Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have three different names.

Now it's all over it's probably safe to say that 'teddygate' wasn't a terribly big deal. Idiotic person behaves idiotically in country known to over-react to idiotic behavior. Idiotic country reacts idiotically. Diplomats grovel and lie a bit. Everything sorted out. Doubtless distasteful to be locked up for a fortnight for having done nothing very serious, but hell, our government wants to lock people up for six weeks when they haven't done anything at all. Unpleasant to be threatened with flogging, but then, our closest allies sometimes pretend to drown people. Ho hum.

I did find the National Debate mildly diverting, though. If Pundit A said "It's not that surprising that Johnny Muslim thinks it's disrespectful to name a child's toy after the Prophet Mohammed. We'd think it a bit off if someone named their fluffy alligator 'Jesus Christ'. Particularly if that someone was a veil-wearing Muslim in a Christian school". Pundit B would immediately reply "Yes, but no-one would demand that they be flogged or killed or even locked up" – as if A's belief that it's pretty bad manners to break local taboos implies that he didn't think the proposed punishment was out of all proportion. In the more erudite sections of the meejah, this enabled the entire discussion to be reduced to "Foreigners horrible! Muslims horrible! Religion horrible!"

It seemed to me that at least five different propositions were being folded together into a single philosophical batter:

1: "It is impossible that anyone should take offense over the name given to a child's toy." vs "It is perfectly understandable that someone should take offense at the name given to a child's toy."

Our beloved Mail and the fascist Express were quite clear which side of this particular fence they came down on, and never moved far away from it. Teddy bears are toys; faintly ridiculous toys; you can't possibly take offense at anything faintly ridiculous. Johnny Foreigner is only pretending to be offended. Muslims are nutters, it's political correctness gone mad, etc etc etc.

But even respectable BBC newscasters seemed to pronounce the word "teddy" in a tone of voice which implied they thought the whole thing was rather silly. What editorial assumption lurked behind the decision to write "Naming a teddy 'Mohammed ' " as opposed to, say, "Naming a toy bear..." or "Naming a child's toy..."?

I can imagine all sorts of circumstances under which a white -- sorry, a normal -- person might be offended by something cute and fluffy. Some of us were unhappy when it turned out that bootleg Incredible Hulks circulating at the time of the movie had enormous green willies under their purple shorts. Many of us regard cute, fluffy Gollywogs to be in rather doubtful taste. Most of us would not hesitate to say that someone was anti-semitic if they gave the name "Moses" or even "Jehovah" to a toy pig. And can you imagine what would happen if someone admitted, even in the context of an historical movie, that someone had, a long time ago, called their cute, fluffy, black dog 'Nigger' "?

2: "Offending religious belief should never be a criminal offense" vs "If a particular jurisdiction chooses to prohibit insulting religious belief, it is quite free to do so."

Having a dog called Nigger would not, in fact, result in a criminal prosecution in the UK. It would merely, in practice debar your from public office and make it impossible for you to ever have a career in the media. If you say that L Ron Hubbard was the Messiah, you will be laughed at in public. If you say that the holocaust never happened you will be invited to speak at the Oxford Union, which amounts to much the same thing. But we largely respect France and Germany's decisions to make Scientology and Holocaust Denial criminal offenses. White – sorry, civilized – countries do, in fact, limit the kinds of opinions which can be freely expressed.

Until last Wednesday blasphemy against the Christian religion was prohibited under English law. The failure of Stephen Green's quixotic private prosecution against the perpetrators of Jerry Springer – The Opera suggests that the law has been changed without recourse to anything as old fashioned as the House of Commons. If the law permits you to say that the Virgin Mary was raped by God, it's hard to know what it could possibly prohibit. A typically CofE compromise: get rid of a problematic law, not by repealing it but by deciding to ignore it. That's how we dealt with Sunday Trading: all the shops said "We don't like this law, so we're going to open on Sundays regardless" and the government said "OK: right you are, then." Funnily enough, this doesn't apply to young people and marijuana.

Jesus is not depicted wearing a nappy. The Prophet's wives are not said to be prostitutes. Rick never said "Play it again, Sam."

You may think that the distinction between the old crime of "blasphemy" and the new one of "stirring up religious hatred" is quite subtle. Under the old law, you were quite free to insult Islam if you felt like it, but under the new one, it's presumably and offense to encourage people to hate Scientology, so it could even be that we're less free to slag off god-botherers than we used to be. When his case comes to court, I look forward to hearing Mr. Dawkins explain to the jury how saying "God is a sadist" differs from saying "Christians are the kinds of people who think that God is a sadist, and, if they pass those beliefs on to their children, they are no better than pedophiles, except at Christmas, when I think it should be encouraged."

The last person to be sent to jail for blasphemy, in 1922, was the unfortunately named John William Gott. He had said that Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem "like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys." The judge thought that you didn't have to be especially religious to be outraged by this remark. Since the Gospel According to St Matthew says: "Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass" this suggests that an English court is not the best place to discuss poetic parallelism.

3: "Whipping as a criminal sanction is always wrong" vs "Whipping may be an appropriate criminal sanction in some cases"

Let's not go there. (*)

4: "You ought to obey the laws of a foreign country, however silly." vs "Silly laws are silly laws no matter which country your are in."

This lets a huge can of worms out of the bag.

