges or special treatment to people who believe in talking burning bushes, virgin births and the denial of evolution. To make a case at the very centre where religious ideas – not people, ideas! – finds no hold, is about as welcome as dressing in a Boy George outfit at a biker bar.
This is why I am part of the campaign for One Law for All – a simple, easy-to-understand situation which states that everyone, regardless of creed, culture or country must be governed under one law and judged accordingly. This is why when religious leaders take their issues to human rights commissions and call blasphemous acts “immoral” (which is superfluous to the faithful), we must take issue with it.
The right to feel offended and express that offence, to be vocal and opinionated about what one disagrees with, the open facilities capable of disclosing such sentiments within a framework of open ideas, and the realisation that one could be wrong is all inclusive in free-speech. “I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is a quotation (Voltaire or Diderot, I believe) that captures this notion of free-speech. And I will defend Naidoo to be able to say that he thinks it is immoral, I will defend Elistam if he wants to express his view that blasphemy (a victimless crime) is a human rights violation.
It does not mean I agree with them – I do not. But certainly I will defend free-speech and freedom of thought. This means that offence will be rain down like arrows, striking some, missing others but inevitably hurting many people. But these are things we must learn to deal with as adults. There will be things in this world that will offend us all the time (for me, its gender inequality, religious bullying and Sandra Bullock). Calling them immoral, asking for UCT to retract its statements, pulling magazines off the shelves, is simply special treatment for a nasty, bullying and whining child.
Grovelling at the feet of the offended, Cameron Ardense, UCT RAG’s Chairperson said: “UCT Rag unreservedly apologises to everyone who has been offended in this way”. We have become so used to these sorts of statements from those in the media who offend the sensitive, childish Christians that we simply shrug it off. And that is bad. We are dealing with adults here.
If the Christians and other faithful want to be seen as adults, they should act as such. Jane Duncan, from the Freedom of Expression Institute states beautifully:
The statements contained in the publication are silly and childish. Many of us would simply dismiss as student toilet humour and move on to more enlightened literature, which is perhaps how Errol Naidoo and UCT should consider dealing with the matter.
Duncan also points out that blasphemy is no longer a recognised ground for restriction of publications.
[Therefore] arguments to restrict the publication on this basis do not hold water … It is debatable whether the article advocates hatred against the Christian religion. The statements ridicule Christianity, but that does not mean that they encourage people actively to hate the religion.
But what is not debatable is that the statements do not involve incitement to cause harm, as they do not call on people to harm Christians.
Things are getting out of hand however. Christian Democratic Alliance spokesman, Colin Fibiger, said:
We consider the content of the UCT magazine to be a deliberate and planned, discriminatory attack on Christianity and will seek full restitutional measures.
This includes the immediate removal of the Executive Director of Student Affairs, as well as the Project manager and all editorial staff.
The balance does not seem fair or rational. Because a few adults – please note, we are dealing with grown human beings – have their feelings hurt, people must lose their jobs in a dishonourable way? That smells to me of discriminatory, arrogant religious bullying. Throughout the trawls of articles written about this and other beautiful blasphemy, the religious can never explicitly say why we should take such strong measures against those (like me, I suppose) who deliberately attack religious ideas.
Please note again: Firstly, we are dealing with grown human beings who can be offended on all manner of levels, yet demand no constitutional reprieve. Yet when the opportunity to raise a storm over a ripple arises, the leaves are tossed and fire is thrust into rickety houses of their ideas. And, secondly, there has been no incitement against religious people or restrictions to their expression of ideas – it has been a simple dismissal of their irrational beliefs.
If we mocked druids and Wiccans, how many of those flakes would be doing rain-dances and summoning Thor to strike us down with Mjollnir (his hammer)? I do not imagine a lot. Jesus himself is reported to have said that his followers must expect to be mocked. Have they not read their Bible recently? This is part of the “faith” anyway, to be mocked by the addressee in Pascal’s Pensees: “He who is so made that he can not believe”.
Once again, Christians are failing to recognise that an attack on their ideas is NOT an attack on them as autonomous human-beings. We respect and maintain human rights, in which is framed the spectrum of hate-speech (which is something very specific). But we do not have to respect ideas.
I do not think any ideas are beyond criticism, all ideas should be mocked and “blasphemed”. Even those of us who are not religious believe we each have ideas which are good or true: The equality of the genders, the need for compassion and respect, and so on. But that does not mean we view them as sacred.
We do not view the equality of genders as a topic of which no one shall speak. For example, I view the limitations on women in Islam as a gross “offence” to this idea of mine. But I do not for a second consider imposing that view by claiming human rights interventions, restricting the publications of people (men and women) who think it is OK for women to be restricted or below men, and so on. Change will come through a harmony of ideas not through the discord of restriction.
Another aspect that is upsetting is the deliberate namecalling from atheists. I imagine that if Christians wrote and namecalled atheists – which of course never happens – the atheists would also be upset. But when was the last time we witnessed nonbelievers demanding special treatment, human rights interventions, etc.? The deliberate namecalling from nonbelievers is giving those of us who attack religious ideas, from the standpoint of defending reason, a bad name.
The question remains: What should be done? In my opinion, I agree with Duncan. Christians should just button up their adult-jackets, straighten their mature ties, and lick their grown-up hair straight. We are better than this. I do not agree with the magazine’s tasteless namecalling, but, hell, it is another trashy little magazine. There are better things to read and more important things to be doing with our time. In this case, the atheists are not advocating hatred of people who believe in Christianity, they are not asking for them to sit on seperate benches, they are not asking for their jobs to be revoked. The same can not be said for the believers.
We will continue to mock their Bronze-Aged myths and silly deities, yet defend their right to say why it is wrong. As I respect their right to say what they want, they must allow the same for me. By saying only they can have special treatment on what to say, whilst those of us who do not believe must be silent, is to invoke despotism. The Christian Democratic Alliance needs to rethink their totalitarian thinking if they are meant to represent. An open, civil society with free-thought and free-speech will not be restricted, from either side. That to me seems fair: They can say what they want, in an open, reasonable way and the same for us.
Hence when either side begins namecalling and evokes childish arrogance, I think we have lost the mark. Let us all just grow up a bit and realise ideas are not people. As Maryam Namazie says, rights belong to people not ideas. Once we all realise this, we can begin focusing more on making people’s lives better instead of placating overtly-sensitive and arrogant religious leaders.
POSTSCRIPT: I have namecalled within this post. But notice that the difference is that I picked out specific people and groups and showed why I think so. The atheist in the magazine simply generalised for all Christians. This is not the way to mock. Even mockery can come under the dominion of reason.
See also the follow up to this post.
And the latest assessment here.