Universalism versus Relativism

Yawn. I disagree with Tim Worstall that The Observer is being particularly interesting when Andrew Anthony asks: Are You a Universalist or a Relatvist?.

I know Anthony’s article is tongue-in-cheek, but it betrays a sneering attitude to the relativists which I find unhelpful, and certainly not in the true spirit of objectivity that the ‘universalist’ would presumably claim as a defining trait.

When someone says that things are “relative”, many people hear “we should not question”. But that is a crude form of (if you like) ‘fundamentalist’ relativism. I have no wish to defend this position, but in suggesting that these people have the exclusive preserve of the whole ‘relavitist’ side of the political divide Andrew Anthony is just plain wrong (on that point, I guess I must be a universalist). Much larger is the group of people who think that while some practices do fall into the ‘universalist’ morality (i.e. we cannot countenance that they could be right for anyone) there surely exists a whole slice of moral or political decision making for which different answers may be different for different people. This is especially true of religious faith, where different people find different medicines for the soul effective… and the political effect can be positive too. Simply asking “that is right for you, but is it right for them” does not automatically entail an endorsement of clitoridectomy (unless of course, you are specifically asking about clitoridectomy itself). Part of being a relativist is that one must choose to ask the question about specific cases an political decisions, not a blanket “everything is relative, nothing can be condemned” approach.

I recall the old adage:

There are two types of people in the world: Those who constantly divide the world up into two types of people; and those who do not

Or its more amusing and pithier equivalent:

there are 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary; and those who do not

Anthony’s article is thinly veiled attack on fundamentalist Islam, with no new insight, repeating Simon Schama’s analysis from a few years back, but with a tenfold word count:

Put another way, the fight is between power based o revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based o persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment

In taking Anthony’s little test (of the “Mostly A; Mostly B; or Mostly C” type) we unfortunately find the questions so loaded that everyone falls into the ‘universalist’ camp. Its a biased premise with a truism for a conclusion, which then allows him to declare the victory for ‘universalism’ over wooly thinking. In fact, he is simply declaring that there is a black-white, binary political argument to be had. The relativist denies this, and it is this stance that separates them from the universalists, not support for fundamentalist Islam.

From Tim Worstall’s commentary on the same article:

Public choice theory shows that the people who make such decisions are not [omniscient]. They are human beings, with all of the faults and foibles that encompasses, and they act out of rational self-interest, just as everyone else does.

What might be right for one person might not be right for another. People know how to allocate their resources far better than the State ever could.

That’s all relativism, isn’t it?

Squandering Political Capital

Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads makes a much quoted appeal to oust Tony Blair from power.

For the good of the Labour Party, for the good of the country, and for the good of the whole bloody world, Tony Blair must not leave Downing St voluntarily… and if he does, he must be forced to resign in shame.

Tim itemises the transgressions of the Blair administration, following the lead of Chicken Yoghurt, earlier in the week. The message is similar in both cases: We are going too far down an authoritarian road, and it is up to us to take a stand, and make it stop. And moreover: How have we let it come this far? Why hasn’t Blair been ejected?

Criticising Blair and everything he stands for has become a noble art. For those of us still angry over major abuses of power, it would be galling if he resigned over some trifle, some minor scandal. The same is true for George W Bush: That the Republicans may lose the Congressional Mid-Terms over the Dubai Port Scandal is something of an insult. How come a benign administration issue destroys so much political capital, while torture seems to barely register, and might even be a vote winner (via Daily Dish).

It is in the concept of ‘Political Capital’, and indeed Blair’s own “Hisotry Will Judge Me” comments, that I find some succour in these depressing times. He began his time in office with an astonishing amount of ‘Political Capital’ to spend. Each scandal of the Blair administration (remember Peter Mandelson resigning twice, remember how 9/11 was a good day to “bury bad news”, remember Stephen Byers’ ministerial career) eroded that capital. Each act of hypocrisy, each doublethink declaration that someone has acted with propriety, erodes that capital. Each disgraceful statement from Charles Clarke that we deride, ensures another voter, and more importantly, another political ally, distances themselves administration. As Labour’s political capital is consumed, Blair’s personal support wanes. It is beginning to look like he can no longer govern.

There is a lag in politics that surpasses anything that the economists may be able to calculate. Events that happen today have an effect many years down the line. The protests against Blair’s policies in 2003 – indeed, all the criticisms since 1997 – may not have achieved their stated aims, but they had an effect that we only begin to perceive now. They were not pointless, they did not fail. Blair was not ejected from power in last year’s election, but he was crippled, fatally wounded. He cannot run the country properly, because he no longer has the majority to push through the reforms he planned.

someone has to be called to account or the next batch of power-mad bastards – here or abroad – will think they can get away with exactly the same thing.

