First they came for the T shirt manufacturers…

Regular readers know that these daily posts are often me trying to work out what I think about something by forcing myself to write it into sentences. This one is overlong, sorry. Feel free to leave comments, but try and be polite, initially at least…

Time to slap on a frown and go through this shit one more time.

Firstly, I am a privileged white male. I have never experienced oppression because of race, gender or sexuality, any abuse I have received will have been due to my individual character traits and the glasses I chose to wear, so frankly, that is my fault, not society’s. Now, as the starting point for this is the LSE “Jesus and Mo” T shirt banning story, you may wish to stop reading now, what do I know? Mind you, if you read newspapers or watch discussion shows you’ll know people yap on despite lack of experience or evidence, so count it as one of those occasions.

I would also like to make it clear that, though I am an atheist, I am not Richard Dawkins. I have done two interviews recently where, after answering questions on my non-belief, the interviewer has said, “but Richard Dawkins doesn’t say that”, as if all of us without deities must follow his commandments.

Others have said that, due to the company I keep, it is fair to presume that I must defend the opinions of famous atheists and be tarred with any brush of theirs that may be dubious. I also keep the company of Unitarians, Quakers, Catholics and self-declared wizards, so I am a confused and confusing individual if I must take on all of their attributes too, like a fast metamorphosising alien from The Thing. My general view is that there is not a battle with general religion, but with anything that is manipulative dogma, whether it’s regimes using the jackboot of fundamentalist religion to control or the cosh of fundamentalist politics as seen with Mao and Stalin. 

Obviously, I don’t see the Jesus and Mo cartoons offensive, I see them as light mockery, an absurd imagined world where a major messiah and popular prophet hang around in a bar and bed together. It seems to me to be a mixture of satire and light nonsense questioning religion. I also don’t find cartoons of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens skipping around like high hippies in their A for Atheist T shirts offensive, even though at the time of publication, some non-believers were affronted and also cried homophobia. Our skin changes thickness depending on the direction of ridicule.

Unlike some atheists, I do not believe Islamophobia is a fiction purely used to gain that advantageous state of potent victimhood that is used for cultural advantage. I don’t like the word itself, as I don’t think it is a phobia, I think it is about the surronding culture and education, which I don’t think is what causes arachnophobia.

“I weep and scream when I see spiders because my dad brought me up never to trust them and fear them because they are not from around here and do things differently”.

I do think there are problems with perceptions of Islam and many of us need to do more to understand what it is it and the different forms it takes if we are to enter into debates on it or feel we can pronounce upon it generally. Like most religions or dogmas, I have problems with its more fundamentalist forms and any use of its texts as an alibi for oppression and hampering of freedom of thought and action. When oppression or murder is apparently done in the name of Islam, I do not think we must be silent because we haven’t read all the texts.

Now I have attempted to express my general position, and smeared my liberalism into your eyes, let me ponder on the accused cottonwear.

Is the intention of the joke to create hate?

I believe the cartoons may be mocking, but mockery is a part of human conversation. Many of the great stories of faithful individuals sees them rising above ridicule.

In a world where cartoons can lead to rioting and deaths and authors who criticize Islam have been known to have fatwas put on them, I presume the author’s inspiration may be such ludicrous events. I am afraid that I think death for a scribble is pretty bloody stupid.

I have been told the T shirts are racist. I think they are mocking of religion, but is it the sort of mockery that incites violence or potent hate? I am not sure how many racists started their journey to hate based on a four frame cartoon. The language of the cartoons I’ve seen is often satirical, it mocks belief systems. Is mocking a belief system out of bounds? If so should all our beliefs be protected, beyond religion to philosophy and science or anything that is powerful in creating your worldview? Why should beliefs that cannot be empirically proved have greater protection than beliefs of natural selection or cosmology?

I think that claiming these T shirts are racist downgrades racism. Is race defined by belief?

Does this mean all jokes about Mohammed are racist and thus any joke that mocks prophets or gods is not wanted in a polite society and to ensure everyone feels part of that society, we must ban mockery. This form of enlightened society may find itself short on jokes .

