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Do we have the right to not be offended?
Newtownabbey council said “yes” when they cancelled what they labelled a blasphemous play, The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), due to be performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) earlier this year. Members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a political party with roots in the Free Presbyterian Church, called for the show to be axed fearing it would offend and mock Christian beliefs.
The story went global as accusations of censorship were hurled at the Northern Irish council. Twitter exploded with satirical cartoons of the DUP, petitions against the ban and the hashtag #thoushaltnotlaugh. Days later, the decision was reversed.
Some members of the public agreed with the move to cancel The Bible, but they represented a minority. Many argued that the DUP’s original decision amounted to censorship and asked what qualified them to act as censor. Fear of a public backlash from offended parties might motivate councils and theatres to make these kinds of decisions, but who has the right to judge who is and who isn’t entitled to free speech?
Under threat of a ban, The RSC, however, didn’t feel that their free speech had been limited; the real victims were the people of Newtownabbey who had their freedom of choice taken away from them. In a post show talk after the opening night, the company told the audience, ‘You were excited because you were allowed to go and see the show you wanted to see.’ If people felt the show would offend them, they had the choice to stay at home or see the show and make their own judgement. The DUP’s original decision would have eliminated this choice and sent a message that the public are unable to think for themselves.
In the RSC’s podcast, Austin Tichenor described how the first two performances of the show, ‘were cancelled over complaints about the production by people who had never seen it or read it.’ The DUP and some members of the Christian community jumped to the conclusion that The Bible was poking fun at Christianity. As it so happens, the RSC’s production The Bible is not intended to cause offence or mock Christianity, but is a celebration of the religious text. Tichenor tweeted, “Our script celebrates the Bible. I disagree with how many churches interpret it, but have never once called for them to be censored” and later added, “Honestly, NI folks are going to finally see BIBLE (abridged) and go, ‘THIS is what all the fuss was about?’’
With the knowledge that the play is a comedy about the Bible, some individuals presumed that the content must be offensive and blasphemous. Whether it is or isn’t offensive is not the point – everyone is entitled to their view, it doesn’t matter whether they’re right. It just so happens that on this occasion a fuss was made for no reason. The events in Newtownabbey just go to show how easily theatre can be suppressed and how individuals can take it upon themselves to save others from the burden of being offended.
Theatre censorship in the UK was abolished in 1968, after a history of “offensive” material being suppressed and censored. Although officially British theatre is not censored, this doesn’t stop pressure from groups and individuals when contentious issues are raised in plays, in this case a religious group. Are religious leaders too ready to appoint themselves as censors? With the case of Newtownabbey, religion and politics became one voice, distorting whether this was a political matter or a case of religious opinion.
Religions are based on sets of ideas and so mustn’t be above scrutiny. For these groups to develop, attract more members and function within society, their ideologies must be debated and discussed. The best practise perhaps is not for religious groups to suppress criticism, but to embrace and respond to it. The very nature of religion is that leaders will advise their followers how to act and lead their lives, but going so far as to ban a play crosses the line into censorship.
With the knowledge that some religious groups are ready and willing to suppress supposedly blasphemous theatre, is there a culture of self-censorship within playwrights? What of the plays that were imagined, but never existed for fear of causing offence? The events at Newtownabbey have shown a religious group attempting and failing to act as censor when the public voiced their own opinions. What this story has shown, is that whilst there may be threats to our freedom of speech, our right to reject and protest against these decisions is still very much in place and evidently extremely effective.
Last weekend, I appeared on the BBC’s The Big Questions, the Sunday morning religion and ethics show that airs at precisely the time Christians should be at church services.
The Big Question I’d been hauled in to address was whether there were any topics that were too sacred for humour – a variation of the old “where do you draw the line?” which has been in the news quite a bit of late, with the Jesus and Mo cartoon controversy (which started with The Big Questions), the attempt in Northern Ireland to ban a Reduced Shakespeare Company play based on the Bible, and the banning of demagogic French comic Dieudonne from the UK.
As it turned out, we barely discussed any of these specific topics, but rather kept to what could now almost be called the traditional touchstones in these conversations: Motoons and The Life Of Brian.
The discussion was disappointingly calm, but I did, I think, manage to get one crucial point across, one I’d been meaning to bring up since discussing the RSC ban in Northern Ireland.
In the context of religion, censorship is increasingly, simply, about control. Specifically, who is in charge of the sacred text.
At the height of the Rushdie Affair, Christopher Hitchens noted that it represented a war between the ironic mind and the literal mind. This was particularly apparent when watching Free Presbyterian preacher David McIlveen discuss the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s abridged Bible spoof. McIlveen could not, and would not understand the idea that his interpretation of a text was not the only one. Speaking on the Nolan show, he repeatedly suggested that the RSC was presenting a false version of the “Word of God”. Of course, to an extent, they were, but McIlveen seemed to confuse interpretation with, well, lying.
I was reminded of this while reading an exchange between Alex Clark and Stephanie Merritt in the Observer last Sunday.
They were discussing JK Rowling’s view that in hindsight, she would not have had Hermione and Ron, two characters from her Harry Potter series, ending up romantically entangled. Merritt and Clark debated interestingly on authorship and ownership, particularly in the age of fan fiction.
A lot of people are very emotionally attached to the Harry Potter stories, and no doubt some were genuinely unhappy with Rowling’s suggestion that well, the sacred text may be wrong after all. Even her position as creator of that particular universe did not leave her immune from criticism. As Merritt – a historical novelist whose own hero is heretic Giordano Bruno – notes: “I can see why fans felt insulted. They’ve made an emotional investment in those characters and in the storyline as it exists.”
It’s unlikely that Rowling will revise the tale of Hermione and Ron’s romance, but, considering it’s quite possible that at some point, Potterism will become a religion (if grown adults are playing Quidditch, we’re probably half way there), then it’s worrying that Rowling has already introduced a potential point of schism. Do you believe in the true text? Do Ron and Hermione belong together? Or do you believe what the great transcriber of Potterism, Ro-Ling said, that they weren’t suited and maybe split after a fling. Should Hermione even have ended up with Harry?
This could be worse than anything Northern Ireland has seen.
Councillors in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland last night voted to overturn a controversial ban on a Bible-based comedy in the town’s theatre. The town had hit international headlines last week after Christian councillors had sought to stop performances of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged).
The Newtownabbey Times reports that town councillors criticised pressure put on the town’s Artistic Council by some members of the Democratic Unionist Party, with one politician denouncing them as “continuity Paisleyites who want to take us back to the Dark Ages.”
The Democratic Unionist Party, which was founded by fundamentalist Christian preacher Ian Paisley, sought to distance itself from the original decision, though its members had been accused of being responsible for pressuring the artistic council into stopping the performances.
The performances will now go ahead on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, as originally scheduled.