It may appear as if Blair is not being called to account. When he goes, it will indeed be over some small matter. It will be even more irritating for those of us who were annoyed by the big things. But make no mistake, when he resigns, Nick Robinson and the rest will say: “It was about time.” Blair’s departure from the field will not be to the applause of a cup-winner, but the collective sigh of relief as a poorly performing striker is substituted, early. He may announce his own resignation, but history will chronicle an incomplete Premiership, a job half-done. Let us hope that this example of potential wasted, greatness squandered, will serve as a lesson to all future leaders.

Analogue vs Digital

He is an analogue politician in a digital age.

So said David Cameron, of Gordon Brown, during their exchanges in the House of Commons today. This is a difficult metaphor, and I fear David may be using it in a very lazy manner, to mean simply “old and new”. In fact it has meanings that I doubt the Tory leader would wish to imply.

Analogue technology may be old, but music fans agree it means better quality. Analogue records capture the subtleties that digital recordings lack. Did David Cameron mean to describe the Chancellor in those terms?

Technically speaking, analogue captures all the different inputs one continuous, flowing record. In audio terms is hears all the sounds. In photographic terms, it sees shades of grey. Digital recording, by contrast, converts everything it senses to binary data. Ones and Zeros, On and Off, Black and White. Which is better for political discourse?

Most importantly, consider how the analogue and digital mediums are treated. Vinyl records are treasured by their owners, sought after by collectors. Original photographic prints fetch a fair price at auction. They carry auora of permanence. Compare this to the digital medium, where tacky CDs lie scrtached on the floor, and digital files are carelessly deleted almost as soon as they are created. Transient things of momentary interest.

Analogue: High quality, subtle, perceptive, permenant.
Digital: Flat, extreme, polarising, disposable.

How kind of David Cameron to flatter the Chancellor! One wonders if Gordon is receiving such compliments from his own party…

My Rights, Your Responsibility

“A person without imagination is like a teabag without hot water.”
Mark Twain

Now the last thing I want to do is write a meta-blog post about a meta-blog post, not least because Tim Worstall coined the frankly hilarious ‘meta-meta-blogging’ conudrum at the weekend, and I do not wish to be shouted at, again. Suffice to say it was pleasing to see Sunny include a post of mine, among others, in his first contribution to Comment Is Free, the Guardian’s new superblog.

What interested me about the post was how the opinions of several people had contributed to the meat and substance of the piece. I was reminded of a great article by Nosemonkey at The Sharpener:

In some areas it’s already almost turning into a Britblog hive mind…

Whether this truly captures the nature of blogging I am not sure, since ‘hive’ seems to imply one homogenised idea, rather than the diversity we see online. I am reminded once again of ‘democracy‘ in the proper sense of the word: Not the vote-every-four-years kind, but true democracy, where a diversity of opinions and ideas are thrashed out in public, and everyone can have a say, play a more active part at every level, from war policy to whether the so called ‘Green Parking Zone’ outside my flat is a good idea (and in case you were wondering: no it most certainly is not).

Blogging – change the world it won’t.

I am not so sure, Sunny. Ministers, and MPs are increasingly realising that the medium simply cannot be ignored.

What can be ignored apparently, is politics. All of it. This is the analysis of an astonishing 17% of the electorate, who said that they ‘did not want a say’ when questioned. The Third Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society and the Electoral Commission, also found that 14% of people were ‘not interested in politics’.

The report of course links lack of political engagement with wider social exclusion, and points out the need for better political education and communication to widen this gap. Nevertheless, even with these measures, there will be a proportion of people who, regardless of their upbringing or social class, will still describe themselves and ‘not being interested in politics’.

I have infinite tolerance in the general case. But in the individual case, those people I actually meet and interact with, the one thing I cannot and will not abide is “Oh, I don’t do politics.” I will not patronise them by suggesting it is merely down to social exclusion, because most of the people I meet would not describe themselves as such. No, these are people who proudly announce they are ‘not interested’ and revel in knowing more about Big Brother 6 the TV programme, than whether the government’s ID Cards bill is a surveillance too far. I invariably challenge them, and an argument ensues.

