in the name of love, art and the right to offend

We do lots of stuff in the name of love we really shouldn’t do.  I have done so; I’m sure you have too.  There’s a slight, sometimes mighty, madness about falling in love.

Anger is very similar to love.  It drinks from equally deep emotions; it drives us beyond what we’d be normally happy and comfortable to be seen doing.  In some cases, we do it quite deliberately: this can either be in a contained way or a florid way.  The florid way is generally counter-productive.  It allows the reader or observer to focus on the how, and by so doing, dismiss the what, when and why.

I’ve often been florid in my writing and in my life.

That’s why so many have managed to ignore the message I frequently have burning inside me.

Mehdi Hasan, who defines himself here as Muslim (in much the same way, perhaps, as I would describe myself as lapsed Catholic or rather unsure socialist or curious libertarian), is pointed in his arguments but florid in his anger.  Maybe this is out of love for his culture and religion.  Maybe the anger is actually proportionate to a highly disproportionate experience Muslims are currently suffering/have been suffering for quite a while.

I don’t know for sure.  I do perceive a lot of pain in many places.

I also perceive unsatisfactory turf-grabbing by a number of political leaders.  But I am a suspicious soul by nature, and maybe my perceptions are disproportionate too.

Being got at for the way you do stuff is the stuff of couples, married or not.  You lose the argument as soon as you raise your voice; you can only ever win it by keeping the hatches of anger – or love or offence, for that matter – kind of judiciously battened.

Hasan does raise his voice here, and I recognise the reason why.  Hypocrisy is so hard to deal with, especially when those who are accused of committing this sin (I resist the word “crime” for a moment, but then wonder in the circumstances if it mightn’t be a better choice …) are so damn smug.

One paragraph of the text in question catches my eye:

Please get a grip. None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn.

I think he’s only partially right on this one.

Firstly, there is such a thing as extenuating circumstances.  How we judge an offence – crime, sin, what you will – does also depend on what happened before and after.

Of course, some (many) believe firmly there are absolutes which must never be crossed.

An example.  In our culture (that is to say, I don’t mean yours necessarily but, rather, the one I identify with in a complex manner), the persistent cruelty Europe has meted out to Jews over the centuries, and in particular the 20th century, can never mean someone wishing to express themselves with decency and good taste can ever make jokes about the Holocaust.

So we come to those decisions to publish or not which so many publications have had to consider – and maybe even run from.

In hindsight, I think newspapers like the Guardian did eventually take the right decision with respect to the events of the past ten days or so: to publish some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons at the heart of the debate but not those which, if they had come from its own cartoonists, it would not have chosen to publish in the first place.  Not because it would have been under duress; rather, because of long-standing editorial criteria which would have pre-dated the situation under discussion.

Solidarity is an important gesture we should express; fear an important emotion we should resist.  But just as we can talk about ambiguity unambiguously, so we can talk about offence without offending.

I think so, anyway.

Not everyone wishes to express themselves in good taste, of course.  But perhaps mainstream media is the place where such a desire should, generally, be expected.

And here I come to my second point of order.

The extenuating circumstances I’ve already mentioned, which count in law and especially in emotional crimes, in particular with regard to sentencing, are not the only matter which should define this drawing of a line Hasan mentions.

The line, and where it should be drawn, depends also on the frame and the discourse – as well as the person or people defining and conducting them.

Just as a lover cannot be expected to act in the same way as an accountant, so an artist does not always abide by canons of decency or that proportionate action already mentioned.  Art in particular is a voyage of discovery.  Discovery sometimes uncovers really rather unpleasant realities along the way – about others but just as easily about oneself.  It then leads the artist to recapitulate, to remould, to step back or step forward.

Or simply become an indecent speck in the history that is told about creativity.

But space surely needs to exist in order for that voyage to start.  Or don’t you agree?  Am I simply becoming far too relativistic here?  Maybe I am.  Maybe this post is wrong-headed from the start …

So.  Anyhow.

One artist exploring their life is one matter: the search is lonely, unseen and just about invisible; a second example is that of Charlie Hebdo: a publication of thousands of readers, it is true – but hardly mass media (until last week’s events, of course – now it’s read by millions: perhaps one of the goals of the perpetrators of the crimes committed …); a third case is that of big newspapers and TV stations whose every column inch, webpage and emission is followed by millions of the – often highly critically – watchful.

Are we really saying that the freedom to offend – if not a broader freedom of expression – should truly be the same at each level of cultural participation?

Wouldn’t it be reasonable to argue that Hasan – as political editor of a Huffington Post with millions of page impressions a month – has a far greater responsibility not to offend than I might ever have here at this blog?

And aren’t we expecting the law to become a terribly blunt instrument, where everyone – from budding painter in a local college of further education to top-flight columnist or party leader of national weight – must be expected to be equally decent, equally tactful, equally free of crass observation?

I’m not sure the tendency is good in any way.  I find it difficult to imagine a world where youth, or that state of minimum responsibility whatever the age, isn’t composed of making mistakes – and then learning how to make up for them.  Without that learning curve, we’re surely going to be bent out of shape, don’t you think?  We’re going to be left without experiences to fall back on.  We’re going to become hollowed-out beings who can only act under falsely acquired assumptions.

This blogpost is probably going to lose me friends here.

If they read it that is.


But if anyone can understand what I’m struggling to define, and you’ve read thus far, I’d be grateful if you could tell me that you’re also on the same road.

There is a certain intolerance which isn’t that of liberals to the illiberal but, rather, of liberals to their own much weaker compatriots.

That’s what’s hurting me at the moment.

That’s why this post has wandered so.

That’s why I really don’t how to resolve my quandary.

In essence, I don’t like to offend anyone at all; and in essence, I hold as high as I can and support as much as is possible the right of others to offend me.

Is that weird – or what?

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