Remember the controversy about the ‘gay cake’? Last year, a bakery in Belfast refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. A court ruled that the bakers had discriminated against a customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, contrary to equality legislation. The customer, Gareth Lee, was awared £500 in compensation.
The case will be considered in the Appeal Court this week. Ahead of the hearing, the veteran gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has published a surprising article defending the bakery. There’s a version on the Guardian comment pages, and a longer version sent to Peter’s mailing list.
I recommend reading the entire article, but the crux of Tatchell’s argument is this:
It is discrimination against an idea, not against a person.
The bakery refused to support and propagate the idea of same-sex marriage. Lee was not refused service because he was gay, but because of the message on the cake.
This is a subtle point but also a persuasive one. The implications loom large. Tatchell asks:
Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? … If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages.
Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience surely means the freedom not to engage in the commerce of distributing ideas that you oppose.
I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the Bed & Breakfast owners who refused service to a gay couple—This blog has previously discussed the issues raised by such cases. However, Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.
The Medium of Icing
Who would have thought that patrsies are political! Almost 10 years ago, this blog also discussed the Medium of Icing.
Bahar Mustafa, the welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths, is facing a petition for her removal after she allegedly used hate speech on social media. Apparently she used the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen. Critics say this is inciting violence: “Too befuddled by theory to know that killing is wrong“.
Obviously, someone elected to a position of authority and responsibility should be more diplomatic in their use of language so its probably right that she should be asked to step down. But the story is a useful way to restate a point about ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’ that I touched on a while back when Diane Abbott was accused of racism.
Its this: My white male privilege is such that when someone tweets #KillAllWhiteMen, I assume is a joke. I read the hashtag and my natural reaction is that she’s indulging in hyperbole. Banter. I get to make that assumption because I don’t live in a society that demeans or belittles me because of my race or gender. Nothing in the mainstream culture or media undermines me or makes me insecure because of my phenotype or chromosomes.
Black people do not get to make that assumption.
Women do not get to make that assumption.
LGBTQ people do not get to make that assumption.
When any of these people see comparable hashtags (posted, usually, by white men) the threat feels real, and their outrage in response to such message is real and justified. Conversely, when there is an angry backlash against people like Mustafa on petition sites and newspapers like The Daily Mail, the outrage seems (to my mind) quite false: a mask donned in order to better fight the culture war.
None of this is to defend Bahar Mustafa or to suggest that routinely posting antagonistic messages is admirable. Rather, its just to point out that context is important. While laws should be blind to race, gender and sexuality, our society and the interactions within it are not. Words that bite in one context may be toothless in another.
Indeed, changing contexts mean there will be situations where white men would indeed feel menanced by a hashtag. For example, if it were tweeted in Paris on 7th January, right after the Charlie Hebdo murders, messages like #KillAllWhiteMen would take on on a whole new meaning, and I’d think again.