This is a pity as jokes can also be a way of bonding. Many groups of friends have jokes about each other, in healthy friendships we may mock what each other believes, but that becomes unhealthy if we start physically attacking one of the pals because he is not from the same county as us or prefers Star Wars to Blade Runner. There are limits and those limits are when a quality of existence suffers beyond the level of “I don’t like that sort of thing, it insults me”. I don’t like the way a lot of people dress, but I keep quiet as that is living in a society where people are allowed to choose their clothes themselves.

Others have said that the level of suffering by Muslims in the UK means that a cartoon is just rubbing salt into the already gaping wounds. Again, I do not think the style of the cartoon is so hurtful in its ridicule that any liberal (ish) Muslim would be affronted. As for not being allowed to draw Mohammed, this does not seem to be a central part of the religion and, as part of that religion, is it not an instruction for followers, not everyone? Am I meant to follow the rules of all religions for fear of offending when passing by a mosque or Methodist chapel?

Jokes can be a way of framing an opinion, so must we then make further roads into preventing publicising opinions beyond opinions of hatred that are already covered by legislation?

Once we decide that we must curb our language and avoid all jokes towards a certain group for fear of offence, does this increase the outsider status and otherness of certain cultural groups which may exacerbate problems of inclusion?

I think of Jim Davidson’s refusal to play a gig with wheelchair users in the front row as he couldn’t make fun of them because they were not as others in his eyes. Doesn’t that marginalize more than include?

If we live in a nation where the most mockery must be censored as offence is the highest moral outrage, then we have to live in a silent country.

I am not a fan of offending for offending’s sake, but we have to look at the offence and think, what is the level of harm? If it is just a matter of some people saying, “well I am outraged” , then let them enjoy their outrage, it probably makes them feel better about themselves underneath it all, that outrage is like a free plane trip to the Olympian heights of golden ticketed victimhood. If it can be said that the article of outrage goes beyond that, that it is a call to arms and violence to others, a level of abuse that makes life ugly and difficult for others, then it should be scrutinized and possible action taken.

We need to be thoughtful with our mockery, but does anyone look at a Jesus and Mo cartoon and use that as the philosophical argument they require to justify their racism? Is it the number of cartoons read that eventually persuade you towards hate crime. Did the treatment of blanket suckers improve or worsen due to the portrayal of Linus in Peanuts?

To consider pencil sketched absurdist mockery as a gateway to physical harm is belittling of many far more important issues. Easier to prevent a T-shirt than look at the poverty and dogma that may really contribute to issues of division and bloodshed I suppose. The LSE banning the wearing of these T shirts at an event seems to fuel division and misunderstanding, and does little to create dialogue or find common ground. Let people argue and persuade, let’s try and get beyond the stereotypes through debate not restriction.

I believe that there can be much common ground between people of faith and people without, whether someone believes in a god or not is of little bother to me until it becomes a factor in brutality and hostile division. For those who say that the wearing of the T shirts is childish, perhaps the only thing more childish is to be upset by them and declare they must be banned. I worry this is not a game of religious respect, but a game of politics. Where is the blurred line where respect then demands censorship? I am afraid that I would see Jesus and Mo being classified as hate speech a dangerous precedent in the redefining of the word hate.

Sorry, what a long-winded post and all because of a T shirt.

I am on tour as usual with a new show for 2104 – London, Norwich, Sheffield, Bristol, Nottingham and many more, plus shows with Grace Petrie and Josie Long. all details HERE

Happiness Through Science DVDs (also including Brian Cox commentary) HERE


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20 Responses to First they came for the T shirt manufacturers…

  1. Martin Dixon says:

    I saw somebody claim that the t-shirt is racist because it would be worn specifically to offend Muslims. Given that there are some EDL numbskulls who think a great way to ‘get back’ at Muslims is to throw bacon at them, does that make bacon racist?

    • Nic says:

      It would make throwing bacon at a Muslim racist (and/or Islamophobic), yes. Whether you agree or not, I think people are claiming that it is the sentiment of the cartoon or the wearing of the t-shirt that is racist, not the ink and cotton.