Being ‘interested’ in politics is not like being ‘interested’ in sport, the arts, gardening or cooking. Politics is not simply about the Reds or the Blues at Westminster, but about the interaction between the State, groups and the individual. Unless one retires to a hermitage and lives in total solitude, you will interact with society, and you are therefore a political animal. If you drive a car, you are political. If you turn on a tap, you are political. If you buy food, have a bank account, go to school, use a telephone, you are political. To suggest that you are not is actually antisocial in every sense, and those who do not engage, though they have the capacity to do so, are every bit as liable for an ASBO as the hooligans who kick over wheelie bins.

Apathay devalues every decision taken by every government: Voter-apathy means that decision makers are elected by a tiny minority; and issue-apathy means that decisions are not subject to proper scrutiny, not made with enough public debate.

So to the fourteen percent, I say this: Your lack of engagement affects me in a very real way. I would go so far as to say that I have a human right to hear your opinion. Denying me that right is an abuse of your own human capacity for rational though, but more importantly, it inconveniences me a great deal.

To say “I’m not interested” is to be the tea-bag without water. It is a ridiculous and impossible position, and I will not stand for it. Moreover, if people start asserting their right to disengage, to be apathetic, then other people will soon start trying to deny them the vote, which we cannot condone.

So please, Mr and Mrs Fourteen Percent, I’ll make you a deal: Start engaging in some way, any way… and will I promise to stop droning on about my blog.

Over at Minority Report, DE discusses dumbing down: Playing Grand Theft Auto is probably more socially responsible than the more adult pursuit of corruption or aerial bombing. But when it displaces keeping up with the news or communicating with offspring then it seems less benign.

Who are we responsible for?

Why do we criticise the USA more than, say, China? Why does is more mud thrown at Israel than Sudan? Why do we emit a highly audible whine whenever someone mentions Guantanamo Bay, or Abu Graib, but barely a whisper when we hear of unjust detentions abroad, in Syria or Egypt?

Obviously (say the many) it is because we are The Self-Haters. We are anti-American. We are the militant Equivalistas, the über-Liberals, who wish to undermine everything that makes Western Civilisation great.

Incomplete. Lazy. Wrong…

We obsess about the USA because it is there that we find the people with whom we have the most in common. Much as we try to trumpet ideas of a shared humanity, One Big Team, these are difficult thoughts in practice. Instead, we seek out allies in those countries, those people, who are most similar to us. We find them in those countries with a shared history, a shared language, shared religious traditions… and we call it a shared culture. We feel so close that we call the Atlantic Ocean a ‘pond’.

And if you feel close to someone, or something, it matters to you that they are the best, the very best that they can be. We hold them to a higher standard. We do not wish to see any faults.

When we do see faults, it is far better that we point them out, than keep quiet out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. I am a critic of the United States government, not because I wish to see its power eroded, but because I wish to see its stature enhanced. That makes me more of a patriot than the person who has backed every action of the Dubya-led White House since 11th September 2001.

In the case of the UK, well, there is an added incentive to whine at every turn. Not only do I have an affinity for the country and the culture, but I am responsible for it too. No matter that our ends are so moral that they justify the means – The means have to be moral too, and when they are not (when sometimes they cannot be) we must complain at the top of our voices. I marched in London against a war in Iraq on 15th February 2003 not because I wanted to throw dust in Blair’s eyes for the sake of, but because our preparation, and the arguments for war were not to the high standard I expect of my country.

So too with our allies, especially Israel. The culture there is very ‘western’, one might say. This is unsurprising, as it was European immigrants who founded it. They are the ruling class now, and they are funded by Western dollars. We have a blood bond. We want the best for them too, and it breaks our hearts to see them lose their humanity, treating their neighbours like third-class citizens.

Notice how the criticisms of the USA, the UK and Israel are quite specific. Notice how the criticisms of other countries are so general. With the USA, I name: the shoddy 2000 Election; the PATRIOT ACT; rushed war planning in Iraq; Guantanamo Bay; NSA phone-tapping; Extra-ordinary Rendition; and this nagging itch (somewhere at the back of my head), concerning the previous employment of Condi, Dick and George. We have been dissecting these issues for six years and there is still more to say. But China? Well, that’s a homogenising dictatorship. Sudan? A desert pockmarked with genocide. Criticising these places for even five seconds seems to be overdoing it – You could make your point in four.

