Sunday, January 02, 2005


On the 18th of this month, 1,000 enraged Sikhs stormed the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, throwing eggs, smashing windows, injuring three police officers, attempting to climb onto the stage, and successfully halting the production after it had played for 20 minutes. "Behzti," Punjabi for "dishonor," had aroused the mob's ire because the playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, had placed its rape scene in a Sikh temple. Ms. Bhatti, herself a British-born Sikh, had resisted local pressure to move the incendiary action to a religiously neutral setting like a community center.

The upshot: Score one for yahooism, zero for law. Reluctantly, the Birmingham Rep canceled the run, for neither the theater nor the police could guarantee the safety of audience and staff. Determined to defend free speech, a second Birmingham company volunteered to stage the play instead, only to withdraw the offer at the request of the playwright, now in hiding after receiving several death threats.

Even more distressing than the triumph of shattered plate glass is the rhetoric to which this conflict has given rise--and not only from conservative Sikhs, but from leaders of the Catholic Church. The views of Harmander Singh, spokesman for a Sikh advocacy group, were echoed by numerous British television news guests for days: "We are not against freedom of speech, but there's no right to offend."

Oh, but indeed there is. Freedom of speech that does not embrace the right to offend is a farce. The stipulation that you may say whatever you like so long as you don't hurt anyone's feelings canonizes the milquetoast homily, "If you can't say anything nice. . .." Since rare is the sentiment that does not incense someone, rest assured that in that instance you don't say anything at all.

The concept of religious "tolerance" seems to be warping apace these days, and we appear to forget that commonly one tolerates through gritted teeth. It is rapidly becoming accepted social cant that to "tolerate" other people's religions is to accord them respect. In fact, respect for one's beliefs is gradually achieving the status of a hallowed "human right."

I am under no obligation to respect your beliefs. Respect is earned; it is not an entitlement. I may regard creationists as plain wrong, which would make holding their beliefs in high regard nonsensical. In kind, if I proclaim on a street corner that a certain Japanese beetle in my back garden is the new Messiah, you are also within your rights to ridicule me as a fruitcake.

The fact that we have to be free to outrage one another is potentially in conflict with a law that soon will be put to the Commons that would add "incitement to religious hatred"--punishable by seven years in prison--to the equally dubious legislation already on the British books banning "incitement to racial hatred." Laws that prohibit incitement to illegal action seem defensible enough. But with this and similar "hate crime" legislation, are we not on the way to classifying hatred itself as a crime? And while we are at it, should we not then criminalize envy and narcissism for also being antisocial states of mind? Moreover, what is the difference between "incitement to hatred" and "incitement to fierce dislike"? Or "incitement to mockery"?

The spokesman for the Roman Catholic Bishop of Birmingham applauded the cancellation of "Behzti" last week, intoning that "with freedom of speech and artistic license must come responsibility." But the familiar "with rights come responsibilities" line is standard-issue blarney for, "It's all very well to hold rights in theory, so long as you don't choose to exercise them." Making this case all the more pointed, even the right of a woman to criticize her own religion has been trammeled.

Apparently contemporary "tolerance" does not merely allow others to practice whatever goofy or incomprehensible religion they like--and sometimes with a rolled eye--but surrounds any faith with a hands-off halo of sanctity, so that whatever is sacred to you must also be sacred to me. Disquietingly, this halo in Britain may be enshrined into law. Worse, today's exaggeratedly deferent brand of tolerance is driven by a darker force than mere let's-all-get-along multiculturalism, and that is fear. In the post-9/11 world, we are arriving at an unspoken understanding that zealots in our midst must not be offended, lest in their indignation they do something horrible.

In Birmingham this month, "they" did do something horrible, vandalizing private property, issuing death threats, and bullying a theater director of integrity into violating his own beliefs--which, being secular, apparently count for little. Meanwhile, Britain's Channel Four has promoted its "Shameless Christmas Special" with billboards parodying "The Last Supper," in which Jesus, if you'll pardon the expression, is drunk as a lord. Some Christians find the ads in poor taste. I may admire the campaign as droll; the pious may pontificate about how much they deplore it. Now, that is free speech.


Killer vacuum attacks Scotsman: "An Aberdeen man has won more than 10,000 pounds in compensation from vacuum cleaner outfit Dyson after one of the manufacturer's machines attempted to total the 59-year-old ... Norman Grant told Aberdeen Sheriff Court how on 3 March 2002, as he was trying to tackle 'high cobwebs' at his home, the hose extension 'suddenly knocked him down his stairs.' Grant suffered wrist and head injuries in the incident, exact details of which are not forthcoming. Grant came face-to-face with the homicidal machine for a second time when he went to court to plead for damages. In the event, he settled for a unnamed sum understood to be in excess of 10,000 pounds."

Christmas stupidity : "Christmas is a joyous holiday, and joyous people tend not to behave like Torquemada. By my rough calculation, 99.87 percent of Christians who say 'Merry Christmas' to people who aren't Christian do so because they're trying to be nice. And, by my equally rough calculation, 97.93 percent of people who take real offense when they're on the receiving end of such Yuletide wishes are trying to be a pain in the -- uh, well, they're trying to be a pain. Let's put it this way. If you were in Morocco (and a non-Muslim) and someone said to you, 'Have a nice Ramadan,' you'd probably say thanks respectfully and leave it at that. But some people are aghast that, here at home, someone might say 'Merry Christmas' to them without first making sure they're Christians."

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