Here’s a post I’ve just had published over at Comment is Free. Later, I will post a selection of the comments I’ve received there.
Credit where its due: The Way of the Blogs is hardly a new idea. It was much discussed back in the ’04 when people in the UK were starting to take notice of online debate. More recently, it was discussed at one of English PEN’s round-tables that we held as part of our ongoing inquiry into UK libel laws.
There was some depressing news from Geneva last week, as the UN Human Rights Council voted to adopt a resolution on “defamation of religions”. Although the resolution is non-binding, and does not compel any state to change its laws, it does lend authority to those in countries around the world who wish to clamp down on criticism of religion.
Here in the UK, English PEN’s No Offence campaign in 2005 successfully ensured that religious defamation laws remained off the statute books, and that blasphemy laws are a thing of the past (thank God). Such laws are bad for freedom of expression, of course, but in seeking to shield adherents from criticism of their faith, they ultimately weaken religion, too.
However, when religion comes under attack, the alienation and marginalisation felt by believers is real. How can they achieve redress for a perceived offence, without resorting to censorship, or its kid brother, the boycott?
I think there is a lesson to be learnt from blogs. Despite the robust nature of much of the debate online, I do perceive a sort of online Omerta, a Way of the Blogs. This states that if you have been offended or disrespected online, you can always fight your corner by setting up a counter-blog somewhere else. The idea is that you do not attempt to suppress the offensive material, legally or otherwise, but instead use the same medium to counter and debunk it.
Offline, a recent example from the US, shows this spirit in action. The Jewish organisation Theatre J, based in Washington DC, has been staging readings of Caryl Churchill’s controversial Seven Jewish Children, despite many people branding the play anti-semitic (Comment is Free has already discussed this point at length). Director Ari Roth says he doesn’t endorse the play, but feels the playwright’s language has some resonance: “So many of the lines resonate not with the language of hate, but with the language of perception.”
Roth denies that he is engaging in a form of self-flagellation, because Theatre J’s staging was not done so uncritically. He commissioned two new pieces that engage with Churchill’s text, entitled Seven Palestinian Children and The Eighth Child. Ultimately, what Theatre J has done is to appropriate Churchill’s play. They have mirrored its style in new works, subverting it in order to advance an alternative world view. The quick and impromptu way they have done so seems to me to be very much a 21st century act, reminiscent of the mash-ups, parodies and rebuttals at which internet culture excels. Not so different from The Way of the Blogs after all.
So, staging someone’s play, singing their song, or telling their story, is not necessarily an act of endorsement. Sometimes it can be a broadside attack on a particular orthodoxy. Appropriation and mutilation of art is an act of rebellion, a well-established weapon of the disenfranchised. To give two other examples: I am reminded of Angela Carter’s feminist reworking of traditional fairy tales; and the sampling and looping that is an inherent feature of urban music such as hip-hop. Those who found Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti offensive, or those who were upset by Jyllands-Posten’s provocative Mohammed cartoons, could and should have responded in a similar manner. New digital technology makes this cheap and easy.
But why engage? Why should religious communities have to dignify such attacks from a secular majority that is intent on insulting them at every turn? The answer is simple: art and culture evolves through conflict. Failure to engage leads a culture to stagnation, irrelevance, and finally, death. Religious defamation laws will strangle the very communities they seek to protect. Only raw and offensive free expression can offer salvation.