Religion isn’t a special case, but that cuts both ways
Since I wrote about Katy Perry and the Dark Horse video, I’ve been involved in quite a lot of discussion about the subject in various places, which I’ve found helpful in crystallising the issues, and where any disagreement might lie. Ideally, I would have liked to cover these areas in the first place – blame fatigue and lack of time – but I think this is a topic that’s worth covering on its own.
One subject that appears to be at the root of a fair amount of disagreement is the sincerity or otherwise of the complaint. Was it a respectful request, or was it cynical rabble rousing? I favour the former, though the latter is definitely a possibility. I’d prefer to err on the side of assuming good faith, especially as none of us can know either way, but it’s an open question, and potentially has a bearing on how it should be responded to. However, this also ties up with a bigger issue.
I’ve been accused by some of appeasing religious believers, and making religion a special case. I think I was pretty clear that I wish the edit hadn’t been made precisely because it gives that impression and encourages the belief that religious arguments have any particular merit, but perversely, the reason I still think it was right (or at least reasonable, which makes for a less catchy title) to make the edit was itself because religion isn’t a special case. Religion isn’t in itself a reason to make changes in the face of a complaint, but nor is it a reason to automatically reject that complaint.
To be clear, I’m against any form of appeasement. If I thought that was happening here (and again, it’s a subjective call), I’d be vigorously opposed to it. But there’s a lot of middle ground between appeasement and deliberate provocation, or just being a dick, and it’s in that middle ground that I’m trying to pick my way through the issues to a good answer.
People ask why religion should get this sort of attention, and why no one tiptoes around the sensitivities of other groups. I don’t think it does get special attention – bear with me – but it appears to because of the nature of religion, and the way it’s entwined with all sorts of cultural references and significance. What other groups have their significant concepts and symbols lying around in costume wardrobes, waiting to be picked up for a music video? How many even have such symbols?
If I have a friend who’s a homeopath, I might cause offence by arguing that their beliefs are unscientific nonsense, but I can’t see any way that I could do so by accidentally wearing the wrong thing. A T-shirt with the message “Homeopaths are morons” might be satisfying, but I don’t think it could qualify as accident.
Historic religious privilege has made religious believers very easy to offend in all sorts of ways, even accidentally, due to the cultural proliferation of religious or pseudo-religious imagery. That doesn’t mean they should get special protection, but nor does it make it right to exploit that fact to cause gratuitous offence. We need to consider context and the necessity of the offence caused, or even Pastor Terry Jones will start to look like a fluffy liberal in comparison.
Finally, a thought experiment to illustrate the point: Imagine that a video is the subject of a lot of public discussion and a petition that quickly tops 50,000 signatures, objecting to some inadvertent and trivial aspect of that video. Now imagine that the objection was not religious, but based on a gesture, say, or an unfortunate possibility of misunderstanding. Maybe some lyrics sound obscene, or maybe it looks like a swastika is shown momentarily in the background. What should be done?
The answer, I believe, is that it depends. Is there a genuine motive for the complaint? Is it easily fixed? And cynical but relevant, what’s going to give the record company the best balance of publicity and sales? None of these is a clear matter of right/wrong, so it will inevitably come down to a matter of opinion, but I’m willing to bet that there would be a lot more support for the decision to make a minor alteration if religion didn’t enter the equation.
The subjective nature of this subject naturally means that unless you take an extreme position – either rejecting any complaints motivated by religion or believing that they should always result in action – discussion is difficult and unlikely to change much. That’s not a criticism, as I’m probably just as unlikely to shift my position as anyone else. It’s just a reminder, to myself as well as others, that on hot topics like this, people can reasonably disagree.
So I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind on the specifics of any given case, and I’m comfortable with a fair amount of disagreement, but I hope I’ve gone some way towards making the argument that religion doesn’t deserve to be treated any differently than if the same complaint was made without a religious basis.