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Saturday, 19 April 2014

Courting Contentious Content.

Julian Assange painted portrait - Wikileaks
Julian Assange painted portrait - Wikileaks (Photo credit: Abode of Chaos)
Are we subject to a type of censorship that curtails freedom of speech and prevents honest debate of issues of vital importance to civilisation?

In the West, we pride ourselves on our tolerance. This is especially the case in Europe and even more so in the UK, a land noted for its cultural diversity and its acceptance of the beliefs, customs and traditions of others. In order to protect those institutions, beliefs, sensibilities and creeds that differ from our home-grown varieties, government has implemented laws intended to prevent prejudice and insult. But, because of the undeniable threat of terrorism, they’ve also set in place watchdogs to detect activity that may be considered a threat to the State.

It’s my belief that the combined effect of these two factors is to stifle serious debate about religious bodies and/or traditions and customs.

Let me illustrate my point. If I wish to write a feature, or even a piece of fiction, highlighting perceived dangers presented by extremist groups, my first recourse is research, so I can get my facts right. So, I start to  investigate terms like Al-Qaeda, mujahadeen, taliban, islamist, the Army of God, Ku Klux Klan, etc. In common with most modern writers, my first port of call is the web. But wait: if I start typing such words into my search engine, am I going to immediately become a target for the anti-terrorist organisations that filter such words from our emails, texts and online searches? The danger certainly exists. And, I suspect, for many that’s sufficiently worrying to prevent them even taking the first steps.

In writing this piece, I wanted to ensure I spelt the words correctly (many of them have variant spellings, after all). For me, spelling is the prerogative of the SOED, a 2 volume version of the Oxford English Dictionary, which comes as a printed book of 20 volumes with 3 additional volumes to account for more recent words. My copy of the smaller book was printed in 2007. Al-Qaeda has been active since 1988, but doesn’t feature in the SOED. So I went to the web. I used the roundabout route of searching for Al-Jazeera, a respected broadcasting company, and was directed to the inimical Wikipedia. From there, I was more comfortable searching for the other terms.

But you see my point? Fear of the heavy-handed authorities descending on the house to remove my computer for forensic dissection, especially in light of the fate of such protectors of free speech as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, makes me, and many others, wary of even investigating certain topics.

The other cause for concern in writing about such matters stems from the potential outcry and threats of death that may result. We have only to recall the cases of Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses (a book I actually read at the time, forming my own ideas about the real reason for the fatwa), and of Jyllands Posten, the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Islamic prophet, Mohammed. But it isn’t just Islam that poses such problems. There’s evidence that raising the subject of Christian, Budhist, Hindu or any other form of religious extremism can cause serious problems for those daring to criticise such organisations.

Even at a less heated level, the criticism of many religious groups, no matter where those beliefs originate, is invariably seen as an attack on faith and belief, so that simply questioning these issues often results in tirades of abuse, threats and even physical atttack.

Those of a rational turn of mind are effectively silenced by a system that was ostensibly put in place to protect the rights of minorities. It’s become very difficult to even venture an opinion on the validity of faith, the truth about religion, or the real value of certain rites and rituals unless the writer couches such ideas in the most delicate language.

Fear of causing offence, coupled with very real concerns over both official and extremist responses, has effectively neutered those who wish to hold open and honest debates about certain religious beliefs, traditions and customs. It takes a brave writer to raise these contentious issues. I suggest that the balance of the law has shifted dangerously toward censorship of those who employ reason and rationality and is now overprotective of those who wish to maintain what are often erroneous and frequently dangerous belief systems. This fear stifles the very necessary discussion of subjects that are often directly responsible for much injustice and harm in the world. What do you think?
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