Monday 7 October 2013

LSE "Jesus & Mo" Row

As always at this time of year, student unions up and down the country are trying to convince both students and their parents that "they're doing something about something", and this year the London School of Economics (LSE) is at the centre of it.

Students from the Atheist Secularist And Humanist Society (run under the auspices of the LSE's Student Union), as usual, held a stand at the Fresher's Fair.  Two members wore T-shirts displaying a cartoon from Jesus & Mo, a popular webcomic.  Complaints were made, and the Atheist Society were asked to cover the shirts.

And now there's a massive row about it.

So lets get a few things out of the way:

Islam prohibits images of The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him / may The Force be with him).  The intention of this rule is to prevent idolatry - for example, what if there's a picture of Mohammed where he has big ears and another where he has small ears, which is true?  It's the kind of thing that leads to schisms, and the world has quite enough of those already.  Note that this prohibition applies to Muslims, not worldwide.

Jesus and Mo isn't some crass piece of offensive nonsense.  It's a legitimate and fairly gentle piece of religious satire.  They address the question of representing the Prophet, claiming they use a body double, which is fair enough.  There's not even a question of copyright here, the cartoons are licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

A student union is, usually, a private club in the eyes of the law.  They have the right to ban within certain rules - students can't be excluded on grounds of race, religion or sexuality for example, but this doesn't amount to entirely free speech on these grounds.  Neither the LBGT Society or the Heterosexual Society (if there is one) are likely to be able to show their own particular brand of porn for example, even if it's an 18+ venue and the porn is perfectly legal.

So...the students had a right to wear the T-Shirts, the Student's Union had the right to insist on them covering it up as a condition of entry, end of story.  In the absence of any legal challenge to the matter, that's the end of the argument - there is no censorship issue, as they're only preventing something being said on Union property.  Just because the Guardian won't print this post it doesn't mean they're censoring me.  The students are free to wear the T-shirts anywhere else they want.

But, of course, these arguments tend to have a life of their own,  and everyone wants to weigh in.  I've already had two vigorous discussions with people on Twitter who disagree with me almost entirely, despite us all holding the same atheistic views otherwise.  So here's my view on a few aspects:

Question 1: Were the students right to wear the T-shirts?
I have to acknowledge that Jesus And Mo themselves say it isn't Mohammed, but I've not heard this defence presented in any way.  As an independent observer it looks very much like they're simply trying to cause offence, and in a very targeted way aimed at one particular religion.
  It's possible that they weren't even aware of the potential for offence and the reasoning behind it, but frankly if they weren't aware of the "no pics" rule in Islam then they probably need to study the subject they're rejecting a little more. 
 If they wanted to challenge the "no pictures" rule then they can do it without displaying a picture.  A shirt reading "There are no gods, and Mohammed is not a prophet" does much the same job without being so directly offensive, but even then it's singling out a particular religion - does that mean that Christianity is less liable to criticism from Atheism?  Would singling out Hindus instead be a better idea, because they have more gods and are therefore a more "legitimate atheist target"?
  The job of atheism is to challenge the initial precept that there is a god, religions themselves voluntarily lump themselves together by founding their beliefs on there being a god or gods.  Atheism doesn't need to attack Islam, Sikhism or any other religion to do its job, the argument is that "there is no god" and if it's made well enough then all religions will be equally hoisted by their own logical petards.

Question 2: Were the Students Union right to ban the T-shirts?
As with question 1, they're certainly within their rights.  Was it a sensible idea however?  Well, that depends on why they did it.  If they were expecting to get into the papers and throw their name around a little then yes, mission accomplished.  If they were trying to "protect their students" however, then it's a very different matter.
  This is a university.  The very point of which is to take some rather nerdy people and prepare them for life.  The may be "little darlings" in the eyes of some, but they have to learn to live in the real world with people who disagree with them and learn to stand their ground.  This applies just as much to your Pakistani girl from a cloistered religious upbringing as your public schoolboy who's living in a hall named after Pater.
  Student Unions do have a duty of care to their members, but part of that is allowing them to fight their own battles.

Wearing the T-shirts was a mistake.  The Atheist contingent were either very naive, or they set out to shock, quite possible hoping for publicity as a result.  But they're simply telling their "target audience" to fuck off.  If atheism is all about telling religious people to fuck off, then fair enough, it does the job, but that not any part of atheism I want to be part of.

Banning the T-shirts was also a mistake.  It was nothing illegal.  It wasn't inciting racial hatred, it wasn't threatening anybody.  It was just a particularly crass and badly thought out piece of "shock-jock" atheism.  The Union should have just told Whoever Complained to use the standard student arguments of pickets, protests and the like, let the student body decide before handing the matter over to a very few elected officials in the Union.  A vigorus public argument, no kicking or spitting, is a good thing, especially when you're meant to be learning about life.

In fact, banning the T-shirts has turned this from an argument between the Atheist Society and the Whoever Complained Society of LSE, into a big argument with people claiming the free speech of the UK is at stake, when it should be about young people with forming belief systems meeting other people, understanding their point of view, and taking it apart where necessary.

A simple ban seems to remove a huge learning opportunity for everyone involved. 

It's a student spat, and they should be arguing their respective ground in the University Court, as is tradition and juristiction, not throwing soundbites to social media and the press.

As any fule student kno:

Wheaton's Law: "Don't be a dick."

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