Sunday, 18 January 2015

Freedom to insult people

As part of the aftermath of the tragic events in Paris over a week ago various questions have been raised about the nature of freedom of speech.

Pope Francis stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest by suggesting that if someone insulted his mother he would punch them on the nose, suggesting that similar things would happen if you insulted his religion. Prime Minister David Cameron has come out and disagreed with the Pope defending the right to insult one's religion.

I have one simple question - Why?

The answer may not be as simple. I can remember my father giving me a piece of advice before I set off to college a callow youth of eighteen years. He said that one should never discuss politics or religion with your friends, the reason being that they are two things which can cause fights and also the loss of those friends. In a sense the position taken by the Pope is an indicator of the level of strife attacking someone's religion can bring about. Religious and political views are intensely personal. People adopt tenets from both as key parts of their personality and so someone with differing views can be seen as against them and therefore enmity arises. As we age it seems that we are better able to step back from conflict but even so I know the underlying feelings that can be generated as a result of such discussions. I believe that it was unwise of Cameron to comment on the Pope's position.

Now of course the above raises the whole question of satire.

Satire - is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement.

The above definition suggests that there is a greater purpose to satire than taking the mick out of each others position on religion.

One comment I heard about the Charlie Hebdo publication related to the fact that satire shouldn't be indulged in for its own sake. As the definition suggests the purpose is to shame individuals, corporations, government and society, into improvement.

Juvenal wrote satirical poetry almost 2 thousand years ago so it isn't something that is new, and writing in the 21st century can also involve satire. In fact satura was a formal literary genre and Juvenal wrote in the style criticising Roman morals, excesses and unfaithfulness. However, the direction was inward looking and not an outsider criticising Roman society.

When I've written the Steele novels and Cessation there have been elements of political sniping and commentary on society and I believe that it is part of the job of an author to make such comments so that members of that society can sample differing views of how society is. 

I had a discussion along those lines in church this morning. A friend  asked what I would write when 'Steele' has come to the end of his useful life. My answer was along the lines of there was always situations in society arising that rated some kind of commentary, so Steele may never come to an end. At the same time I wrote Cessation, a dystopian story, because of an internal desire to comment on the situation in the western world regarding energy use and illicit profiteering. The chances are that over time there will be other issues that also stand alone. 

So, going back to the original premise, there is a place for satire as long as it is used as an internal tool for self-evaluation. When you begin to criticise other countries, religions or societies I believe you are indulging in larger and more dangerous insults that may have longer term consequences. Satire, like more general humour, does not cross cultures well.

Can you imagine if an Anglican publication began to pick holes in the operations of the Catholic faith; perhaps a big name newspaper in the UK should have a satirical swipe at USA foreign policy or banking practices. The result would be a return to the Tudor relationship with Rome and the end of the so-called 'special relationship' between the USA and UK. So be careful who you take a swipe at!

God Bless