UCLU, Rhys Morgan, Religion, Offence and Free Speech

Does you think this image is offensive?

Maybe it is to some people. Would you expect to receive complaints if it appeared on a poster? Possibly. Would you expect to be told by authorities to remove the poster? Sadly, it can’t be ruled out. Would you expect to be accused of racism and threatened with violence?

I ask, of course, because there was a complaint to the UCL Union about an Atheist Society poster because someone found this image offensive, and because the Union ordered the society to remove the image. And that was bad enough. But then Rhys Morgan posted the image on his Facebook page to show solidarity and it started all over again. After a relatively polite request to remove the image received a negative response, the abuse started, in a way that anyone familiar with the Jessica Ahlquist case will recognise. It seems that serious and threatening abuse extended to school today, where Rhys was apparently told by the school authorities to take the image down, or face suspension or even expulsion.  Yes, you read that right – the school decided to step in, and rather than deal with the bullies who were threatening Rhys, decided that he doesn’t have the right to make this relatively mild point in favour of freedom of speech, not even outside school. WTF?

The argument that seems to be being used in both cases is that it’s not free speech if it’s causing offence. You can say what you like, but not if it offends anyone. Since when has that been an argument? The whole point about free speech – real, honest, open free speech – is that sometimes it will upset people, or challenge their deeply-held beliefs and preconceptions. That’s a good thing! That’s how arguments and thoughts get tested, it’s how we learn, it’s how society develops. When would we ever realise that we’d made a mistake if we’re insulated from such challenges? Can you imagine if every medical advance in history had been silenced because it offended people who firmly believed in the four humours?

I’m naturally quite a woolly, wishy-washy type, who tends to think that while it’s ridiculous to take offence at such trivial things, there’s no need to go out of your way to be deliberately offensive, because that makes you as much of a jerk as the person who gets so easily offended.  I suspect that if I’d been in Rhys’s place, even if I’d posted the image in the first place, I’d have taken it down when it was politely requested in the first place. But when that politeness turns so quickly into not just fury, but vicious threats and accusations, I begin to wonder if I’ve been taken in by the friendly approach, not noticing the iron fist within the velvet glove. If this is the consequence of making a point and taking a stand, then let’s all take that stand together, because free speech is genuinely threatened.

This whole situation is screwed up – Rhys is an outstanding young blogger whose intelligence and enthusiasm would be a credit to any school. When the school ends up telling him he can’t say things in case he upsets people, are they saying he shouldn’t be campaigning against the Burzynski Clinic and the assorted other woo-ful non-treatments he’s covered, because people deeply believe they work, or is this some special case for certain officially-recognised beliefs? I think I know the answer, but it thoroughly depresses me. Please offer Rhys your full support.

I’ll see you on the barricades.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “UCLU, Rhys Morgan, Religion, Offence and Free Speech”

  1. fromsintoscience says :

    Are people so insecure in their beliefs that every little thing threatens them? If you believe in something what difference does it make if someone else doesn’t. People need to quit getting so easily offended, it’s just ridiculous to get so upset over a picture or someone else’s opinion of a picture.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Too right. Here’s what I don’t understand: if, for the sake of argument, you accept that depictions of “the prophet” are a Very Bad Thing and need to be stopped, why only act because of a poster advertising a pub social? It’s not like Jesus and Mo is some secret project that no one knows about. It’s almost as if that argument’s nothing to do with it, and is being used to legitimize (or at least give more weight to) common or garden oversensitivity and attempted censorship.

  2. unklee says :

    “Does you think this image is offensive?”

    No. I don’t think it is offensive, and even if I did I don’t think that necessarily means it should be banned in any way. But then I’m a christian, not a Muslim. (I didn’t even realise until I checked out the links that “Mo” = “Mohammed”.)

    But I wonder about the tactic, or desire, to offend people to demonstrate freedom of speech. Muslims feel strongly about these things, and being sensitive to them (at least up to a certain point) might be more humane than pushing their buttons. I try to be sensitive to things atheists are offended by (and there are definitely such things) because I think it is better to try to start off as friends rather than enemies.

    Now I recognise that it would be impossible to avoid all offence, and it is equally important that people try to avoid taking offence. That may be something Muslims are unwilling to do, but I can’t help feeling at least trying to avoid giving offence is a better approach.

    So I find it hard to say whether the various “authorities” have over-stepped or not. It sounds like they have, but I wouldn’t take that as given.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Actually, “Mo” isn’t really Mohammed – he’s a body double. Seriously. Because if the cartoonist admitted to depicting Mohammed, he’d run the risk of hotheaded types attempting to, er, “persuade him” to stop it with extreme prejudice.

      I’m with you on cultivating a sensitive approach wherever possible, and trying to rub along together, but where are the limits? This incident kicked off as a result of an incredibly inoffensive image, which had been available on the web for some time. Salman Rushdie has recently decided not to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival after apparently receiving death threats connected to a work of fiction published over 20 years ago. How much of this is actual offence, and how much is whipped up by people for their own ends?

      And at what point do people’s sensibilities get considered, and how are they balanced? Should we consider how reasonable those beliefs are? Atheists may be offended by reference to worshipping deities which they consider to be ancient fairytales. Can they object to posters put up by religious societies, or does their offence count for less if it isn’t backed up with bombs and angry mobs? Should I be able to prevent the production of Top Gear because I find its petrolheaded anti-environmentalism both offensive and destructive?

      In general, not being a provocative jerk seems like a pretty good rule to live by, and it’s certainly one I hold to. But it still has to be possible to be a jerk without punishment – if there’s any restriction on the practical operation of free speech, we don’t really have free speech at all. Of course, there’s the standard counterexample of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre – I draw a distinction between being provocative to make a point and simple mischief, and if there’s deliberate mischief-making here, it isn’t on the part of those posting the picture.

  3. unklee says :

    I think we are broadly in agreement: “not being a provocative jerk seems like a pretty good rule to live by”. The issue then becomes one of balancing several opposing principles, summed up in your comment here:

    “And at what point do people’s sensibilities get considered, and how are they balanced? Should we consider how reasonable those beliefs are?”

    Clearly there is no “right” answer. Free speech is a great ideal, but hate speech, incitement, lies, discrimination, etc, can lead to dangerous situations that a democracy would want to avoid. It is difficult to formulate a fair law.

    I think it is easier in principle to decide our own personal choices, even if difficult in practice. But I find people on all sides are inconsistent – wanting to be free to say what they want while taking offence at what others say.

    “Atheists may be offended by reference to worshipping deities which they consider to be ancient fairytales. Can they object to posters put up by religious societies, or does their offence count for less if it isn’t backed up with bombs and angry mobs?”

    But some do object already. Atheists object to Christmas displays, and Biblical texts in public spaces, even if they are part of that place’s history. Richard Dawkins says that bringing children up with religious belief amounts to child abuse, and one is under no illusions how christians would be restricted if he were dictator.

    So, a complex issue, as we both agree, but I still think we in democracies should set an example of tolerance rather than restriction or taking unnecessary offence or deliberately provoking.

    Thanks for the opportunity to discuss.

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