Why waste more breath on the USA, or Israel? Because we have a shared language, a shared culture, we believe their policy-makers will listen. We believe they will take into account the things we say. We must ensure our big brother, the mighty USA, or our kid brother, little Israel, always has the absolute moral high ground. That means scrutinising and challenging them at every step. Only then we can support them with a clear conscience when they take on a radioactive Iran, or any of the tin-pot dictators (Mugabe, oh please God Mugabe) that stain the earth.

The Pedant-General made a comment on my previous post, which is a relevant postscript to this offering too. And down in the comments, Dubai-based blogger Tim Newman adds: “I’ve always thought that people criticise the US more than anyone else because they are more likely to listen. Criticising Russia or China won’t get you very far, with both the governments and the general public. But in the US, there is always a politician or activist waiting to hear your story.”

Moral Equivalence

Nick Cohen’s article in this week’s Observer has prompted me to think about ‘moral equivalence’, and the degree to which we condemn the actions of other countries, and our own.

To me, the failure of the archbishop to speak plainly was not a sign of his diplomacy, but flowed from his row with the Jews. Before he escaped to Africa, he couldn’t say why he wanted sanctions against Israel but not against countries that committed far worse crimes – China, Syria, Iran, North Korea and, indeed, Sudan – or give any indication that he was morally obliged to provide an answer.

Cohen’s point is persuasive, and requires an answer, and he is right to take the Archbishop to task over these double standards. However, the argument he uses raises some questions, because the moral door swings both ways.

The idea of ‘moral equivalence’ requires some unravelling. It is always used in the negative, to condemn someone who is equating one reprehensible act with another. Above, Cohen notes that those of a certain political viewpoint are equating the transgressions of the Israelis towards the Palestinians, with a wider and much more horrible genocides, in the other countries he mentions. His complaint is that the two are simply not comparable: Israel is simply not as bad as Sudan.

Another example might be to equate the attacks on the World Trade Centre, with the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay. Imprisoning a few dozen militants without trial is simply not in the same moral ballpark as murdering 3,000 civilians on a cold September Tuesday. The actions of the Bush Administration are not morally equivalent to the actions of Al Q’aeda (so goes the argument) and it is offensive to suggest as much. Similar arguments can be made regarding transgressions in Iraq. One can always retort with “well, would you rather have Saddam back?” safe in the knowledge that the coalition forces never did anything as bad as the Ba’athists at Abu Ghraib. Discussions of this kind have been thrown around for decades, especially during the Cold War.

But they are all relative arguments. Relative to Sudanese actions in Darfur, Israeli transgressions against Arabs in the region could be described as minor. But thinking absolutely, they are nevertheless still transgressions. To reiterate, I do not disagree with Cohen when he asserts that Sudan is worse than Israel… but as soon as that point is made, someone is bound to ask the question: “Does that excuse Israel’s behaviour?”

The moral equivalence complaint is constantly used in political discourse, a smoke-screen to justify and excuse morally dubious action. An appeal to inhibit the ghettoisation of the West Bank is met with “what about the man on the Tel Aviv omnibus?” A fair point indeed, but in making it, the respondent has cunningly failed to answer the original point, and thus escapes from the discourse without condemning something that would not have looked out of place in occupied Poland, circa 1940. Likewise, legitimate questions about why, and when it was decided to go to war, are met by Tony Blair with the tired old cliché: “Would you rather have Saddam back?” Meeting questions with questions in this manner is to present a non-sequitur. By highlighting something morally worse, Tony manages to avoid answering the original question at all.

Complaining about the lack of moral equivalence between two acts should not be used as an excuse to avoid accounting for the actions of the governments we are responsible for. Although this final example, from ‘Tender’ at ProfessorBainbridge.com, I confess made me laugh:

As for morality – when the anal rape rate at Gitmo gets to say, half, of the rate at the Cook County jail let me know. I won’t worry till then.

The perceptive among you will have noticed that this particular gripe about the nature of moral arguments really only applies (by its very nature, I think) to governments such as that of Israel, the USA and the UK, rather than China, North Korea, and Sudan (to use some of Cohen’s examples). This is important, because I really want to write about why the former set of countries should be held to a higher standard – because we are responsible for them. I have’t finished with this yet. More in the next post.

Ridicule them in public

I spent about ten minutes in the sea on holiday, before I misjudged particularly large wave I was attempting to body surf. It turned me upside-down and I crashed onto the beach shoulder-first. I still have a gaze on my shoulder and an ache in my arms.

