10 January 2015

Charlie: It's Not All About Us

It's been very strange watching some Irish responses online to the week's horrific events in Paris.
Following the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and subsequent hostage-taking and killings elsewhere, far too many people have seen this as a suitable time to demand that Ireland's 'blasphemy laws' should be repealed, and to scorn as hypocritical the Irish Times' criticism of the murderers' attempts to silence debate, given how our self-proclaimed 'paper of reference' once removed a cartoon from its archives.
Now, you might just think this kind of behaviour is just cynical opportunism, or is typical of that clueless parochial narcissism that so often blights our national discourse, and you might well be right, but it's worth looking at both issues separately for a moment.
Comparing Like with Loike, Totally
Just to take one example, Ed Moloney, one of the finest analysts of the Northern Irish Troubles and Peace Process, for instance, tweeted last night, 'When Will The Irish Times Remember The Cartoon It Censored At The Behest Of Religious Fanatics?'
Writing about this on his blog, where after some reflection he changed his headline from one identical to the tweet to one saying, 'Irish Times Leads Nation’s Protest Over "Charlie" But Forgets About Cartoon It Censored At Behest Of The Bishops,' he quotes the Irish Times's comment that 'The right to offend must be defended with courage and vigour', before saying that it would have been more 'uplifting' if the Irish Times editorial had expressed regret for how it had removed from its archives a Martin Turner cartoon because, he said, it had offended senior members of the Irish Catholic hierarchy.
'It seems,' he concludes, 'that sauce for the Catholic goose is not sauce for the Islamic gander.'
Now. Moloney's a smart man, and on the face of it you might think he's making a fair point. It's worth taking a look at the cartoon, though, which we can easily do because, well, it's not 1904, and things tend to end up online about two minutes after newspapers remove them. 
(For instance, do you remember in October 2004 when the Guardian removed from its archives a Charlie Brooker 'Screen Burn' column that ended by lamenting the probability of George W. Bush being reelected president, and said 'John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald,  John Hinckley Jr -- where are you now that we need you?' No?
Well, perhaps you remember how in August 2013, the Irish Times ran a front page piece about a twin pregnancy being terminated at the National Maternity Hospital as the first termination conducted under the terms of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act? Remember? You should: it was such an impressively detailed report that Peter Boylan, who was reportedly involved in the termination, spluttered about how the patient's confidentiality had been breached, and yet it was utterly revoked and wiped from the paper's archives a week later, with a small and inappropriately discreet page seven apology pointing out that the law was not yet in force, and claiming that 'The hospital has pointed out that the case described in the article did not happen.'
If you don't remember either of these peculiar episodes, well, don't worry, because this is 2015, and so I've kindly given you links to the missing stories. And then, if you really have an issue with censorship, go and write to the said papers to complain about their willingness to bow to, I dunno, angry politicians and embarrassing obstetricians. Or something.)
So, anyway, here's the Turner cartoon, the removal of which so irks Mr Moloney, because, of course, an Irish publication freely deciding to withdraw a cartoon while retaining the services of its cartoonist is comparable to a load of cartoonists and other magazine staff being butchered.

It is, we should start by conceding, not a very good cartoon. It's a leaden thing, where three priests, all rather surprisingly wearing what I presume are meant to be cassocks*, and one stepping out of a confessional box rather perplexingly wearing an alb as well as his stole, sing 'I would do anything for children (but I won't do that)'.
Presumably this is to the tune of Meatloaf's seminal return hit, 'I would do anything for love (but I won't do that)'**, though if you can get the priests' line to scan to the original tune you're a better man than I am.
In case you're too thick to realise that this was intended as a comment on Catholic opposition to one element in the child protection laws being introduced at the time, one of the priests -- presumably singing with his mouth closed -- is scowling down at a newspaper running the headline 'Children First Bill: Mandatory Reporting'. As an English friend pointed out the other day in a more general context, if you feel the need to include newspaper headlines to spell out what your cartoon is about, you've probably not done a very good cartoon.

And, of course, if you don't see the significance of Catholics taking issue with a particular proposal that might limit freedom of religion in return for nothing that would actually protect children, and if you're not willing to concede that the Church in Ireland has -- so, so, belatedly -- been pretty much the leader in Irish child protection over the last decade or so, and if you don't have a problem with government ministers crowing about this proposal while actual experts in child protection point out that the planned legislation wouldn't help anyone and was being conducted in tandem with policies that would endanger children, well, then you're probably not very bright, not very well informed, or just not really interested in protecting children at all.
The day after the cartoon appeared, there were two letters in the paper, both from priests, one describing the cartoon as 'bigoted, nasty and downright disgraceful', pointing out that given the Church has more stringent child protection guidelines than any other body in Ireland, it was a cheap shot and a betrayal of anti-Catholic bigotry to 'use the sins of the past as a stick to continue to beat the church of the present', while the other describe it as 'offensive in the extreme to every priest in the country', and required an editorial apology unless the paper was of the view that it was 'open season on priests'.

