An issue for Clareification

Controversial cartoons and free speech

It’s been two weeks since the Mohammed cartoons, first printed in September 2005 in a Danish national paper, were reprinted in Clareification, the student magazine of Clare College, Cambridge, and there’s still no word on the fate of the publication’s editor. The unnamed student has left Cambridge for security reasons. Students and staff are not commenting on the disciplinary proceedings underway at college against him but it seems likely the student will either be held back a year or expelled. What he’s guilty of is unclear.

The cartoon, like all bad satire, felt maliciously intended and was a rip-off of a Private Eye gag that stopped being funny around 1983. The issue (a copy of which was difficult to obtain after the senior tutor at Clare ordered them all to be destroyed) was dedicated to religious satire. One part is a lengthy break down of the contradictions of Mark’s gospel, copies of which are being given out for free by the Christian Union as part of their ten day series of talks on Christianity. If someone has said they found this offensive, it’s not been reported.

Mocking Christian evangelism is good sport for atheists and agnostics, who constitute the majority of the student population here. If one is accused of being anti-Christian for this, one can cite the Christian Union’s intrusive zeal for conversion and claim it isn’t their Christianity but their tactics one’s attacking. Even if this pale defense didn’t exist, we’d probably still do it because being anti-Christian or being accused of it (two things between which there is rarely a correlation) doesn’t have the stigma of being held to be hostile to Islam.

The decision on what to do with the editor won’t rest on his right to free speech, proclaimed in a press release by the National Secular Society, or the principle that one shouldn’t offend another’s religion, as the Vice-President of the Cambridge Islamic society implied. It will depend on whether the body that will decide is brimming with cowardice.

The phrase ‘I’m offended by that’ is popular for the awkward pauses it creates and the impression someone’s point of view is a social gaffe it infers. The only considered response to it is – so what? So long as we are all theoretically capable of choosing to believe in any religion at any moment, none of them can be beyond discussion in any form by anyone. Anything said to the contrary is meaningless pandering.

We’ll have to stomach a lot of vulgarity and rubbish to make sure this principle weathers the social tensions we experience. If the decision is taken to expel a student merely for printing something crass, that student will have been by sacrificed by people he doesn’t know to solve a situation no one grasps. If they do this they will be saying ‘we don’t know what anti-Islamism is but we’re afraid of being accused of it’. No one’s offence weighs more than anyone else’s and living with free speech means, from time to time, we will all get offended.