Respecting Authority, Taking Offence (2005)

Remember the Death of God? A twentieth-century idea which now seems rather parochial, a topic for old-fashioned European Kaffeehausliteraten to debate over espresso and cigarettes. These days in smoke-free Starbucks across the planet, customers scanning the news on their laptops are faced with jpegs of a resurrection. It’s bad B-movie stuff, crass and gory, God the undead stumbling across the social terrain flattening everything in His path.

Globalisation has forced secular Western liberals to open their study doors and confront the fact that for most people God never died in the first place. The intellectual response to this information has, by and large, been supine. Various cultural concepts which had acquired inverted commas are hurriedly shrugging them off again. Irony, once the hippest trope in the seminar room, is treated like an embarrassing aunt. Much of this was probably inevitable. The world of contemporary belief is certainly not a playful place, nor one which has much time for nuances of meaning. Whatever dregs of postmodern amusement can be derived, say, from the spectacle of tea-and-biscuits Anglicanism being bitten on the arse by the fruits of its colonial missionary work in Africa (“yes we know we told you it was literally true, but we’ve been reading some phenomenology …”)are woefully outweighed by the horrors which fringe religious organisations like Al-Qaeda and the US Defense Department are offering up on a weekly basis. But even if all that bracketing, all those erasures and floatings-free currently appear self-indulgent or myopically scholastic, the politics, and (whisper it!) the ethics which informed the project of chipping away at the grand monoliths of religion, race, science and the rest, are sorely missed in public debate.

In Britain, the government is shoving its secular clothes to the back of the wardrobe and trying on something more appropriate for the New Age of Faith. The proposal to grant religious belief a similar legal status to race, gender and sexual orientation is presented as a pragmatic move, a way to deal with loopholes and inconsistencies in current legislation. The small print identifies it as an election year sop to alienated British Muslims, a sign that their faith is recognised, albeit not actively liked at number ten, and if only they could find a way to ignore Iraq, Afghanistan, Belmarsh and Guantanamo, they’d realise they were better off under Labour. The calculation is a fine one - you get the impression that even if the Home Secretary is unwilling to throw Salman Rushdie to the Bradford Council of Mosques, he’d quite like to give them Bernard Manning, which would have the added bonus of playing well in Islington.

We’re assured that freedom of expression is under no threat, though the soothing tone will grate with anyone who has spotted how discomforted this government is by over-use of the word ‘freedom’, or indeed any reminder at all of our inconvenient tradition of civil liberties. The implication is that the new law wouldn’t get used much, and then only against people who deserve it, shaven headed racists in smoky rooms who employ ‘muslim’ as a sneaky substitute for ‘paki’ in their rabble-rousing. We’re directed to the inert blasphemy laws, last successfully invoked in 1922 to dish out nine months hard labour to a man who compared Jesus to a circus clown. No one seriously expects Stewart “a bit gay” Lee to be breaking rocks, or even picking up litter to atone for Jerry Springer the Opera. At least not until there are more votes in it.

Leaving aside the folly of passing a law apparently not intended to be used to its full extent, the most insidious aspect of the move to protect religion is the invocation of human rights and multiculturalism to do it. In Britain it sometimes feels as if this language, which seemed so vital and necessary as it emerged from the ashes of the second world war, has become a kind of Newspeak, used to justify violence abroad and authoritarianism at home. An “ethical foreign policy” turns out to mean humanitarian invasion. “Community” usually book-ends compound phrases ending in “Order”, while “Diversity” boils down to a kind of Mexican stand-off in which social conservatives of various ethnicities get to point six-guns at each other while snarling about respect.