I fear I may have missed the blogging wave on the news that the Holocaust-denier David Irving was imprisoned in Austria – the event co-incided with my return to the UK. However, comments on this thornytempestuous issue still lap at the shore. Stef at Famous For Fifteen Megapixels begins a good summary by posting a picture of Auschwitz and declaring that David Irving “is a disgraceful human being.” He also makes a pertinent point:

History gets revised all the time

And that includes the Holocaust… Who gets to decide what the official version of an historical event is and what truths are set in stone? Is someone unconvinced by the notion of the Nazi Pope a Holocaust Denier? Who gets to decide what the official interpretation of history is? An Austrian judge?

Adloyada is pissed off with the BBC for giving credence to Irving’s views by airing them on Tuesday’s Today programme.

These were treated by the interviewer as if they were serious arguments rather than the preposterous and absurd statements they were.

I actually thought that the interviewer, Sancha Berg, took a tone of incredulity throughout and strained herself not to begin ridiculing Irving, who was being interviewed from his prison cell in Austria.

Adloyada’s point is that people with such abhorrent views should not be given a platform to express them, on the basis that it gives those views legitimacy. One could of course argue that one man’s ‘abhorrence’ is another man’s ‘debate’ but I have no wish to do so regarding Holocaust denial. However, I do question the mantra that airing a view-point on public radio will automatically legitimise it. In the case of the David Irving interview, his stance was completely falsified and discredited by the BBC’s in-studio guest, Professor Richard Evans. In this example, I suggest that giving a platform to Irving’s views actually damaged his already flimsy cause even further. When a person’s opinions and presentation of facts is so obviously false, and so easily ridiculed, giving them a public platform does not legitimise their views. Rather, it delivers a coup de grace to their credibility, and their argument.

Terror, Tyranny, and Tony

Between them, Unity at Talk Politics and CuriousHamster at A Big Stick and a Small Carrot have done a fine tag-team job of dissecting today’s debate and votes on terror legislation, and the appalling news coverage that has let some rather sickening abuses to our civil liberties slip by without proper account.

From CuriousHamster:

The politicisation of the threat of terrorism is one of the worst things the Blairbrown government has ever done. Playing politics with such an issue is deeply irresponsible….

Laws. Are. Not. A Signalling. Device.

By declaring that we must send a signal to the terrorists, Tony Blair once again proves that the terrorists have indeed succeeded in changing our values and way of life, and for the worse. What a signal, Tony!

The argument that I find most sickening is that which holds that since the current government is trustworthy and ethical, it follows that no future governments will abuse the powers they inherit. Never mind that I have no respect for the ethics of this government – Blair’s argument is a nonsense on its own terms. He cannot predict what future governments (or future police forces for that matter) will be like. Nor can he fortell the events that might give them cause to abuse their powers further. Therefore, he cannot guarantee against the abuse of these new powers.

Funny how laws that were introduced apparently in the public interest, have the effect of making me feel less safe. Thank goodness I have a full decade of biometrics/ID register/fingerprint-free passportness ahead of me. Thank goodness I am leaving the country tomorrow. Should I bother returning?

Misogyny in the Monarchy: Volume II

More on the traditions of monarchy…

My previous post asserted that a Head of State, the symbol of a country, should be chosen in a manner which reflects a country’s values. By blocking women from the Imperial Throne, Japan is effectively declaring that boys are better than girls. Sexism is institutionalised in Japan at the highest and most symbolic level. However, It is up to the people of Japan to decide whether their national symbols adequately reflect their values. It may be that the Japanese decide that they still do believe in the primacy of men over women. Since understand very little of Japanese culture, I will not concern myself with their constituional crisis further.

Besides, it is unnecessary for me to pronounce on sexism in Japan. A similar sexism is practiced in the UK, where unequal primogeniture is entrenched in law. A male child of the monarch will inherit ahead of his sister, even if she is older than him. The last time this occurred was in 1901, when Edward VII succeeded ahead of his older sister Victoria. Interestingly, she was the mother of Kaizer Wilhelm II of Germany, who would have inherited the British throne had a fairer system prevailed… although had this been the law at the time, Victoria would probably not have married a german in the first place.

Since Princes Willam and Harry are male (and, we assume, will continue to be), the issue of the laws of succession remain ignored and irrelevant for another generation. Nevertheless, the law stands. Just like Japan, sexism is encoded into the fabric of our country. A distinction between men and women could be made when biology is concerned (for example, in custody battles). But since the choice of Head of State exists entirely in the political sphere, the current system is entirely inappropriate to our 21st Century values. It is also out of keeping with many other progressive European monarchies, such as Norway, Sweden and The Netherlands. If the British Royal family are to ‘get back in touch’ with their subjects, then its female members should be placed on the same legal plane as their male relatives. It is a shame that this was not enacted at the same time Universal Suffrage:

“What do we want?”
“Cognatic Primogeniture!”
“When do want it?”
“Nineteen twenty-eight!”

