Tuesday, 18 March 2014
Thoughts on Blasphemy, Offense and Free Speech
A couple of posts ago, I made a light-hearted remark about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and how I would have been sentenced to death for saying that I don’t like every single one of Queen’s songs. An off-the-cuff remark about a very serious subject, and a cause of extreme concern, especially for the non-Muslim minorities in the country.
Very happily, we no longer have a blasphemy law in this country, or at least not one that is enforced, and that is as it should be. The concept of blasphemy laws is very tightly interwoven with the concept of freedom of and from religion, and freedom of expression. I think most people would agree that not having laws banning people from blasphemy is a Good Thing.
However, it is also tightly bound up with the abuse of free speech. I would argue absolutely for the fact that people ought to be allowed to blaspheme, but that doesn’t mean that I think they should. Increasingly as time goes on, I am becoming more and more sensitive to what can perhaps be called casual or unconscious blasphemy, and it is this unconsciousness that is primarily what irks me.
Despite the protestations of some, it can be asserted with a fair degree of confidence that we now live in a post-Christian country. The population as a whole is increasingly secular, and to most the very concept of blasphemy, if they are familiar with it at all, must seem bizarrely archaic. As a result most of them aren’t even aware of what they are doing when they exclaim “Oh my God!” or “Jesus Christ!” They might be aware that the latter is ‘swearing’ (although I wonder if they could tell you why), but the vast majority of people will be unaware that the former is even what might be considered bad language. It’s just an exclamation, and one that is almost completely ubiquitous. The idea that taking the Name in vain is a thing at all, let alone a bad thing, is totally alien to most people in this country. Everyone is familiar with the concept of swearing in the sense of vulgarity, but this doesn’t overly bother me, although I don’t tend to do so myself. You can use any of the popular four letter words and while I may consider them vulgar and aesthetically displeasing, they don’t bother me overly. However, increasingly, hearing people say “Oh my God!” as the mildest form of exclamation makes me twitch internally.
It is that unconsciousness, that lack of understanding that gets to me more than the blasphemy itself. I can’t help but feel that if you want to have a good blaspheme, then it is your right to do so, but you should do so in the full knowledge of what you’re doing. Of course (or at least I assume), the people using these phrases aren’t religious, and aren’t using them in a context of religious swearing. They’re just ‘things that you say’, and this in itself is saddening.
I can’t honestly say that hearing other people blaspheme ‘offends’ me as such, but I do severely dislike it. I don’t believe that people have a right not to be offended, and I certainly don’t believe that religion should have any special protection from being criticised or even mocked. On the other hand, I do think that people have a responsibility to use their free speech responsibly, and act in a manner that minimises the offence given to others. I strongly believe that I should have the right to hurl racist abuse if I so choose (not, I hasten to add, that I ever would), but I also have a responsibility to use (or in this case refrains from using) that right in a way that avoids causing offence if possible. And of course that doesn’t mean that you should refrain from opposing something that you feel is wrong, out of fear of causing offence; sometimes it’s unavoidable.
Most people are decent, reasonable human beings, and don’t wish to offend others needlessly, so perhaps education is all that is required when it comes to religious swearing, but I don’t usually feel comfortable asking people not to blaspheme around me. This is in part due to the seemingly archaic nature of blasphemy in the first place, and partly due to questions of free speech and offence. I might make the occasional sarcastic comment (“Oh my God!” “No, I just look like Him.”), much to my wife’s irritation, but I’ve not asked people at work not to blaspheme around me, nor have I asked my friends not to.
I am uncertain where the line is between allowing people to express themselves freely around me, and not feel awkward and self-conscious when talking in my presence, and standing up for my beliefs, and making them known. If I harangued my friends every time they blasphemed (because most of them are not Christian, and therefore do not believe that there is anything wrong with it), I would swiftly become a complete bore, and not have any friends at all. But then, shouldn’t my beliefs, including the commandment that you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain, take precedent over my desire not to alienate those around me? I’m afraid I’m simply not that hard-line, and could it not be argued that by doing so, I would merely be lowering their opinion of Christianity, and thus acting counter to the interests of the Kingdom?
These are questions to which I do not know the answer, and I can’t imagine that they will resolve themselves any time soon.