In Britain, heretics get a metaphorical lashing

The Sudanese 'teddy bear affair' is bizarre. But it’s not a million miles from Britain’s own policing of morality, speech and thought.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Free Speech

First there was the Danish cartoons scandal. Then Muslim groups kicked up a stink over Salman Rushdie being knighted into a cartoon empire (the British). Now we have the ‘teddy bear affair’. A British schoolteacher in Sudan, Gillian Gibbons, has been arrested for letting her pupils name their class mascot Muhammad. She faces a stint in jail or a possible 40 lashes. Whatever next? Isn’t there a Beano strip that might be interpreted as Islamophobic? Or a scene in Bambi that might get Bin Laden’s goat and make him wag his finger in fury at the West? Have I been somehow Islamophobic by mentioning the word ‘goat’?

The teddy bear affair is mad. You won’t find any culturally relativist defences of it here on spiked: it is monumentally illiberal to imprison someone for what she said, and lashes are a backward punishment for any crime, never mind the ‘crime’ of naming a toy. Yet I can’t help noticing some similarities between the Sudanese authorities’ wide-eyed overreaction to the teddy bear affair and the way in which speech and thought are more tightly policed here in Britain, too. Yes, there are huge cultural differences between Sudan and the UK – but the elites on both sides of the divide share one important pastime in common: the policing of morality.

Thankfully no one in Britain is given 40 lashes. Instead they’re given a metaphorical lashing. Those who offend public morality or ridicule conventional wisdom are not tied up and beaten, but they are beaten up in the press and political circles and are frequently hounded from their jobs. The difference in Britain is that the metaphorical lashers pose as the guardians of PC, liberal morality, keen to protect the public from outdated and offensive ideas, while in Sudan the literal lashers are closed-minded clerics who lose the plot over any inappropriate mention of Muhammad. Yet both have in common a deep intolerance of ‘unacceptable’ ideas and a desire to monitor and clamp down on blasphemy: whether it’s secular blasphemy against liberal conventions here, or literal blasphemy against archaic conventions over there.

Last month, Dr James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was due to give talks at museums and festivals of debate around the UK. The invitations were withdrawn after he suggested in an interview with The Sunday Times that there is a racial basis to intelligence. The Science Museum in London said he was no longer welcome because he had ‘gone beyond the point of reasonable debate’ – that is, like Gibbons in Sudan, he had said something morally and culturally unacceptable and had to be punished for it. Watson was given a lashing in the British press, and further afield, and subsequently resigned his post at the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US.

Earlier this month, Nigel Hastilow, a Conservative Party parliamentary candidate, was forced to step down after he hinted that Enoch Powell may have had a point about immigration. Strikingly, Hastilow’s offence was simply to mention a forbidden name. His actual beliefs on immigration are, unfortunately, entirely mainstream: like his leader David Cameron, the PM Gordon Brown and numerous narrow-minded commentators, Hastilow thinks Britain is overcrowded and polluted by immigrants. But in evoking that dark Tory figure from Britain’s dark past, Hastilow uttered two words – ‘Enoch Powell’ – that are blasphemous today. Just as you cannot say the name Muhammad in a derogatory fashion in Sudan, so you cannot mention the name Enoch Powell in a favourable fashion in Britain. Or you will be robbed of your public role.

The British authorities have recently declared war on actual religious blasphemy, too. New laws against ‘incitement to religious hatred’ are designed to limit the extent to which we can ridicule a religion and its adherents. Those who break these laws might find themselves landed with a stiff fine or sent out to do community service. Gibbons has been charged with precisely the same ‘crime’: inciting religious hatred. Within the British elite, there is a super-sensitivity about offending Muslims: London mayor Ken Livingstone calls on the press to tone down its language, while local councils cancel plays or pull shop displays that might be considered ‘Islamophobic’. The Sudanese might have arrested Gibbons to protect the dignity of Islam, while the British punish ‘religious hatred’ in order to protect the allegedly fragile sensibilities of Muslims, but the result of their actions is the same: a forcefield is placed around religion, and people’s speech and thought are curtailed.

It is striking that the teddy bear affair focuses on what can and cannot be said in Sudanese schools. In British schools, too, children are forcefed a strict diet of stifling conventional wisdom on everything from global warming to how much they should weigh. Can you imagine a teacher who questioned certain aspects of the global warming consensus surviving for long in a modern British comp? Especially at a time when, in public debate more broadly, leading environmentalists argue that ‘broadcasting doubts [about climate change] creates confusion and thus delays political action’ (1).

Britain does not have degraded practices such as lashing. Nor would a schoolteacher ever be imprisoned for giving a teddy bear the wrong name. But, like Sudan, we have a ‘You Can’t Say That’ culture, where speaking the wrong words and sentiments or expressing ‘religious hatred’ can get you into deep trouble. Much of this is a consequence of the pressure of cultural expectations rather than tyrannical legislation, yet as John Stuart Mill argued, ‘custom’ can be even more stifling of liberty and free expression than law: ‘The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.’ (2)

Let us hope the people of Sudan kick against clerical despotism, while here we should turn our guns on PC despotism.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume thought the row over the Danish Muhammad cartoons resembled an infantile spat. He explained why fighting for free speech is important in today’s You Can’t Say That culture. David Perks said even a biological determinst like James Watson should not be censored. On the day of the Oxford Union debate with Nick Griffin and David Irving, Frank Furedi said censorship is a really bad idea. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Beyond all reasonable doubt, Comment Is Free, 3 November 2006

(2) Chapter 3, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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