Why bother complaining? It is not as if it affects anyone in the population at large, and women do sometimes get to be queen. However, I beleive this is an important argument, because it highlights fatal problems with the idea of a monarchy itself. The law that allows males to leap-frog females therefore institutionalises misogyny. By the same argument, the idea of hereditary political positions institutionalises and endorses unearned privilege. The most symbolic person in our country is not chosen by a vote, nor appointed by a committee of citizens. They are not even voted in by a lottery, as King Auberon is in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Instead, they are given the position just because their parents had it. Nepotism of the worst kind, and the other citizens of the country have no say in the matter whatsoever. Not only are they powerless, but they are obliged to pay for someone else’s privilege.

Never mind the fact that we have an elected Prime Minister. Never mind the fact that we vote for local public officials. Never mind the fact that we have a press that scrutinises at every turn. Never mind the fact that the rule of law is strong in this country. Never mind that HM the Queen has no practical power. Even with all these positive, progressive aspects of our political system, the very existence of the monarchy means our country is both sexist and nepotistic at heart. By endorsing the system, we cannot escape endorsing these traits, which should have been consigned to the shame of history, long, long ago.

No amount of democracy and accountability in the other apsects of government can excuse the following fact: The highly symbolic and visible pinnacle of our system is a morally barren wasteland. For a people who believe in equality, this is simply not good enough – We owe it to ourselves to devise something better…

Freedom of expression

It seems that the row over cartoon depictions of Mohammed has been cranked up a notch, as several European newspapers re-print the images, in a gesture of solidarity with the Jyllands-Posten. It reminds me of a premiership-brawl, where after one guy gets into a bit of banter with an opponent, his mates run the full length of the pitch in order to inflame the situation further.

A comment from theologian Sohaib Bencheikh caught my eye.

one must find the borders between freedom of expression and freedom to protect the sacred.”

On one hand, declaring that a certain action is off limits to everybody, because one particular group considers it sacred, is a non-argument on a par with screaming children in a supermarket. However, Bencheikh’s wider point is that we should, out of respect for other groups, refrain from deliberately offending them. It is legitimate to ask: “why did you feel you had to do that?” to the editor of the paper, because at that point the debate leaves the realm of faith and enters that of human politics. If the cartoons of Mohammed were not very good, or printed for a frivolous or deliberately antagonistic reason, then we should condemn Jyllands-Posten because it was a risible decision on its own terms, not because we give any credence to the sanctity of the Prophet’s image.

In comparision to Jyllands-Posten, its immitators around Europe do actually have a good reason for publishing the pictures. This is because the debate has moved on. The topic of their articles is not one of provocation or ridicule, but a genuine philosophical question to the muslim world: “Why are these offensive?” And muslims cannot respond with simply or “belief” or “Qu’ran” because they know that these are not our terms, not our points of reference, and are meaningless to anyone outside the faith. So the copy-cats are actually more interesting than the original, because they present a genuine response to the protest, rather than instigating the antagonism in the first place.

I find the attitude of faith groups in these situations rather naive. It is the very fact that they take offence, which prompts the desire to cause offence! Religions, by their very nature, preach certain rules and regulations. If any notion of faith is invoked, then we find that the rules are absolute, and cannot be questioned. They become walls, a psycological prison. Not only is it human nature to want to break free, but it is a human right to do so. Religious dictats invite disobediance, the philosophical equivalent of a “Please Keep Off The Grass” sign.

I am ashamed to admit it, but “Jesus Wants To Fuck His Dad” makes me laugh precisely because I know it will leave others shocked. This is a apparently the point of a lot of Gilbert & George’s art too. The play Bhetzi, which would have passed below my radar, now interests me precisely because it has the power to mobilise an angry mob. The Sheffield Crucible’s production of The Romans In Britain will have sell-out audiences, as a direct result of Mary Whitehouse’s campaign to have it banned in 1980.

All these plays and pictures gain publicity and legitimacy, as a direct result of the complaints against them. As a result, more people will engage with the work than would otherwise have been the case, had the protestors kept quiet. These campaigners achieve the exact opposite of what they intend… and that irony makes me laugh too.


Jesus and Mo agree that protesting too loudly only makes matters worse.