What I say may offend you. Well, get over it
Toleration of people’s right to be intolerant remains a cornerstone of civilised democracy, writes DONALD CLARKE
YOU COULD argue that Innocence of Muslims, the film that has caused (or been used as an excuse for) so much mayhem, offers the perfect platform for a discussion of free speech and standing up to the militantly offended. Heck, I am arguing that.
Consider the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial. In late 1960, over a 10-day period, literary figures such as Richard Hoggart, EM Forster and Rebecca West turned up at the Old Bailey to argue that DH Lawrence’s ludicrous panty-ripper was some sort of transcendental masterpiece.
It is fair to assume that a few rather exaggerated the novel’s worth. No matter. Simply by appearing, the experts offered tacit support for the notion – supported in UK law at the time – that literary merit was a fair defence against accusations of obscenity. Similar arguments were dragged up at hearings concerning such diverse works as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn.
When scandals arise concerning works of art, arguments about the relevant pieces’ merit continue to trigger unnecessary distractions. Hillary Clinton recently described Innocence of Muslims as “disgusting and reprehensible”. On the evidence of the trailer – which is all most of us have seen – the picture is certainly that. It is also abysmally acted, atrociously written and incompetently shot. Online advertisements for dubious tarmac suppliers tend to exhibit higher production values.
By coincidence, the scandal kicked off in the same week that Salman Rushdie published a sly memoir, written in the third person, largely concerned with his efforts to cope with the death sentence imposed upon him for writing The Satanic Verses.
In Joseph Anton (his alias at the time), Rushdie calls up a troubling parallel with a famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. His 1989 fatwa was the first bird that, initially unnoticed, settled ominously upon the climbing frame behind Tippi Hedren. He compares the flock that subsequently amassed in Hitchcock’s film to the stream of religiously inspired atrocities that peaked (or did it?) with the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Not every critic liked The Satanic Verses. The consensus at the time was that it lacked the drive and lucidity of earlier works by Rushdie. But nobody doubted the seriousness of his intent. Rushdie has, moreover, made it clear that there was no conscious effort to offend Muslims. A careful reading of the book confirms the sincerity of that argument.
In contrast, Innocence of Muslims is (again, working on the evidence of its trailer) a slab of worthless trash conceived with the express purpose of annoying followers of Islam. “It’s a disgusting little thing,” Rushdie agreed, before allowing old- geezer technophobia to get the better of him. “But the internet is full of disgusting little things. That’s what the internet is. It’s for the garbage of the human race.”
He then went on to bemoan the absurdity of the “overreaction” to the film.
Here’s the thing. Any sane person could be forgiven for defending The Satanic Verses (or Ulysses or Howl) with greater enthusiasm than they can muster when putting the case for Innocence of Muslims. But the key issue remains the same.
No artist should, in a free society, be prohibited from selling or exhibiting his or her work simply because some group of people takes offence. The quality of the piece is irrelevant. If I nail offal to my head, grab a ukulele and, after retiring to a white space, begin wailing about the supposed evils of, say, Presbyterianism then I deserve ridicule, poor sales and a one-star review in The Irish Times. But I retain the same right to offend as do Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth or Spike Lee (in that area alone, we are equal).
Getting righteously offended has become something of a hobby over the last few decades. Nothing binds people together more securely than a perception that somebody else is saying something nasty about their faith, nationality or hair colour. Rushdie describes the phenomenon as “outrage identity”. We can now define ourselves by other people’s rudeness.
None of which is to suggest that we should stop decrying racism, homophobia or religious intolerance. Where would this column be without whinges about broad caricatures of Irishness or cheap shots at everyday bigots? But toleration of other people’s right to be intolerant remains a cornerstone of civilised democracy.
Religious observers seem particularly prone to outrage identity. Over the decades, the Christian faithful have brandished their “offence” at such disparate entities as Jerry Springer: The Opera, The Last Temptation of Christ and – what did he expect? – Andres Serrano’s notorious photograph, Piss Christ. On each occasion, Christianity has survived the assault. On no occasion did anybody die from an excess of offence.
Sorry if any of this offends you, but . . . Actually I’m not sorry. Get over it.