The following day there were four letters about the cartoon, one of which said the cartoon was below the belt, but that as a satirical cartoonist it was Turner's job to be offensive. The other three were less understanding. One described the cartoon as 'a new low in Irish journalism', reminiscent of the sectarian cartoons of the nineteenth-century American Thomas Nast. Another, from a long-time fan of Turner, said the cartoon was 'bigoted', 'nasty', and 'spectacularly unfunny', revealing a potent double standard where the paper's general 'zeal for anti-religious comment' was not being 'applied to critical analysis of current government scandals'. A third, from a reader of the 55 years, described the cartoon's publication as 'an error of judgement' that warranted an apology to Ireland's priests and the paper's readers.
That same day, speaking in Dublin's pro-Cathedral, Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, said 'I am a strong believer in freedom of speech and of the vital role of satire in social criticism, but I object to anything that would unjustly tarnish all good priests with the unpardonable actions of some.'
What was the problem? Well, if you look down in the cartoon's bottom corner, in very small writing, you'll see an authorial aside saying, 'But there is little else you can do for them... except stay away from them, of course.'
Bear that in mind, when you read the Irish Times editorial that made clear why the cartoon was removed. The editorial states that the paper is bound by the Irish Times Trust's principles which require that the paper is meant to ensure that comment and opinion should be 'informed and responsible', with 'special consideration ... given to the reasonable representation of minority interests and divergent views, and that and it should uphold  'the promotion of peace and tolerance and opposition to all forms of violence and hatred, so that each man may live in harmony with his neighbour, considerate for his cultural, material and spiritual needs.'
No, really. No laughing at the back there.
'That means, however, that there is no carte blanche,' the editorial explained, 'and that there are ground rules which we try to adhere to, mostly with no argument from those contributors. Civilised debate, we accept, requires the eschewing of ad hominem argument, playing the ball, not the man, and avoiding crude stereotyping.'

Turner's cartoon was described as having flown under the editorial radar, the editorial explained, picking up on the authorial aside about how priests should keep away from children. 'In making a legitimate argument about the debate over priestly responsibility for reporting child abuse and the concerns for the seal of the confessional, Turner also took an unfortunate and unjustified sideswipe at all priests, suggesting that none of them can be trusted with children. This has, unsurprisingly, caused considerable offence and we regret and apologise for the hurt caused by the cartoon whose use in that form, we acknowledge, reflected a regrettable editorial lapse.'
The Turner thing was very simple. The Irish Times has its own guidelines, Turner breached them by irresponsibly and ignorantly casting all priests as dangers to children -- and if you think this is a fair comment on the phenomenon of abuse in Ireland, you really should read more --  and so the paper pulled it. To make out that this has broader implications would be as outrageous as me saying that because my school magazine was once pulled from distribution because of a story I had done in it, so nobody at that school should ever be allowed to take issue with cartoonists being murdered.
It really is that simple.

Blas for me! Blas for you! Blas for everybody in the room!
Then there's the blasphemy law thing. It's probably worth starting with the fact that I don't much care either way about the blasphemy law, such as it is: it doesn't bother me, and it wouldn't bother me if it were removed. I don't know any Catholics who are fans of it, to be honest. Some are opposed to it, and many wouldn't even bother shrugging if it were removed.

Now, the standard line about the blasphemy law over the last few years that it should be removed because it encourages Muslim countries to introduce similar blasphemy laws has been tweaked in the last week to the effect that 'Because of Ireland's blasphemy law, Charlie Hebdo wouldn't even be allowed in Ireland!' As such, so fools argue, we should remove the blasphemy law as a mark of respect and as a way of championing real free speech.

It's worth bearing in mind where the blasphemy law came from. A constitutional quirk basically requires the state to have some kind of blasphemy law, but Ireland's politicians sat on this legal oddity for ages, without people jumping up and down and claiming that they had to give legislative force to a constitutional imperative. Eventually, though, when tidying up issues of libel and slander and such in 2009's Defamation Act, the issue of other limitations on speech came up. The result was the so-called 'blasphemy law', better known to those who read as section 36 of the Defamation Act.

Section 36 says that those who publish or utter blasphemous matter can be subject to a fine of up to €25,000. Matter should be deemed blasphemous, if says, if a) it is "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion" AND b) if the causing of such outrage is intended.

