Prior restraint and the archbishop

One or two thoughts on the Archbisop of Canterbury’s speech. One thought is that he’s a sly bastard. If you read the speech slowly and carefully, it’s clear enough what sinister nonsense he is talking, but he embeds it so deeply and thoroughly in layer upon layer upon layer of episcopally dignified verbiage that it’s very difficult to convey how nonsensical and sinister it is by for instance quoting passages. In this he is very unlike the many other people I get so much innocent pleasure from teasing. He’s just as wrong-headed they are, but he makes it much less obvious. That’s not fair! If he’s going to talk obsequious churchy bullshit, he ought to be obvious about it.

Actually – I thought that was a joke, but in fact I think it’s true. I think he is talking sinister stuff, and in fact I do think he should make it plainer what he’s saying. I don’t think he should do an elegant and profoundly boring seven-page minuet in order to prevent people from fully grasping his meaning. The guy has a lot of power, to put it mildly; that imposes a certain obligation on him to make himself crystal clear.

But he doesn’t, so in the meantime I will confine myself to one passage, near the end. He talks about the reaction to The Satanic Verses and urges us to have some imagination about the state of mind of a powerless minority “with the most limited access to any sort of public voice, [who] were being left at the mercy of a powerful elite determined to tell them what their faith really amounted to” and about the similar situation of Muslims in Denmark. Then he says yes, there has been some violence, and the cartoon outrage was “deliberately exaggerated” (and to his credit he does point out that extra cartoons were added, which a lot of commentators on this subject don’t mention). But.

But what if we exercise a little imagination again? What Webster describes as the insensitivity of an elite means that those who lack access to the subtleties of the English language, to the means of expressing their opinions in a public forum or to any living sense of being participants in their society know only that one of their most overpoweringly significant sources of identity is being held up to public scorn. This feeling may be the result of misunderstanding or misinformation, it may even be in some cases linked to a failure or reluctance to take the opportunities that exist to move into a more visible role in the nation’s life, but it is real enough and part of a general conviction of being marginal and silenced. It is not a good situation for a democratic society to be in.

Notice what he’s saying there. (That’s not easy. This is an example of the embedding thing. He hides it in so many layers of fat that it can go right past you – but it’s there.) “This feeling may be the result of misunderstanding or misinformation” but it’s real anyway and you should fret about it and the laws should be framed accordingly. This feeling may be the result of not having read the book in question, having no clue what it actually says or in what context it says it, of having been worked up by someone else who also hasn’t read the book – this feeling may be just plain factually wrong – but we should exercise a little imagination and then enact illiberal laws against free publication and speech anyway. That’s a remarkable claim.

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded…I should only want to suggest that the relative power and political access of a group or person laying charges under this legislation might well be a factor in determining what is rightly actionable.

“The creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded” – when a group comes to feel – no matter how mistaken it may be in coming to feel that, or in the things it chooses to get enraged about in response, or in the facts of the case when it gets enraged – then it is a good idea to avoid civil disorder by creating an illiberal religion-protecting new law. Well look – people (and groups) can “come to feel” they have been unjustly excluded – or ripped off, or pushed around, or insulted, or disrespected, or outnumbered, or overwhelmed – any time, about anything. White people can do that, gentiles can do that, men can do that, heterosexuals can do that. Anyone can do that. Anyone can work up a grievance about anyone. It does not follow that it is a good idea to make laws requiring prior restraint of publication or speech just in case there might be some public disorder emanating from one or more of these pissed-off groups. If it did follow, the result would be a complete freezing and choking off of all human mental life. That’s what the archbishop is suggesting, in his remarkably covert way.

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