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There was an interview with Amrit and Rabindra Singh on Front Row last night. Mark Lawson asked them (about six minutes in) what they think about the controversy about ‘Behzti,’ especially as Sikhs themselves. Of course, as artists, they think freedom of expression is important and that artists should express what they think is valid, but – there have to be boundaries somewhere along the line. It’s like the idea of a so-called free society: that doesn’t mean you can walk down the street and punch your neighbour in the face. There have to be some regulations and rules that take other people’s feelings into account; artists should not seek knowingly to offend people’s feelings, or to offend the feelings of a certain religion or section of the community.
Lawson pointed out and they agreed that this can be very difficult (impossible, more like) because different people get offended at different things. Well don’t they just. As PEN says, the religious can be quick to take offence. PEN mentioned the Index – ‘The Papal Index makes salutary reading: it has banned every great offender from Voltaire to Flaubert to James Joyce.’ And it’s sobering to reflect that the Index banned for instance Montaigne’s great essay ‘On Cruelty’ – partly (or maybe wholly) because of the famous line that says it’s enough to kill people, roasting them alive is surplus to requirements. It’s sobering and interesting to reflect that the Papal Index didn’t like that and didn’t want that kind of thing written or read.
So there are at least two blindingly obvious problems right there. People are offended by different things, and people can be ‘offended’ by things that desperately need saying. If we decide we have to start censoring ourselves lest we ‘offend’ a certain religion or a certain section of the community – well we’ll never say anything at all. A great pall of silence will fall over the earth. Everyone’s larynx and tongue will atrophy. All art will be abstract and devoid of meaning; pretty noises, colours, shapes, but nothing one could actually put into words, lest the words might say something that could offend someone. Life will become one big warm bland soft soup, and we’ll all asphyxiate with boredom. Then the snails and armadilloes will take over, and the earth will give a great sigh of relief and say thank goodness they’re gone.
But really. How (as Mark Lawson, to his credit, asks) does one draw the line? Which religions, for instance, get to kick up a fuss and be listened to when some of their adherents are ‘offended,’ and which don’t? Scientology? Aum Shinrikyo? Branch Davidians? And then how do you draw the line between religions and other beliefs? Which imaginary or supernatural or metaphysical beings get to be protected from offensive comments and which don’t? What about Frodo? Spock? Yosemite Sam? ET? What are the criteria? And what are the reasons for the criteria, if and when there are any criteria? A belief is entitled to protection provided it is based purely on fantasy and wishful thinking, but if it is based on evidence then it must take care of itself? Is that the idea? Or is it only some kinds of fantasy and not other kinds. But if so, why? How exactly is that justified?
I hope I don’t get in trouble for asking these questions…