Yesterday, I came across this tweet online:
Five arrests have been made in London in connection with the video posted online of a bonfire party burning a cardboard model of the Grenfell Tower. How do you make sense of how someone could do something like that in the wake of a terrible tragedy like Grenfell? pic.twitter.com/3azKiP1YSG
— BBC Talkback (@BBCTalkback) November 6, 2018
I investigated a bit further and it would appear that the tweet is reporting the essence of what has happened. You can read the BBC report of the incident here.
The pertinent facts appear to be these: video footage emerged of a Grenfell Tower model being burnt as an effigy in a fire, complete with paper figures stood in the windows. Theresa May got involved (?!) and labelled it ‘disrespectful’ and ‘utterly unacceptable’. 5 men have now been arrested by police in South London over the incident. The men handed themselves in on Monday.
The talk on Twitter – and seemingly in newspaper reports – calls the men ‘cold-blooded’. Others ask, ‘how do you make sense of how someone could do something like that in the wake of a terrible tragedy like Grenfell?’ Others still insist that the men ought to be ‘brought to justice.’
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is a bit of a problem. There should be no protection over being offended in a free society. I appreciate this argument is much easier to hear when it involves people who are not being odious and obnoxious. It is far easier to make this case when people happen to be saying things that we hold and they have said them in the most reasonable way possible. As I pointed out here:
The cause of free speech is easy to defend when it centres on people being censored for saying things with which we agree. It is always a much harder sell when it involves unpleasant people saying grossly offensive things we don’t like and wish they wouldn’t.
As I noted here:
The perpetrators, enforcers and victims may change but the essence of the problem doesn’t. One group says something another doesn’t like and someone, somewhere decides this should be illegal and moves to impede the ability to say it. The rest is all just detail.
Let’s be clear about the major hypocrisy going on here too. A lot of people (though no doubt not all people) are outraged by this crass and tasteless joke at the expense of the Grenfell victims. But when comedians line up to mock and belittle Christianity in the most offensive of ways, there is ne’ery a peep. Should we wish to section religion into a different category, watch the outrage immediately rise up again when Islam is treated this way. When we look at the actual issue at hand, what is the difference between this Grenfell Tower effigy and our tradition of sticking Guy Fawkes on the top? If we want to argue that the passage of time renders it legitimate, how is it any different to the effigy of Boris Johnson and Theresa May being put on the Lewes bonfire?
What is the consistent principle at play here? Most arguments for censorship boil down to subjective offence or personal disagreement. That is no objective measure and the law cannot function on that basis. Either we have to consistently apply the law and say all these things are offensive or, as we have said historically, offence is no grounds for legal action.
Perhaps, being an Independent and a Baptist, our history makes us more acutely aware than most of the dangers of authoritarian pronouncements about what one may or may not say. I don’t know. What I do know – being as I am involved in street preaching and knowing many people who are also involved in it – that many of the arguments being made in respect to this tasteless joke are precisely the same ones levelled at those brave enough to engage the world outside the four walls of their relatively comfortable church building. Many smug Christians seemed to take the view that such open air evangelists bring these things on themselves, that was until the finger (to the surprise of absolutely nobody who watched these things) started pointing at those preaching the same gospel inside their churches.
The history of this country tells with devastating consistency how happy people are to use power and authority to enforce their own views and opinions on all. It matters not whether they were Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian or humanistic secularists. The only people who have consistently advocated freedom for all have been the Baptists, though it bears saying they have never been anywhere near holding power (partly because they were locked out of holding it from these other groups when in the ascendancy). History also tells us, with a similar univocal voice, that the overwhelming majority of people could not care less so long as it doesn’t affect them and their day to day lives. We have our very own Martin Niemöller thing going on.
This is entirely relevant to us because how we handle appalling and tasteless things like these Grenfell jokers gives us a fairly clear indication of how we might handle things when they are much closer to home. As I commented here:
The principle at stake is nothing short of this: the only guarantee I have that the government will permit me to speak freely is that they permit those with whom I deeply disagree, and whose views I find the foulest and most repellent, to speak freely as well.
It may well be a sick Grenfell Tower effigy burnt on a bonfire today, but tomorrow it will inevitably be something a bit closer to home. As soon as we open the door to the principle that offensive and insulting things should be verboten, there is literally no end to the things that could be prohibited. It only takes someone to be insulted or offended – or a group of people to feel insulted or offended – for us to be hauled before the authorities to give an account of jokes, beliefs, or opinions that we hold that the state (or a baying crowd) have determined are unsayable.
The only way you can guarantee your right to say the things you think, or to make jokes you find funny, is to defend even the most odious and unpleasant people in their right to say things we don’t like and make jokes we find nasty. You do not have to like it, you don’t have to affirm it, but you should – if you value your freedom of speech and expression – permit it. As the Manic Street Preachers put it, if we tolerate this then your children will be next. The manics were potentially one generation too optimistic.
I will leave the last word to the comedian Steve Hughes. I will also leave the, somewhat ironic, warning that he uses some swear words that some of you might find offensive. But his point is relevant:
If you prefer your comedians to sound more genteel, here is Stephen Fry making almost exactly the same point (and, again, ironic swear word warning for the very end)