Until a couple of years ago, we liberals pretty much accepted cultural relativism without question. Something might be quite wrong in this country, but okay in a different one, and vice versa. Since 11/9 we're more inclined to see things in terms of a battle between nice cultures (ours) and nasty ones (everyone else's). We used to be a bit reluctant to tell Johnny Foreigner that lopping off his daughter's private parts and setting fire to his wife was a bit of a faux pas. We're now perfectly prepared to tell him that letting them wear head scarves is likely to undermine the fabric of our civilization.

Much appears to depend on how many clothes Johnny Foreigner is wearing. It was very naughty of the Spanish to stop the South Americans carrying out their interesting local tradition of human sacrifice; and even naughtier of Missionaries to impose Church Organs, Three Piece Suits and Cures for Malaria on the inhabitants of Africa. But once you catch someone wearing shoes and driving a moped then it suddenly becomes your duty to tell him that Arranged Marriage isn't the natural way of doing things.

5: "Mrs. Gibbons broke a law" vs "Mrs. Gibbons did not break any law."

I am not an expert in Sudanese jurisprudence. Nor is Paul Dacre, Peter Hill or or John Humphries.

I know very little about Islam. There is a verse in Leviticus which says "Neither shalt thou make an image of anything which dwelleth in the forest; out of fabric shall ye not make it neither stuffeth it with old socks; and in no wise shalt though give it the name of one of the prophets of the LORD thy God; even if one of it's eyes is in fact higher than the other, for verily, we have heard that one before." I couldn't say if the Koran has anything similar.

A lot of people have said "Since it is OK to name a person after the Prophet, it must be OK to name an animal or an inanimate object after him". I cannot say whether this follows. European Christians rarely name their sons "Jesus", but they frequently name their daughters "Mary". There is probably some reason for this. The Mail excelled itself on this point

Despite teddy row, Mohammed is top name for Peterborough parents

Despite the international row surrounding teacher Gillian Gibbons imprisoned in Sudan for calling a teddy bear by the same name, Mohammed has leaped up from third place to number one in Peterborough's popularity charts.

I particularly like the "despite" part. It calls up pictures of Peterborough Muslims looking at their babies and saying "In the light of that widely publicized prosecution in Sudan, let us not name our first-born in honour of the Prophet: let us name him 'Paddington', instead." (I also like the idea that this might show up in the statistics in under a week. Does history record what Muslims are naming their kids in Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City?)

The paper helpfully adds:

Mohammed was the seventh century prophet who founded the Islamic faith, and is revered by followers.

Oh...that Mohammed

I don't know whether it is only bad manners to intentionally insult the Prophet, or whether there is a concept of unintentional or accidental blasphemy. I wonder how an English board of school governors would react to a teacher who said "When I named the class Gollywog 'Nigger', I was following the democratic mandate of my Year 3 class, and therefore cannot be considered a racist."

But the question of whether or not you think that a person actually broke the law is completely unrelated to whether or not you agree with that law. Thinking that Chris Langham was silly and unlucky isn't the same as thinking that pedophilia should be encouraged.

So far as I can see, these five questions are completely unrelated. You might very well think that it is possible to insult Islam by the naming of a toy; that insulting Islam should be a criminal offense; that Teddy-Woman insulted Islam and should be punished; that some criminals deserve to be whipped; but that in this case a more appropriate punishment would have been a small fine and a public apology. On the other hand, you might think that the sale of plastic bobble-headed figures of Jesus is a gross insult to Christianity; that insulting Christianity is a terrible thing; but that it isn't the kind of terrible thing that should be covered by any law at all. Or that it's quite stupid to have a law against walking on the grass but that if you break the law you should bend over and take your punishment like a man.

As I said, it doesn't matter a great deal. But this technique – this inability to separate different questions – is frequently used to confuse us over much more important issues. If I say "How, exactly, does telling the police that they have £385,000 less to spend on catching burglars next year deal with the wrongful shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes?" it isn't a response to say "Most police officers do an excellent job under very difficult circumstances." You can respect English bobbies and still think that the person who ordered this execution should be given forty lashes. Or, indeed, think that the police are on the whole a bunch of establishment pigs with tits on their heads, but that when faced with a suspected terrorist, it's nevertheless perfectly reasonable behavior to shoot him in the head.

Similarly, it is very possible to think that some foreign leader – let's call him "Saddam" – is an appalling tyrant; but that toppling foreign tyrants isn't really what the British army is there for. Or that we should topple foreign tyrants when we can, but that a massive and expensive military intervention isn't likely to do any good in this instance. Or that Saddam is no worse than dozens of other foreign dictators, but that it is expedient to get rid of him for purely selfish reasons. Or that if he had had a supply of evil death rays, it would have been right to invade him, but since he didn't it wasn't. Or that even if he had had an evil death ray, invading him would still have been morally wrong; or that it would have been morally right, but for practical reasons, a really, really, bad idea.

Simply intoning "I did what was right. I did what was right. I did what I thought was right" is no help at all. 'Right', whether you are invading Iraq or naming a teddy bear, is more complicated then that.

Oh, and apparently, in the patois of some young people, Cookie could be taken to mean Cunt.

(*) Last week, our beloved Daily Mail printed a bizarre, even by its standards, article imagining the exhibits which would appear in a "museum of Britishness". A tableau of a teacher beating a child was one of the suggestions, and, so far as I could tell, no irony was intended. (It was also interesting to note that the National Health Service was thought to be one of the immemorial aspects of Merry Olde England, as opposed to a relatively recent innovation brought in by those pesky socialists. And until the BBC started transmitting Neighbours everyone spoke R.P.)