[This blog is currently being brought to you in conjunction with pseudo-ephedrine - something I wouldn’t have touched back in the days when I was a competitive sporty type, but is now fully available for my personal use, and is doing an excellent job of keeping me upright.]
No gags today, for a change. If you’re ok with that, then we’ll begin...
Back in February, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon issued a rather disturbing statement regarding freedom of expression:
"The Secretary-General strongly believes that freedom of expression should be exercised responsibly and in a way that respects all religious beliefs."
Now, this in itself wasn’t the most earth-shattering of news. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, had peddled an almost identical line, "...the freedom of the press should always be exercised in a way that fully respects the religious beliefs and tenets of all religions." So the current Sec-Gen. was just continuing with the party line, even if it was an utterly nonsensical and wholly impractical one in the first place. (I hope that no-one reading this would fail to understand the impossibility of complying with either statement? Quite apart from the inherent problem of deciding the order of precedence when faced with an enormous range of competing - often mutually exclusive - religious beliefs, it suggests that these beliefs belong to a unique category of ideas: ideas which should not be subjected to ’disrespect’, simply because they claim derivation from a supposedly ’divine’ source. Possibly more on this later, depends where this ends up going, and how much time I have).
Now, it could be argued in his defence that he was merely trying to make soothing noises to smooth down the feathers of various Islamic states, who were at the time in the grip of "Mo-toon fever" part 2. (And here, here, and here.) That, however, doesn’t address the already-detailed issues arising from the wording of the statement, or the question of to what extent any of us have an immediate right to be ’offended’. Things, unfortunately, have just become a bit worse...
The United Nations Human Rights Council have succumbed to pressure from the usual suspects to pass a (non-binding, thankfully) resolution regarding "Combating defamation of religions" (scroll down till that heading comes up). Part of the rigmarole contains this wonderful piece of utter cant from the Saudi Arabian representative (my italics throughout):
"ABDULWAHAB ABDULSALAM ATTAR (Saudi Arabia) said last year had witnessed a series of immoral practices targeting beliefs and cultures... It was regrettable that there were false interpretations of freedom of religion and expression. This must not lead to any hatred by touching on sacred teachings. There were teachings which had called for tolerance and acceptance. International instruments had guaranteed the right to expression, but had also placed obligations on everybody to exercise this right. This did not mean to ignore any prejudices against Muslims, as seen in the Western media. Saudi Arabia called for tolerance of all religions and called on the international community to respect Muslims and their feelings in accordance with all monotheistic religions. The draft resolution recalled the preservation of this respect."
Ah yes, that bastion of religious tolerance, Saudi Arabia, gets to decide what constitutes "immorality", "false interpretation of freedom of religion and expression", and the definition of "sacred teachings" - presumably including incontrovertible proof of their ’sacred’ nature. Nice. Glad to see such important concepts are in safe hands...
But what, you might ask, exactly does this have to do with musicians or the music industry (ostensibly the main subject of this blog)? Bear with me. We’ll get there...
Now, that might be yet another U.N. resolution we can all happily ignore, but then they also went and stuck the "Special Rapporteur" in charge of promoting / supporting freedom of expression with having "To report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination …". Now that is binding, and some of the consequences are spelled-out here.
Again, we might not be too bothered if it was an isolated incident of U.N. internal political shenanigans - after all, the "Religious Defamation" resolution, for instance, would violate the U.S. constitution, so couldn’t possibly be applied over there. Except that (here in the UK, anyway), it’s just another part of what should be a rather worrying trend - especially for those of us in the creative arts.
We’ve seen the dear old Church of England do a u-turn on the repeal of the blasphemy laws (they suddenly decided they wanted something more specific installed in their place, something that would protect them from "disrespect"), and the Vatican joining up with Islam (yes, you read that correctly - two deeply antithetical belief systems working together) to fight "offences against religion", saying that freedom of expression should "not be taken as a pretext for offending religions, convictions, religious symbols and everything that is considered sacred." (Whether they now intend to retrospectively burn effigies of David Hume and stage widespread riots against his teachings is presently unknown. Ah. Sorry, that was a gag, which makes me a liar. Ah well, fires of hell for me, then...)
Then we have that lovely man, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, calling for greater ’liberty of conscience’ for those of a religious bent, while at the same time seeking to impose his peculiar brand of ’ethics’ upon doctors. (Let’s not forget, whenever we’re considering the latest moral pronouncements of Cardinal O’Conman (sic), that he personally protected known paedophile priests while he was the Bishop of Arundel & Brighton. As I said, charming fellow).
Personally speaking, I have no truck with supernaturalisms of any sort (you’d probably guessed that much by this point). I do, however, support anyone’s right to believe whatever they want in private, even holocaust deniers (by their failed libel cases shall ye counter them). The difficulties start, inevitably, when someone takes it into their heads they have the right to tell everyone else how to live their lives, right down to the smallest detail, because their all-powerful, invisible deity (or deities, of course) - or, more usually, the book that has allegedly been written at that deity’s behest - has told them to...with a sliding-scale of prescribed punishments for heretics and non-adherents - ranging from mild social ostracism to death, depending on the deity / book in question. (e.g. The last person to be hanged for blasphemy in Scotland was Thomas Aikenhead, in 1697).
In which case, I reserve the right to subject their beliefs to the most rigorous scrutiny, and mock them roundly when they are patently absurd (e.g. ’Young Earth Creationism’, Scientology), or oppressive (e.g. Islamists, the Baptist "gays are an abomination" crowd, Ultra-Orthodox Jews who assault women on buses, etc,etc..there are far too many to mention in this category, though almost all of them seem to have it in for women to some degree). It would seem, though, that the assorted religions are starting to work together (against the evil secularists) so that they can have their cake and shovel it in like they’re genetically immune to obesity and heart disease.
And this is where it could affect we musicians (sorry it took so long to get here)...it’s clear they want a situation where it’s fine for them to preach whatever they wish from their beloved "sacred" texts, while stifling any criticism that they deem "disrespectful" of their beliefs. Ok, this isn’t going to be the greatest issue for your wee teeny-pop bands singing "Lovely, lovely lurve" songs, sure, but there are plenty of ’serious’ / ’political’ songwriters out there, and if the religionists continue to push this "demand for respect" agenda hard enough, we could well see artists being taken to court simply for telling the truth. And while it can be fantastic publicity (and a bit of a giggle) to have a few fundies standing outside a gig protesting, the threat of serious legal bills will scare a lot of record companies into censoring their output (c.f. Janet Jackson’s ’superbowl nipple’).
Quite aside from that, and the (very real) possibility of death threats from the extreme end of the spectrum, it’s worth remembering that no matter where you live, your material is almost certainly available in territories with very different beliefs & laws, which could also affect touring considerations, particularly when it comes to the cost of public liability insurance, or venue security - and not just along the obvious lines of "avoid religious states", either. Who could forget the ’fun’ the Birmingham Rep. Theatre had a few years back, when some Sikhs decided they were "offended" by the play, "Behzti" ?
Yes, I know it hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a very real threat to our freedom of expression looming on the horizon. To (badly) rehash a famous (and apparently highly variable) poem:
"First they came for the Cartoonists, but I was not a Cartoonist, so I said nothing...."