In yesterday’s Exhibit, I briefly mentioned that Laci Green had been accused of Islamophobia, but didn’t really go into it. There were a couple of reasons for this – the first being that it would’ve made the article another million words long, but also that I felt the only reason it had come up in discussion was that people were looking for reasons to be offended and had again stumbled upon one thing she said a while ago under different circumstances, and got angry.
But that’s yesterday’s news.
I bring it up today as a prelude because I want to talk about religious taboo, and more specifically this guy.
You may well know this guy, but just in case: his name is Tim Minchin. He is a comedian and musician (one of my favourites, in fact), and his varied and unique songs are always entertaining. He is very funny, basically.
He is also a pretty outspoken atheist, and has written a number of songs on the matter. These are the Exhibits we shall be looking at, and we’ll be asking whether it is “right” to offend people based on faith, and whether there are limits as to what he should or should not say.
(Before I begin I guess I should note that I am an atheist, but I’ll try and be as independent as possible in this one.)
I think we should probably begin with the most controversial one, which is The Pope Song. Not quite as topical as it was, its message still has some kind of voice. You can hear it below, but be warned; it contains a fair bit of swearing.
You can imagine why people were pretty annoyed at that, I guess. One quote I found from the web:
The “Pope Song” is a completely unwarranted attack on Pope Benedict XVI filled with one lie after another. Given Tim Minchin declares himself a fan of Richard Dawkins one shouldn’t be surprised at his difficulty with facts.
Now, if you bother clicking on that link, you’ll find yourself with a video of a live performance of The Pope Song, with an annotated commentary from an offended Catholic. However, I shall summarise it for you, because I’m lovely. The main point that they make in these annotations is that there is no proof that Pope Benedict XVI was ever involved in any cover-up of child abuse.
This isn’t a case I know very much about (though I will say there is no smoke without fire), but regardless of that I think the reaction the song provoked is very interesting; they were not offended (or said they were not offended) by the bad language, but by the actual content.
This is an important point I try and impress on people if I show them this song: whilst the f-bomb is dropped no less than 35 times in a short two minutes, there is a real message being sent out there, and the language is not used gratuitously. Well, okay, it is used gratuitously, but it’s supposed to be.
So what right does Minchin have to criticise this ancient institution, this deeply personal belief to millions of people, this literal god? Well, he has the right to free speech. Obviously.
Over the last few years, the right to free speech has been brought out time and time again to defend “edgy” types such as Frankie Boyle and Jeremy Clarkson. They can make fun of disabled people, because there’s no law against it, and anyway it’s all just a joke. The thing is, though, if you do that, you have to recognise that a responsibility comes along with every single one of those rights. For instance, you might know that you (probably) currently have a freedom from arbitrary arrest: this means that the Prime Minister can’t suddenly decide he dislikes you and have you arrested. Hooray! However, with that comes the responsibility to not go around stabbing people in the face. An extreme example, quite possible, but that’s the kind of thing I mean. Every right has a responsibility attached to it, and one that’s just as important.
In the case of the right to free speech, the responsibility that comes along with it is to not use it like an expletive deleted. It should be pretty clear that mocking people because of their disability is not cool, and just because there is no law that specifically prevents it does not make it okay. It’s the same defence people use for Jimmy Carr and Philip Green; whilst their tax avoidance was not illegal, it doesn’t mean they should do it.
So if Minchin has an open right to criticise whomever he likes, just as Frankie Boyle does, just like you and I do…does he uphold his responsibility? The Pope Song does contain a verse that states (in much more explicit terms) “I don’t care if you are religious or not; you are free to hold sacred whatever you want; it’s just that when a guy who has a lot of power over a lot of people starts getting corrupt, things need to be done.”
He’s also stated similar things about religion; it is not his business what you believe in, or where you choose to get your morals from, or what religion you are; it is only when he finds some kind of corruption in the system (which is not too difficult, really) that he will choose to open fire. To me, that shows a kind of mature way of dealing with these things that I quite like.
Minchin has the right to write funny songs abut whoever he likes, because his targets have the right to do the exact same thing back to him.
See you tomorrow for the final Exhibit of this Offensiveness Week, which will almost certainly contain a lot of bad language. That is the point, though, and you’ll see why tomorrow.