Posted by: Calum Miller | January 26, 2012

Can the UCL atheists and free speech heroes defend themselves?

I’d like to think they could, but I have a feeling they have done an extraordinary job in misrepresenting the situation.

You may be aware of recent events at University College, London, where the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society were asked to take down pictures of the “Jesus and Mo” pictures they put up. “Jesus and Mo” is a comic which, though relatively harmless to most people and barely offensive to Christians, is very offensive to Muslims because it contains, for example, depictions of Muhammad drinking beer. The comics are hardly the epitome of intellectual rigour which ostensibly characterises atheism, and perhaps reflect a wider, mocking attitude towards religion more than an approach which favours rationalism and substantive dialogue or argumentation. That said, most people would agree that they are not terribly offensive.

So let’s be clear: I don’t think people have a right not to be offended. Nor do I think there should be much censorship of, or attacks on, free speech. Similarly, I would never encourage an enforcement of this kind of censorship. Obvious exceptions are patient-doctor confidentiality, but I think even most Muslims in the UK would agree that Jesus and Mo is not the same kind of appropriately regulated situation as that.

But it is precisely because we have this mutual understanding of and commitment to free speech that I think the atheists have got it all wrong, in this case. I cannot find anything to suggest that any groups waere trying to enforce a Jesus and Mo ban on UCL ASH. Having looked at some of the exchanges between Muslim groups and UCL ASH, it very much looks to me as if UCL ASH have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose and behaviour of these groups. It very much seems as if they asked UCL ASH to take down the pictures, not out of threatened enforcement, but simply because it is an immature and needless offence to Muslims. And it looks like their appeal to the Student Union was not an appeal for enforcement, but for an official recognition that the things posted were insensitive.

The appropriateness of the civil liberty of free speech does not seem to me to constitute justification for being needlessly offensive. Nor does the fact that we cannot see why something would be offensive make it morally acceptable for us to be offensive. I cannot personally fathom why Hindus have so much respect for cows. I do not have a post-modern, anti-disagreement approach towards religion, and I am very happy with people saying that they disagree with religion. I am fine with them disagreeing with my own religion, and I would never seek to censor them or wish them to keep their opinions to themselves. There is no relativist, anti-liberty agenda on my part. But yet I would not openly and superfluously disrespect cows around Hindus. Why? Because I am anti-liberty? No. Because I think people have a right to not have things which are offensive to them put in their environment? No. Because I am an Orwellian fascist who seeks to censor the views of anyone who disagrees with me? Again, no. Primarily, the reason I do not disrespect Hindus this way is because I am not an ass. There is not much more to it than that.

This not fundamentally a legal issue, nor one of civil liberties. It is a moral one. The disagreement, so far as I can see, has always been moral. I have not seen any attempt at legal enforcement; all I have seen is requests for the picture to be taken down. If someone were criticising my mother, my asking them to stop would not constitute reasonable grounds for a campaign about civil liberties. Nor would it be grounds for them to caricature my position as fascist censorship. Might it just be possible that, rather than Muslim groups trying to enforce a ban on atheist activities and speech, all they wanted was for people not to be needlessly disrespectful to them? I don’t agree with Islam, and I’m happy to say things which are perhaps offensive to them – for example, that Jesus was God, and that Muhammad probably wasn’t a prophet. Indeed, I support my liberty to voice these opinions. But the difference here is that I say these things because I think they are genuinely important, and constitute responsible uses of free speech which are usually backed by intellectual rigour and politeness. In other words, not the superfluous offence caused by putative ‘Brights’, who apparently have nothing better to do than mock other people’s beliefs with no obvious substance behind it, and who then are happy in caricaturing them as opponents of free speech.

Of course, I am happy to be proved wrong. And I do not doubt that there are probably some individual Muslims who would like an enforced ban on Jesus and Mo. But evidence for Muslim groups seeking to censor in this way has not been forthcoming, and until we are presented with it I think we can reasonably be sceptical of the secularists’ attempt to portray them this way. If I am presented with strong evidence that Muslim groups attempted censorship, I will recant this post.

P.S. One does wonder why this libertarianism and civil liberties stuff comes out at conspicuously tactical times. I do not see quite the same demographic campaigning for free speech when it comes to Christians being fired or cautioned for their views, whether expressed or not. Swings and roundabouts, eh? One example might be this recent motion, also passed at the UCL Student Union: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/01/25/student-union-attempts-to-restrict-pro-life-talks/

P.P.S. I have received this confirmation from UCL’s AMSA group:

“Dear Calum,

Firstly, my sincere apologies for not getting back to you sooner. For some odd reason, new received messages have not been showing up as notifications on the facebook profile, which is odd, which is why I’ve only just come across your message.

My name is Tahir Nasser-the treasurer of the AMSA and the letter writer. Thank you for your kind message. You are absolutely right-we have never made any request to the Union to force the cartoons to be removed-our request was always directed at the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and we requested them to remove the cartoon themselves, on the basis of mutual goodwill and consideration for the sensibilities of others.

I have received a deluge of messages from others attacking my letter, so thank you for being able to read our intentions clearly and having the good sense to see the wood from the trees. This cartoon-nonsense was never a question of free-speech from our point of view. It’s always been a question of behaving like grown-ups and not wielding one’s freedoms in an obnoxious manner.

Best
Tahir Nasser
UCLU AMSA Treasurer”

Tahir also confirmed: “Moreover, no Muslim group requested the removal of the cartoons”, even though “Individual Muslims complained to the Union”.

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Responses

  1. Not sure I understand the general point of the post, summarized below:
    “So let’s be clear: I don’t think people have a right not to be offended. Nor do I think there should be much censorship of, or attacks on, free speech. Similarly, I would never encourage an enforcement of this kind of censorship. […]
    But it is precisely because we have this mutual understanding of and commitment to free speech that [people really shouldn’t post Jesus and Mo cartoons]”
    Huh?

  2. Sorry, Rob, that should have been clearer. It is not that I think this understanding of and commitment to free speech implies that people oughtn’t do that – it is, rather, that a proper understanding of free speech and what it involves (and how it is subverted) shows that what the Muslim groups were not trying to undermine the civil liberty of free speech at all. Hope that clarifies.


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