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The Three Little English Pigs (Protagoras, January 28, 2008)
There is a Government agency in England called BECTA. It is a sponsor of an award ceremony for childrens' books called the Bett Awards. These awards were recently announced. Alexandra Frean describes in the Times what happened next.
A children's story based on the tale of the Three Little Pigs was rejected for an award after judges became concerned that it would offend Muslims.
The story came to light on January 24, since when we have had a chorus of outstpoken reactions of two main sorts. The first sort has been from Muslims who write indignant letters to the press saying they are not in the least offended by the story of the three little pigs, cannot imagine why anyone would think they would be, and that they object strongly to this sort of thing as it brings the religion and community into disrepute by falsely portraying it as bigoted, irrational superstitious and intolerant.
The other group who BECTA is protecting, British builders, have been suspiciously silent. In the summer they would be out in the cities clambering over scaffolding and whistling appreciatively at every woman between 18 and 50 who walked past. It being winter, maybe they are in hibernation.
The second reaction has been from English non-Muslims, who take the line that it is obvious Muslims are determined to be offended by everything. The proposals of these writers vary, the idea that Muslims should be encouraged to emigrate to Muslim countries being among the milder possibilities.
It is a trivial story, but one with resonances. Let us explore them a little.
We start out attempting to limit racist practice. It seemed clear that to do this, we needed also to limit speech which incites racial hatred. It was made an offence. Most people find this reasonable. They do not want to live in an England in which people or groups may with impunity be discriminated against or publicly abused on grounds of race.
When asked why they find the speech part of this reasonable, they feel a little uncomfortable, but if they probe the matter deeply enough probably feel two things. One that it is partly justified by its role in eliminating racist practice. It is perhaps not quite speech in the sense in which we want speech to be free. It is more akin to incitement to riot or murder, which have been unlawful in English law for centuries, it is parastical on the offence of racist practice. Two, that it is partly justified because of the pain they feel racism and racist speech causes to its objects.
We move forward a few years, and English society has become much more open. Minorities are employed everywhere, there are Muslim Peers in the House of Lords, black or Asian bishops in the Church of England, the faces on the news are multicolored. Racial discriminatin has been outlawed.
Attitudes to speech then moved on also. We increasingly came to feel that people should be spared hearing speech or viewing material which offends them. Now, we live in an era in which feeling others pain has become widespread, but we do feel some pain more deeply than others, so its not consistent. You can still hear jokes about the old on mainstream media which would be immediately banned were they about Jews or women. You can for that matter still hear jokes about men which would be immediately banned were they about women. But in general, to point out that speech really causes offence is to have a reasonable chance of getting a response that will result in its being limited.
We have now moved to a further stage on speech. Up to now, to show that speech should be limited, one usually had to show that it actually did give offence, or reasonably should offend. Increasingly it had become the latter. Now however, we merely have to show that we think it undesirable, not that it is in any way objected to, or rationally should be objected to, by the supposed victims.
Consider. The Bett judges are objecting to material, on the grounds of safeguarding the interests of two groups, builders and Muslims, neither of whom has shown any signs of being offended by the material Bett objects to, and one of which (Muslims) have vociferously denied any offence or grounds for offence, and where the Bett judges themselves cannot put forward any coherent account of why a story about pigs should offend them.
This is not the only instance of the phenomenon. Councils all across Britain are anxiously eliminating any public references to Christianity, including Christmas, out of a desire to safeguard the sensibilities of Muslims. Meanwhile, Muslims write to the press saying that they are not in the least offended by people calling the December holidays Christmas, since that is what they are. And the Councils can give no coherent account of why Muslims should be offended.
Both criteria are important: the actual offence and the rational basis for it. We can imagine a situation in which an oppressed minority suffers from 'false consciousness', and as a result of this legacy of oppression is not offended by material which should rationally offend it. Amos 'n Andy might have fallen into this category. It was deplorable stuff, even if it gave little conscious offence to blacks in the thirties. But in this case, you can give a coherent account of why it was insulting and offensive. No-one has been able to explain why Muslims in Britain should be offended by stories about pigs, or the use of the word Christmas.
I do not think it right to regulate speech on the grounds of offence. I do not think it possible to have a democracy in which people are protected from being offended. However, if we start down the road of regulating speech according to offence, we must hold absolutely to the criterion that the regulated speech must be either both rationally and actually offensive, or at least rationally offensive.
If we admit as a principle that political or governmental authorities can limit general speech to protect groups from being exposed to material they do not in fact, and should not in principle, find offensive, there is no longer any freedom of speech or publication. The same applies if we allow censorship on the grounds of simply being offended, with no need to produce a rational account of why. Anything can then be censored on any grounds. We could as well censor Pliny, or perhaps Sir Walter Scott, on the grounds that their writings may offend the Welsh, or perhaps three year olds, or Eskimos.
This is where the perfectly laudable desire to protect people from incitement to racial hatred has brought us. We have moved from outlawing the shouting of 'Fire!' in a crowded theater, or incitement to riot or murder, to outlawing the remark that pig farming is an important sector of British agriculture. Or indeed the recent remark by a prominent British Muslim, that homosexuality is a sin. Or a sarcastic aside by our former Prime Minister about Wales. What it shows is, there is no easy stopping point short of totalitarianism once you start to abridge freedom of speech and publication. Something the American Founding Fathers understood very well.
There are going to be no easy ways out of the present mess. There is only one which is compatible with the Western liberal tradition. That is to punish and limit conduct not speech, and specifically not to try to limit speech which is offensive. And yes, we will be offended, all of us. Get used to it.
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