American university speech codes provide a salutary study of the way once-empancipatory anti-sexist and anti-racist impulses can be harnessed to enforce norms of behaviour and stifle dissent. After the protests of the 1960’s, when institutions appeared to have thrown off the old ‘in loco parentis’ model of governance, top-down control of students and faculty was wrested back through a variety of means, including strict enforcement of charters such as the one passed by the University of Michigan in 1987 prohibiting “any behaviour, verbal or physical, that stigmatises or victimises an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap or Vietnam-era veteran status.” By the early nineties, similarly wide-ranging codes were in force everywhere, and an atmosphere prevailed in which the possibility of offence was justification enough to censor speech and writing, marginalise those whose views did not accord with the prevailing consensus and, ironically (given that many of the enforcers were veterans of the sixties student revolt), prevent many kinds of campus protest.

Several speech codes fell foul of constitutional challenges, but these university experiments paved the way for the general culture of offence which now dominates America. Tight behavioural regulation is ensured by the need to pre-empt expensive litigation. Precedent has established that in politically sensitive contexts, the right to free speech can sometimes be restricted to corralled ‘first amendment areas’, designated protest zones which effectively marginalise dissent, a property which makes them a popular feature at national political conventions. As Christian fundamentalism has gained strength in American life, so ‘political correctness’ has merged seamlessly with the religious instinct to police reproduction and sexuality, culminating in the degraded spectacle of war-time America howling in protest at the two-second televisation of a female nipple, while behind the scenes its interrogators were sexually abusing detainees in offshore prisons.

British social democracy has its own locally-produced obscenities, and here too the joke seems to be on the cultural-studies brigade. The migration of progressive politics into issues of language and vision, of ‘hate-speech’, ‘presence’ and ‘visibility’, was initially welcome in a country which looked to multiculturalism to provide a ray of hope in the post-imperial twilight. As policy it has had its successes, not least in providing a lever to open up public institutions like the police and social services. However the dominance of identity politics comes at the expense of other kinds of struggle, and has bequeathed us a peculiarly double-sided nation. In one Britain, ministers wibble on about chicken tikka masala and prison officers attend racial awareness seminars, scrupulously discussing who exactly is allowed to use the phrase “my nigga”. In the second, everyone in public life competes to deport as many immigrants as possible in the time permitted, the one with the highest score earning the fleeting approval of Worcester Woman or Norwich Boy and the chance to play professionally in Europe. The failure to acknowledge the coexistence of these two Britains – the one which talks of inclusiveness and the other which operates a ruthless (and popular) policy of exclusion, risks evacuating all meaning from multiculturalism, which is already rapidly retreating from any coherent commitment to hybridity or the formation of new identities and becoming a system which puts power into the hands of cultural conservatives. Preservation, rather than growth. Respect rather than engagement. Everyone stands in their corner with their own little pile of books (scripture, language, recipes) and growls.

Against this backdrop we find the hapless management of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre contacting Sikh religious leaders about a potentially-controversial play and getting burned when the Sikhs mistake a bit of arts council diversity-policy box-ticking for an invitation to enter into dialogue about the play’s content. In India, taking offense on behalf of God comes second only to the cinema as a national pastime, so when the Sikhs work out that the theatre people would prefer some word-of-mouth marketing to a script conference, it doesn’t take long for the Khalsa to swing into action. The protests turn violent. The play is shut down. In response, ministers are shockingly equivocal, one coming close to saying that the Birmingham Rep should be grateful to the Sikh community for taking their art so seriously. A parable for twenty-first century Britain, which pits two liberal impulses against one another – the assertion of freedom versus the wish for inclusiveness. It’s also the point (reached, and never satisfactorily resolved during the Satanic Verses furore) where in order to proceed, liberals have to identify the limits of their tolerance. Socially-conservative multiculturalism, with its woolly rhetoric of ‘respect’, is designed to fudge precisely this issue. Sooner or later, you have to risk pissing people off.