That bit about intent is crucial, and not just because it is half the definition of blasphemy, such that in Irish law you cannot blaspheme unless you have deliberately caused large-scale outrage. The law goes on to say that it is a defence to allegations of blasphemy for a reasonable person to find 'genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates'.

In other words, the law has a three-part test: has the matter under investigation caused outrage among a significant number of people of a particular religious line, was it intended to cause such outrage, and is it bereft of literary, artistic, scientific, academic, or political merit?

To all intents and purposes it's a deliberately toothless law, designed to tidy up a constitutional glitch in such a way that nobody is ever troubled by it, and surely pretty much unnecessary given how the actual crime here seems to be substantively covered by 1989's Incitement to Hatred law.  You might take issue with its symbolism, or feel it's anachronistic, but one thing you can't really do is say that it does any actual harm. Our laws are often merely aspirational; this isn't even that.

Michael Nugent and his friends in Atheist Ireland disagree, of course, and regard it as a great betrayal that the government doesn't see its removal from the statute books asap as a massive priority. But then, of course, Atheist Ireland has never really understood the law. When the law was first instituted, they ran a list of 25 supposedly blasphemous quotations, daring the State to prosecute them. Of course, leaving aside now many of the quotations could be said to have had literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value, and that their publication in 2009 did not provoke large-scale outrage -- nobody cared -- the simple fact of the list having been published to make a political point about free speech meant it was clearly safe from prosecution.

Could Charlie be published in Ireland? Well, put it this way: was it intended to provoke anger among Muslims or Catholics or whoever or was it intended to make people think? To take a non-religious example***, is the accompanying cartoon a homophobic or racist piece designed to anger gay people or black people, or is its aim to get people to think about the socio-economic realities surrogacy can entail, with poor women, often from developing countries, being paid to serve as vessels for others' children?

'Surrogacy is two parents... and one slave.'
No, I think, Charlie certainly could be published in Ireland. Whether shops would want to stock it, or people would want to buy it... that's a different matter.
There's no getting away from the fact that the intentional provocation of large scale outrage is a central element in Ireland's blasphemy law; it's a law less about offending God, as in other blasphemy laws, as about deliberately angering people. This matters if we want to think about the trope that Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, like using Ireland's blasphemy law to justify their own similar laws.

Do they really do this?
Now, I might be wrong, I've only ever really heard of one instance of this happening, and even then it's a pretty dubious instance. At an October 2009 meeting of the UN's Human Rights Council, discussing discrimination, Pakistan entered a six-part proposal to oppose discrimination based on religion and belief. The first of these six propositions was clearly modelled on part of the Irish definition of legal blasphemy: 'State parties shall prohibit by law the uttering of matters that are grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents to that religion.'

So, yes, clearly based in part on the Irish one. And yet also spectacularly different from the toothless Irish law, because it utterly omits the role of intent in Ireland's law, that crucial point which means that you cannot blaspheme accidentally or inadvertently, that blasphemy must not merely be offensive, but must deliberately cause large-scale outrage, and that even should large-scale outrage deliberately be caused, there are a range of legitimate defences, including 'I intended to provoke large-scale outrage, but I was engaged in scholarly research and was telling the truth', and 'I intended to provoke large-scale outrage, but I did so in an aesthetically pleasing way', and 'I intended to provoke large-scale outrage, but I was making a point about free speech'.

The Pakistani proposal entailed using a truncated version of the Irish definition, and tried to promote that. It did not explicitly acknowledge the Irish law, and its proposal was crucially different from the Irish reality, except as misrepresented by, for instance, Atheist Ireland, which falsely states on its Blasphemy.ie website that 'The law defines blasphemy as publishing or saying something "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matter held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion."'

No it doesn't, you buffoons. Please learn to read.
It is disappointing that oafs and otherwise smart people like Ed Moloney have tried to draw links between a responsible editorial decision and brutal acts of murder, just as it is disappointing that others claim Pakistan uses Ireland's blasphemy law to push for blasphemy laws elsewhere and present part of Ireland's legal definition of blasphemy as though it's the whole definition.
But that's the thing about free speech: it allows people to say stupid things.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do.
* It looks rather as though they're wearing mysterious black night-shirts over lighter-coloured shirts with clerical collars. It's almost as though Turner has never seen a cassock and doesn't actually know what one looks like. Whether such basic ignorance might somehow undermine his point I leave to you to decide.
** Yeah, I know that's not the actual video. Watch it anyway, though. It may prove an education.
*** Because I don't see much virtue in republishing things I know many people would be upset by for the sake of making a broader, if somewhat self-aggrandising, point about the importance of free speech. That strikes me as doing something bad in the hope of achieving something good, and, well, there are forbidden weapons.

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