Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Blasphemous art and attitudes towards censorship: Examining an apparent double standard

Blasphemy is a naturally controversial subject. In modern Western countries there is a tension between the liberal democratic tradition upholding the right to freedom of expression on the one hand and the desire not to offend religious sensibilities on the other. This tension has been highlighted in a number of high profile cases in recent years involving artistic works that satirise images that are held sacred in various faiths. Threats and assaults against artists who have criticised Islam in particular have prompted debate about the limits of freedom of expression. Notable examples include but are not limited to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the violent responses to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, the murder of Theo van Gogh, attacks on Swedish artist Lars Vilks, and the extraordinary worldwide response to the Innocence of Muslims video clip (which I have previously discussed). A number of recent events suggest that there appears to be a double standard operating in the Western media regarding which religions it is acceptable to offend. I find this particularly interesting considering the results of a recently published study finding that non-religious people were more likely than Christians to endorse a double standard regarding offending Muslims as opposed to Christians with blasphemous artworks. Why this would be the case is not entirely clear, although a number of possibilities deserve further exploration.

In modern art there has long been a custom of artists using shocking or disturbing images in order to provoke a response from viewers. Artworks that depict sacred religious images in profane ways seem to elicit the most controversy. Artists and their supporters defend such works on the grounds of artistic freedom, while critics complain about the offense to deeply held beliefs. A striking example is Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano depicting a crucifix immersed in what appears to be the artist’s urine, which still provokes intense criticism today. Although well received by art critics, the work has provoked death threats and physical vandalism, while the Catholic Church in Australia attempted to prevent it from being publicly exhibited in a national gallery in 1997. Artworks depicting sacred Islamic images in a profane way seem to provoke even more extreme reactions. For example, Roundabout Dog, a drawing by Lars Vilks depicting Muhammad with the body of a dog, was refused for entry in a public exhibition to which Vilks had been invited to contribute for fear of violent reprisals. These fears were well founded as following publication of the drawing in a newspaper editorial on freedom of expression and the right to ridicule religious symbols, death threats were made against the artist and the editor of the newspaper. An Islamic extremist group has even offered a bounty of $150,000 for the murder of Vilks. Lars Vilks has since continued to defend the importance of free expression, stating: “I'm actually not interested in offending the prophet. The point is actually to show that you can. There is nothing so holy you can't offend it.”

Worth dying for? Channel Four broadcast this partially censored image

The question of whether freedom of expression, including artistic expression, should be curbed in order to avoid offending religious believers provokes a wide variety of responses, and a recent incident in Britain is illustrative in this regard. A British political candidate named Maajid Nawaz became the focus of controversy in January this year after tweeting a cartoon depicting Jesus and Muhammad (from the web based series “Jesus and Mo”) – ironically to demonstrate that as a moderate tolerant Muslim he did not consider such images to be particularly blasphemous or offensive, and that the media should not bow to pressure to censor them. Predictably, he has received death threats, presumably from those with less moderate views on the subject. Additionally, a petition calling for his dismissal as a parliamentary candidate was started, although the leader of his party has supported Mr Nawaz’s right to express his views. What I found most interesting though was the way the media has chosen to report the incident. The BBC and the national press have apparently refused to show the image at the heart of this controversy at all, even though reporting news is supposed to be their job.[1] Britain’s Channel 4 decided to compromise by showing a partially censored image in which the face of Jesus remains visible but the face of Muhammad is completely obscured by a black oval. The response of one journalist, Nick Cohen, to this is that it seems that if Christians are offended by the cartoon they are expected to take it on the chin, but the network will not dare take the risk of offending Muslim extremists.

The decision by Channel 4 to engage in this partial censorship is paralleled by the results of a recently published paper (Dunkel & Hillard, 2013) that examined people’s attitudes to artworks that desecrate sacred images in Christianity and Islam respectively. One of the studies reported in the paper asked American participants to complete a questionnaire on their “Views on controversial art”. The questionnaire had two versions, so that with a simple change of wording participants could be asked about their views on art that offends either Christians or Muslims respectively. Sample items include, “Art that upsets Christians/Muslims should not be made because it is insensitive to their religion,” and for the opposite view, “People have a right to produce art that insults Christians/Muslims.” Participants were also asked their religious affiliation and their degree of acceptance of Christian beliefs. In this particular sample, participants happened to be either Christians or non-religious; no other religions were represented. One of the findings was that people with Christian beliefs were equally as willing to censor art that offended Muslims as well as art that offended Christians. Perhaps this indicates that Christians tend to feel that sacred images in general should be respected even if they derive from non-Christians religions. However, what I found more intriguing was the result for non-religious participants. These indicated that compared to Christians they were much less willing to censor art offensive to Christians, but they were equally as willing as Christians to censor art that offended Muslims. This seems like a very inconsistent stance to take and the reasons for it are not clear, although a number of explanations come to mind.

Piss Christ by Andres Serrano. Is it alright for people who are offended by images like this to try to prevent it from being exhibited? 

