Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Polly Toynbee's columm on Jerry Springer the Opera is right to defend the freedom to insult religion. If you read the column you will find such admirable sentiments as:
Meanwhile, free speech is increasingly squeezed by the demands of Muslims for more religious protection, silencing most of the usual voices who should defend the right to cause offence. The Jerry Springer story is small potatoes in comparison - but it's the harbinger of a cowardly culture shift that lets religious intimidation win.
Of course an elderly couple of evangelicals shouldn't have had the police summoned by the council for expressing homophobic views. Of course Sir Iqbal Sacranie should be allowed to say homosexuality is harmful without getting a call from police under the Public Order Act: thanks to Blunkett, if a public-order breach is "religiously aggravated" it can get a seven-year sentence. Not satisfied with blasphemy laws, the Vatican wants a new offence of Christianophobia. Sikhs want the right to ban the play Behzti, militant Hindus want naked pictures of a goddess banned. At a free-speech rally recently, an Iranian dissident was charged for holding a placard with one of the Danish cartoons.

Unfortunately one does have to duck a barrage of cheap shots to get to the good stuff. The first paragraph says:
It will have made a hefty loss for its producers, who toured it despite knowing that trouble would dog it and that it would lose money. But they were determined not to let the evangelicals win.
There are hundreds of millions of evangelicals in the world. The percentage of them that were not picketing outside British provincial theatres (although that is a legitimate exercise of free speech) is high. The percentage that were not sending death threats or performing other acts of criminal intimidation over the issue is found by typing nine nine dot nine and then having an episode of narcolepsy with your finger still in place. Ms Toynbee goes to some lengths to say that the show is not mere "schlock and shock", citing good reviews in the Church Times and the Catholic Herald. I myself don't know and don't much care whether the show is good or bad, but it clearly has convinced many that it has merit in itself. So why describe performing the show in such a limited, carping way as "not letting the evangelicals win"?

This will be the last chance to see it, as its co-author Stewart Lee says glumly that he doubts it will ever be performed again. It shows how insidiously the tentacles of religious zeal invade every sphere of national life, despite the very small number of religious practitioners in this most secular of nations.
I started to quibble about this "very small number", then had a biscuit. It's irrelevant. Unless Ms Toynbee wishes to argue that "religious practitioners" will gain the right to tentacular invasion should they ever again become a majority, she should not have brought their numbers, or their tentacles, into the discussion.

There were other bits best ignored, such as the silly boasting about how "only the National Secular Society doesn't blench". But if you value your liberties, believer or atheist, don't ignore this:

The tour was planned for 39 cities, but the furore panicked many venues, especially those run by local councils. Christian Voice wrote to every theatre, warning of prosecution if they put the show on. If it wasn't the blasphemy law then it would be the new, untried "incitement to religious hatred" bill then progressing through parliament.
Note that the Christian Voice organisation didn't have to win any prosecutions in order to get its way. It didn't even have to launch them. In the case of the incitement to religious hatred bill it didn't even need to have the law actually pass Parliament. The mere existence of a hazily defined legal apparatus to suppress free speech that someone might use was intimidating enough.

ADDED LATER: Sometimes I like to come back to my own stuff and argue with it. I imagined myself up a reader who said, "What right have you to say that numbers are irrelevant? You yourself went on about the large number of evangelicals and the small number of protestors and even smaller number using intimidation. That's numbers, isn't it?" "Aha," I answered the upstart, "but the cases are different." When Toynbee spoke of keeping Jerry Springer the Opera going in order not to let "the evangelicals" win, it was disproportionate and petty. Disproportionate because the vast majority of "the evangelicals" were unaware of or indifferent to their alleged participation in any contest, and petty for the same reasons that it is petty to support the right to publish the Danish cartoons merely or mainly to stop "the Muslims" winning. Incidentally, here in Britain "evangelical" has usually just meant the Low Church party of the Church of England. I gather that Evangelicals in the US lay more stress on the inerrancy of the Bible. Polly Toynbee seems to use it in the US sense.

Numbers really are irrelevant, I maintained to my imaginary self, when defending concepts like state secularism (which Britain has, a few relics notwithstanding) or freedom of speech. These concepts attempt to provide a neutral framework in which incompatible views can coexist, so you sell the pass if you concede that numbers of adherents are what count. The whole idea is that you should refrain from imposing the will of the majority.