      • Dave J says:

        Can we please stop confusing race with religion? This muddying of the waters prevents clear and open discussion on all sides. There really, really is no such thing as the ‘Islamic race’, any more than there is a ‘Christian race’ or ‘Buddhist race’. Would it be racist for a white British Christian to ‘throw bacon’ at a white British Muslim? Since when does your belief system denote your ‘race’? Does a convert change their race? The idea that race and religion are equivalent terms is absurd and must be resisted.

      • KC says:

        I wish atheists would drop the whole “Islam isn’t a race” argument. Clearly its not a race and one has far more latitude to criticize a religion than a race. I also recognize that Muslims and leftists pull out the “race card” in an attempt to delegitimize fair criticism of Islam.

        But at the same time there is clearly something racist-esque about some peoples attitudes towards Muslims that should be called out. While Muslims come from a number of different countries and vary significantly in terms of culture that are usually “different” from “us” in terms of their clothing, diet, mannerisms, language, etc. As a result they are often viewed with suspicion and fear in the same way that africans, chinese people, mexicans, etc. etc. are when they immigrate.

        While Muslims shouldn’t be able to shield their beliefs behind phony claims of “racism”, bigots shouldn’t be able to shield their prejudices behind claims that “Islam is not a race”.

      • Nic says:

        Dave J:

        I agree essentially, hence the ‘and/or Islamophobic’ in brackets. I chose not to challenge Martin’s use of the term racist because I thought the lack of logic in his argument was more pressing.

  2. John Hamill says:

    My broadband provider here in Ireland blocked access to as I has a 18+ content filter on my account. I had the filter removed. Now I have to take more care that my kids don’t stumble across porn on a laptop … or something even more scary, like a Jesus and Mo cartoon.

    I strongly suspect that here in Ireland, whoever made that decision thought that young people needed protected from the ridicule of Jesus rather than Mo. FFS.

  3. ukvillafan says:

    I, of course, agree with this general thrust, although I am less liberal about religion than you seem to be. We have Intelligent Design crusaders, and I use the term advisedly, seeking to dumb down science in order to promote fundamentalism, mostly in the US, and a significant proportion of a major religious movement that promotes jihadism at the state level.

    We also have a history of state-sponsored suborning of the murder of an author which led to a disgraceful exhibition of cowardice by all and sundry in this country, all in the name of a complete misinterpretation of multiculturalism.

    We have at least one politician in the UK who thinks it is Islamaphobic to complain about the status of women under Islam.

    Islam is not a race and to elevate the activities of the EDL or the BNP in any way in this context is to give them a prominence that is unwarranted.

    Those complaining of these cartoons and shirts are, presumably, the moderates within Islam – panderiing to them in any way is a mistake.

  4. Annie says:

    A really good, even though a bit long writing. You have many good points, and a lot of common sense. But however you try to rationalize, the Muslims who get extremely offended by these things don’t seem to be ruled by logic. There can be double standards, opinions that all people aren’t equal to express opinions, different rules for different people. Because to some Muslims Islam is the one and only true faith after all and many other things, like getting along with Christians or non-believers and their laws and social customs, come secondary. And the racist stamp is so easy to use that it’s downright stupid. And what’s even more stupid is that people are actually afraid of it. Even when it’s clearly completely without grounds or proof. And creating fear is a useful tool for anyone to use, when demanding special treatment and privileges. And a fear of something so silly, just a word, is something no one should allow to trap or silence themselves.

    As for cartoons (I just had to look up Jesus and Mo because of this) or mockery being a gateway to physical harm. I’d like to think the fault may not be in the cartoon or the mockery itself, but rather in the people who get such violent reactions from them. And even though I shouldn’t have to say this, I’ll say it anyway: this isn’t racism directed towards Muslims. I would feel the same way about any group of people, even blanket suckers like Linus in Peanuts, if they were ready and willing to use violence or terrorism to get their way and silence opinions that differ. I for one refuse to be afraid of any silly stamp, and I won’t have my opinions silenced.

    • Scurra says:

      People who are going to get offended will get offended. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with their religious, cultural or political views; otherwise the major religious, cultural and political movements of the last few millennia would have died out pretty quickly. Instead, there are the tribalists who exploit this innate fear of the unknown, and the inclusionists who try not to let it bother them – and there are plenty of representatives of both within all of these areas. Unfortunately, the tribalists seem not to understand the concept of compromise (cf. the US shut-down situation) and as we haven’t figured out how to deal with that coherently in several millennia then I doubt we’re going to sort it out in the near future.

