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Censorship: Protecting Minorities

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There is an interesting article in today’s Guardian about censorship. This week, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play, Dishonour, was axed on Monday from its run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre after violent protests by Sikhs. The newspaper has asked five experts what they thought about this decision:

Antony Julius (lawyer): I haven't seen it but I think it is unfortunate when a play is taken off because of violent protests.

Julian Baggini (editor of the Philosophers’ Magazine): Since there is clearly no intent to stir hatred of Sikhs by this play, there is no reason to ban it, even if it profoundly upsets some people. I am deeply offended by religious people who claim the godless are evil, but as long as they don't incite discrimination or violence against atheists I have to put up with that. It is the protests, not the play, which have harmed the image of Sikhs.

Dr Kanwaljit Kaur Singh (British Sikh Education Council): This should be banned, it is insulting the religion by portraying murder and sexual abuse in a Gurdwara. If it was in a community centre, with Sikh people carrying out murder and sexual abuse, I would have been offended but I would not have called for its banning.

Julia Pascal (playwright who has suffered from censorship): I applaud anybody who examines their own cultural background and I would stand by the author; I think it is very important that this play should be seen and Birmingham Rep should have continued to show it. We cannot suppress our voices just to please fundamentalists.

Don Horrocks (Evangelical Alliance): The Sikhs feel the sacred in society is something that is worth protecting and for that to be violated is really provocative. This play is very provocative to Sikhs and I sympathise really with their feeling of outrage. Having said that I would certainly not endorse the response of violent coercive censorship.

The newspaper also raised the issue of other plays, books, songs, poems that have suffered from censorship:

Perdition: Jim Allen's play about some Zionists in the Holocaust enraged the Jewish community, and protests forced Royal Court to abandon a 1987 production.

The Satanic Verses: Muslims objected to Salman Rushdie's 1988 portrayal of the Prophet, and death threats forced the author into hiding.

Homophobic dancehall lyrics: The Metropolitan police are investigating the lyrics of a number of Jamaican dance hall artists over claims their songs incite fans to kill gay people.

Misogynistic Eminem lyrics: The influential US rapper has caused outrage with misogynistic lyrics.

The love that dares to speak its name: James Kirkup's 1976 poem portrayed a legionary having sex with the body of Christ.

Is censorship ever justified? My own view is that people should be allowed as much freedom as possible. The only restriction is that people should not express thoughts that are likely to encourage acts of violence against a specified group of people. Therefore, I think it is acceptable to ban racist leaflets produce by far-right groups.

The problem is, what do you do when it is claimed that a book, play, film, etc. is likely to create racial or religious hatred? This was the argument against Dishonour. Unlike the racist leaflet, it was clear that the writer had no intention of stirring up hatred against a religious minority. The same was also true of Perdition, The Satanic Verses, and James Kirkup’s poem.

The homophobic and misogynistic song lyrics create more difficult problems. Although it is not absolutely clear that the writers agree with the viewpoint expressed in the song, they do seem to be incitements to violence. I am not sure I would actually ban the songs from being played, but I would strongly advise people not to listen to them.

What do you think?

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I posted my views on the recent situation in Birmingham HERE

On the broader point, if we start to legislate for the potential stupidity of the end user of film, media, song lyrics etc. then we will very quickly have no free speech at all.

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