The authors discussed the possibility that non-Christians, who are a minority group in the USA, might have different attitudes to Christianity, the mainstream religion, compared to Islam, a minority religion. Non-religious people might be antagonistic to mainstream religion perhaps because they feel that their rights as a minority group need to be protected, and hence they wish to protect their right to criticise Christianity. On the other hand, the non-religious might feel more sympathy to society’s other religious minorities, even if they do not share their beliefs. Some tentative evidence in support of this view is indicated by the fact that some members of the political left-wing, which traditionally has a secular orientation, have allied with Islamist groups, in spite of the latter’s right-wing values, in the name of multiculturalism. (Something which is strongly criticised by other members of the left though, such as Maryam Namazie, as a step backwards.) If it is true that non-religious people tend to see Muslims as a potential political ally against mainstream Christians, then supporting censorship of anti-Muslim art for this reason might be a futile endeavour. The results of the study by Dunkel and Hillard indicate that Christians support such censorship to the same degree, so Muslims would have little to gain from an alliance with the non-religious in that respect.

Another possibility is that non-religious people are particularly responsive to intellectual fashions current in modern Western culture. There is a trend for non-religious people to be somewhat more intelligent than religious people, and it has been argued that highly intelligent people are better at detecting and espousing the values that are normative at a particular time (Woodley, 2010). Multiculturalism has become politically fashionable in Western countries in recent years and perhaps willingness to censor anti-Islamic art reflects a liberal concern to uphold respect for “cultural diversity.” Personally, I think this would also be an unfortunate stance for intelligent people to take as radical Islamists do not reciprocate the same respect and tolerance and if allowed to have their way would impose their own values on others. The study by Dunkel and Hillard did not assess participants’ political views or their attitudes towards multiculturalism, so further research measuring these would help determine if inconsistent attitudes towards censorship are related to such social and political concerns.

On the other hand, inconsistent attitudes to censorship appear to exist in countries that are much more secular than the USA, such as those in Western Europe and Australia. Even though Western European countries are generally nominally Christian, surveys have found that belief in Christianity has considerably declined in recent decades. As a result, non-religious people do not have the same kind of minority status they have in the USA. In spite of increased secularization, there has been a trend in recent years to stifle freedom of speech in order to prevent offense to religious people. There have been a number of well-publicised cases in Europe of people actually being prosecuted for criticising Islam in particular (see this site for examples). An example of a double standard protecting Islam occurred in Australia in 2013 when a student newspaper ran a series of satirical infographics criticising Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, Judaism, and Islam respectively. Even though the first four articles were published without any controversy, when the article satirising Islam was published the newspaper staff were forced to remove it by university administrators, who cited concerns that the piece might pose a threat to the reputation and security of the university. What these cases seem to indicate is that even in largely secular countries there appears to be an attitude that offending Muslims is much less acceptable than offending Christians.

Many people, including myself, have become concerned that an attitude of fear has become prevalent in Western countries in response to multiple violent incidents involving Muslim extremists seeking to punish anyone who dares to publish any material they deem disrespectful of Islam. An increasingly common response by secular authorities to this fear has been to placate extremists and to chastise anyone who feels bold enough to provoke them. Perhaps this has seeped into the thinking of even non-religious people who would not otherwise be inclined to grant respect to “sacred” figures in whom they do not actually believe. Hence, non-religious people might understandably feel that at the present time satirising Christianity is a safer way to express their lack of respect for religion compared to satirising Islam, which is accompanied by a much higher risk. If correct, this is a very unfortunate situation, as it sends violent religious bullies the message that standover tactics will be effective in silencing their critics. It is also an erosion of a fundamental right at the heart of Western civilisation in the name of placating people who have no respect for Western values of tolerance and freedom. Dunkel and Hillard’s study did not examine whether fear actually does play a role in the thinking of those who would support censorship, so further research would help determine if this is correct.

Another limitation of Dunkel and Hillard’s study is that it used a rather small sample of non-religious people from a single country. Larger samples drawn from other more secular countries such as those in Western Europe would help determine how broadly their results can be generalised. Additionally, “non-religious” people are not homogenous, so it would be helpful to have more fine grained information about what views these people have about religion and about art. That is, non-religious people have a wide array of attitudes towards religions, including indifference, hostility, even sympathy, and it seems likely that these different attitudes would be associated with differing views on censorship of “blasphemous” art. Many non-religious people, including famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are quite outspoken about the importance of free expression and the right to criticise Islam in particular. Further research would be needed to identify what characteristics distinguish those who consistently reject all censorship from those who support a double standard.

[1] Further examples of the BBC’s reluctance to say or do anything that might upset Muslims in any way, even if this means censoring the news, are discussed here

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.   

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else. 

Further reading
Is Insulting Religion "Extremism"?
My views on how people choose to respond to provocative religious insults.

Pew Research report on Blasphemy, Apostasy, and Defamation of religion laws around the world.  

Criticism of blasphemy laws and support for freedom of speech:
Pair of articles by PT blogger Gad Saad:

Masturbating With a Crucifix in a Film… No Riots?

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.   

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Dunkel CS, & Hillard EE (2014). Blasphemy or art: what art should be censored and who wants to censor it? The Journal of psychology, 148 (1), 1-21 PMID: 24617268
Woodley, M. A. (2010). Are high-IQ individuals deficient in common sense? A critical examination of the ‘clever sillies’ hypothesis. Intelligence, 38(5), 471-480. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2010.06.002