  5. Keith Plummer says:

    Nothing about T shirts- I’m seeing your show in the regal Evesham in December. I’ll be in the front row, looking forward to it!

  6. celkali says:

    Bit long, but really worth reading. Though I’m not sure if you should stick to the 900 word rule as you seem to break a lot. Which is ok, and it appears others don’t mind, either.

    This reminds me of the South Park episode with the Prophet Mohammed that Comedy Central censored.
    I thought it was a gag from the show creators, but CC actually censored the episode.

    On it potentially causing hate crimes, here’s my own example. I’ve read nearly everything H.P. Lovecraft has written (well, the fiction, not the letters). Anyone whose read any of his work will see that he was a bit of xenophobe. Not a racist, but a xenophobe. Racism is hatred, xenophobia is fear and christ did Lovecraft fear anyone not English or from New England. Spoiler: the deep one offspring in The Shadow Over Innsmouth are supposed to be immigrants populating the dock distract of New York City. Lovecraft moved with his (Hungarian Jew; ok then?) wife to NYC and lived there for five years or so. He hated it.
    I love everything the man has put to paper. I love The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, At The Mountains of Madness, The Rats In The Walls, all of it. However, does this make me racist and/or xenophobic? Hell no. I just happen to appreciate the art of a (somewhat) deluded man.
    I also think it’s funny when he gets mocked for his writing style, and the cliches within his own work. My favorite thing ever was a caption that read, “And they lived happily ever aft- just kidding they’re either dead or insane.” He even made fun of himself with the story The Unnameable.
    His fear of immigrants faded in the last few years of his life and he has said he regretted writing The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I think that shows that even the deepest hatred and fear can fade in time. I could go on forever about this guy… I should probably stop and just say he died in 1937 of malnutrition due to cancer of the small intestine.

    One last thing, my film history teacher was asked about Roman Polanski and what he thinks of the man. He replied, “You know, he did some bad things, some irredeemable things, but will that stop me from admiring the films he creates? No. I separate the artist from the art.”

    Without mockery, and even self degradation, I think there’d be a lot more assholes out there. So at least there’s some who embrace it.

  7. “Sorry, what a long-winded post and all because of a T shirt.”

    Allow me sum it up for you.

    Sticks and stones!

  8. Steven Carr says:

    There is such a thing as good mockery. Dave Allen’s TV programmes were full of the good kind of mockery.

    Of course, the late lamented Dave Allen is dead, which I think is the main qualification you need for religious people not to be upset by your satire.

    You are allowed to mock people, if your voice is now silent, following the motto ‘The only good atheist is a dead atheist.’

  9. sam says:

    Smug atheists who enjoy confrontation are just making things worse, what happened to atheists being cool

  10. John Davies says:

    England is a country that historically has prided itself on its unique sense of humour & self mocking.
    Think Monty Python, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and so on. As a country we cannot afford to lose this unique part of our personality. Keep the Jesus and Mo. cartoons coming, aswell as the cartoons depicting ineffectual politicians, corrupt officials, television shows mocking all aspects of life from the class system to mens failed attempts with the opposite sex.
    Religion needs to take itself a lots less seriously and join the modern world. After all, it is a man made idea. (Just kidding, it could have been made up by a woman!)
    Brendon Burns has a great take on it:

  11. sam says:

    Why are atheists not cool anymore? I think we deserve some answers

  12. sam says:

    Sorry, forgot to praise you on your bravery in finally saying you hate Dawkins

  13. Karl Drobnic says:

    Racism is the systematic repression, oppression and slandering of some group. Bigotry, for example, is racist because it is part and parcel of a belief system. Banning something that is in poor taste or is offensive does not make it racist. Poor taste is judgement call. Something that is in poor taste is not necessarily racist.

  14. Sarah says:

    It’s only ‘racist’ because there’s no word which can be defined as ‘religious hatred’.

    People also confuse ‘race’ and ‘nationality’ – saw someone the other day describe their race as ‘American’!

  15. Thanks for the tip. I bought the tee shirt.

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