Anyone asserting freedom of speech in multicultural Britain has to contend with the existence of communities in which shame and honour govern social life, and in which plurality of belief, let alone the right to mock religious dogma, is far from universally tolerated. In this cultural context, offending against religion is viewed as a kind of public violence against the believer. The possibility of legal recourse, offered as a cheap bit of toadying by an election-year government, will be eagerly taken up as a legitimate and non-violent way of saving face. If attempts to prosecute popular targets like Rushdie fail, as they surely will if the law is applied as we are told it will be, further disaffection will result and pressure will grow for more substantial powers. The principle that offense against religious belief is actionable will already have been conceded. The proverbial slippery slope will present itself.

While beating ourselves up, it’s worth remembering that elsewhere in Europe the heirs of the Enlightenment are making their own hash of things. The French government’s aggressive promotion of secularism is predicated on a refusal to make a distinction between religious symbol and cultural practice. Its major targets are, of course, North African muslims, who find themselves in an impossible position, the price of access to public institutional spaces becoming the erasure of their identity, all this in a country where they are already at the bottom of the social and economic heap. It doesn’t look much like pluralism, more like revenge for Algeria. If the secular state is indeed the best guarantee of religious freedom, this is only true if secularism doesn’t itself take on the self-righteous tone of religious absolutism. The absurdity of a law which requires the definition of a ‘religious beard’ should require no further comment.

Back in the happy nineties, when all we had to worry about were the dates of our IPO’s, great play was made of the role of the internet in promoting freedom of speech. The net is like, a distributed system, right? Built to withstand a nuclear attack? So when it encounters censorship IT ROUTES ROUND IT! As we grappled with the new possibilities of the network form, this was an intriguing thought. What if cyberspace (remember that?) was some kind of autonomous trans-national territory, a testing ground for libertarian notions of self-regulation and bottom up control? In the decade since those romantic arguments first gained currency, we have been brought up sharply against their limits. For although the internet has proved to be a highly robust and reliable way for people to share information other people don’t want them to share, and peer to peer software has made top-down control, if anything, even more difficult to exert, the internet is nevertheless still a physical thing, a bunch of computers and other hardware located in particular countries with particular police forces who can break down your particular door and take your server if they feel that is the right and proper thing to do.

In Britain, using the twin issues of terrorism and paedophilia to win popular support, the government has asserted considerable control over the internet. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, internet service providers are required to track all data traffic passing through their computers and route it to the National Technical Assistance Centre at Thames House, Millbank. It was announced that 'Black Box' devices were to be placed in every ISP and telecoms company for the purpose, but there are reportedly disputes with the industry over who pays, and how to handle the immense amounts of data all that snooping will generate. One of the most blatant violations of British freedom of speech in recent years was the October 2004 seizure of servers in London belonging to the UK Independent Media Centre. The FBI later confirmed they had ordered the seizure “at the request of Italian and Swiss authorities.”

The British government has refused to respond to questions tabled by MP’s on the grounds that “no UK law enforcement agencies were involved” in the raid. The Home Office’s apparent lack of interest in court orders from non-UK jurisdictions being enforced on UK soil without their involvement is either highly disingenuous or breathtakingly complacent.

The trans-national internet seems to have spawned friction-free trans-national systems of control. However pressing the security needs which brought about the Indymedia seizure (and with no information in the public domain, that is impossible to judge), the effect was to close down an important international news organisation. That this could happen in London without the British government feeling the need to comment, let alone justify the raid, is at the very least an indication of a terrible casualness about freedom of expression, the blasé attitude of an instinctively authoritarian administration operating in a political climate in which any appeal to national security, however flimsy, trumps civil liberty concerns every time. This is the climate in which (and the government by whom) we are being asked to contemplate further ‘pragmatic’ limitations to freedom of expression in order to buff up the tarnished bodywork of British multiculturalism in time for the election. Who would we be doing it for? British muslims? The International Olympic Committee? Personally, I’m not feeling particularly pragmatic about freedom just now.

- Hari Kunzru 22/2/05

[This essay appears in Free Expression is No Offence, edited by Lisa Appignanesi]