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The Tunisian Controversy & Offence

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A few days ago a young British DJ was sentenced to a year in jail by a Tunisian judge for playing music deemed offensive. The DJ has since received over 200 death threats. It is unclear whether he was intending to offend but he says not. He has offered his “sincere apologies to anyone who may have been offended by music that I played at Orbit Festival in Tunisia on Friday”. “It was never my intention to upset or cause offence to anybody,” he said.

The jail sentence seems a bit of an over reaction to some of us, and so I tweeted words to that effect. Surely a religion doesn’t need that amount of protection from the law, not if its followers are secure in their faith?

I have often used the Woodhouse twitter account to stimulate debate and to try to engage students to think critically. This often includes references to international issues of the day.

My tweet was not Islamophobic, was not expressing a view on Islam just on this judge’s sentencing. Similarly, previous tweets expressing outrage at church cover-ups over child abuse were not anti Christian. A recent tweet about a Jewish community in Manchester turning their back on a transgender parent was not antisemitic. And not so long ago I tweeted that it is hard to see Germaine Greer as the misogynist she was being painted by some who were offended by her views on transgender; and that tweet was not transphobic.

On this occasion, some were offended by the use of the word faith in a critical context. But I clearly wasn’t criticising the Islamic religion itself, merely making the point satirically that people’s belief in that religion must be weak if they need such over-protection from offence. Logically, we could express that equivalently in another form: if people’s belief is secure and strong they shouldn’t need such an overreaction from the state to an ignorant act from an outsider.

Others were offended by the mere act of criticising a sovereign state and its due legal processes. But this is disingenuous: all of us criticise the actions and laws of other states and, indeed, our own all the time: this is how it should be; this is how truth and justice are pursued.

Others felt that the DJ had offered a genuine offence to believers and that such offence should not be defended. This is important as it illustrates the modern generation’s tendency to seek out offence and to overreact to it wherever they can. The problem with the culture of taking offence is that we are all offended by different things and it leads to the closing down of free speech, the closing down of free expression of ideas.

Once upon a time young people wanted to change the world. Now, it seems, too many seem to want to be offended by it. It is remarkable that there was more anger amongst our twitter followers at my tweet than at the jail sentence.

It is important that we stress that the right to free speech is unconditional. As someone put it, “your right to offend me is more important than my right not to be offended”.

There have to be limits on free speech. In particular, anything that whips up hatred or violence against others must be condemned. Some of the recent tweeters to the College have named an individual student in an abusive and bullying way, and that is surely wrong (and if those people are not ashamed of themselves, they have no business being offended by the comments of others).

But institutions like states and religions should be able to put up with a little mockery, satire or mischief (such as playing offensive music). They are not so fragile that they are ready to fall apart at any moment if we don’t throw their detractors in jail.

We want Woodhouse students to be evaluative and sceptical, to welcome challenge and to engage with it honestly and rigorously, not just to follow the crowd. It is very easy, especially on social media, to join in collective outrage without engaging the brain. British society needs people who think for themselves.

Although there may be a time and need for ‘safe spaces’, it is also true that young (and old) people need to be able to deal with challenge. At times we all face different opinions, new facts or interpretations, and the modern world needs people who don’t simply reject those new ideas out of hand and without reflection or thought.

Feel free to disagree with anything I say and to offer counter arguments: I will try not to be offended.

 

Additional thought:

When I was in the sixth form, there was a famous legal case in which Gay News was prosecuted for blasphemy for publishing a poem in which Jesus had a sexual relationship with a Roman Centurion. Gay News lost the court case and its editor received a suspended prison sentence of nine months, and had to pay a fine and costs. The argument of the prosecution was that the poem had offended Christians and, especially since this is supposedly a Christian country, this blasphemy should not be allowed.

Well meaning liberals across the UK supported Gay News. Well known musicians and comedians held events to raise money for it to fight its case in court and,
after, to pay its costs. People campaigned against the blasphemy laws, which were repealed a few years later. People also campaigned against censorship.

The times have changed. I wonder if something similar occurred today whether the kind of people who rallied round Gay News back in the day would now turn on it and accuse it of disrespecting a religion and its followers; perhaps now they would demand an apology from Gay News’ editor and support the outcome of the court case.

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous Student says:

    The right to offend does not mean the right to freedom from consequences. Although I was not offended personally by your tweet, it is evident that other students were which is understandable and thus they have the right to protest against your comments (which is the consequence). I do agree with you that some students may have reacted disproportionately. However, the right to freedom of speech that you have mentioned frequently also gives them this freedom. I suggest that next time your words are chosen more carefully as the college twitter account represents us all at the college. Moving on, in another tweet that you posted you said “Bigots and zealots of all religions and nationalities are against free speech.” However, you will often find that free speech is used as a tool by zealots and bigots of today to preach hate and legitimise it with the ‘freedom of speech’. The judgement of whether or not their remarks are to be considered as hate speech (which in Europe is illegal) is a matter for the judicial system. Therefore, I disagree with your point that bigots and zealots are “against free speech”, rather they use it to their advantage as a tool. Despite all of the controversy and outrage that has been caused by your remarks, I am respectful of your efforts to stimulate debate in our diverse college.

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