Whose Community?

Index on Censorship is a strange outfit. We’ve had occasion to notice that before, last month after the murder of Theo van Gogh, when Rohan Jayasekera was more critical of van Gogh than of his murderer. And now there’s a comment on the censorship of Behzti that also says some peculiar things – peculiar at least for an organization called Index on Censorship.

This in the subhead, for instance:

The decision of one group of Sikhs to lobby for changes to a play written and performed by members of their own community in their town is one thing. Their refusal to rule out violence and consequently force its closure is quite another.

They go on to condemn the censorship, which is good, but that beginning seems to me to have a highly dubious idea or two behind it. What does Index mean, ‘their own community’? And ‘members of their own community’? There seems to be an implication there that putative members of a putative community (and communities always are putative, you know – there are myriads of communities we can all belong to, or not; we’re not required to pledge allegiance to any of them) have some sort of obvious right to lobby for changes to a play written by other putative members of that putative community. Why? Is that the usual attitude to books and plays and movies and tv shows? Did the ‘community’ of office workers or Territorial Army sergeants or residents of Slough lobby for changes to The Office? If they had, would anyone have talked about their ‘own’ community that way? Would anyone have done anything other than fall about with scornful disbelieving laughter? Okay, not a perfect parallel, because of the religion factor. But all the same – that word ‘community’ (especially with the ‘own’ attached – that little word is always a signal of rhetoric in play) is used as a manipulation-device. It’s there to set us up to have a certain kind of reaction. And not particularly legitimately, in my view, not unless one accepts an extremely essentialist and coercive idea of ‘community’.

The cheering thing about the debate that preceded the opening of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s black comedy Behzti at Birmingham Rep theatre, was that it was held at all. Both sides – theatre and Sikh community – met to make their points before the show opened. Significant concessions were made by the theatre. A statement from the local Sikh community would be distributed at the venue; peaceful public protest would not be opposed; the programme would include positive messages about the Sikh faith.

Again, there is that silly word, unexamined, unexplained, imprecise. Both sides, theatre and Sikh community, met. The Sikh community was there? Really? All of it? Every Sikh and former Sikh and descendant of Sikhs in Birmingham and the surrounding area was there? Probably not, right? No, the people who did this lobbying were ‘representatives’ or spokespeople or the like. Well, how representative were they? Were they really speaking for the entire ‘community’? Does the ‘community’ speak with such a unified voice? The article doesn’t say. It just assumes it. Journalists and people who write for Index on Censorship (they above all) really really need to stop assuming that. What if these lobbyists were in fact a tiny minority of angry threatened men, as opposed to being the voice of the community as a whole? What then? What if most Sikhs were rolling their eyes and thinking ‘Don’t speak for me thanks’? We don’t know, and the article doesn’t say. The very word ‘community’ just paralyzes everyone’s thinking faculties. Everyone knows communities are monolithic, right? Everyone in them thinks the same, everyone in them has the same opinions, no one wants to escape the damn community? That’s how it is, right?


It’s a decent article, on the whole, it’s just that that vagueness about the ‘community’ starts things off badly, and that vagueness seems to be pervasive in journalism.

One place the question did get discussed though is Radio 3’s Nightwaves on Wednesday where the participants did point out that there weren’t any Sikh women in those protests at the theatre, and that what the riot in fact was, was a group of men silencing a woman. Not such a community project after all, perhaps.

One Response to “Whose Community?”