Rowan Atkinson speech: ‘Every joke has a victim’

Comedian Rowan Atkinson today urged the government to back down over its religious hatred bill and accept changes made by peers to strengthen the right of performers to criticise religion. Here is the full text of his speech

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for coming. I am sorry that it’s that Luvvie again whingeing about freedom of speech. Sadly, this bill will not go away and the government seems incapable of entertaining any meaningful compromise on it and so I am forced to return to the fray. Luckily, new issues and absurdities make their presence felt every time the measure is introduced, so there is always something to talk about.

I agree with those factions within the Muslim community that are asking for a level playing field between faiths: the problem is at what altitude the field is levelled. For example, to seek parity with a law as outmoded, anachronistic and unenforceable as the Blasphemy Law, the repeal of which must surely be imminent, is wholly inappropriate. Similarly, if Jews and Sikhs enjoy implied immunity from criticism of their religious beliefs or activities through the race hatred laws, then that is a wrong and the idea of extending that wrong to other religions is not right. All religions deserve equal freedom of worship and practice but none deserve the right to freedom from criticism.

It is absolutely right and reasonable that religions should be protected from threatening language, behaviour and written material but I support the amendment to retain the right to abuse and insult, because of the essentially irrational nature of religious beliefs. That is not to dismiss them: indeed, I’m a great believer that the most important and most sustaining things in life are essentially irrational. Love, beauty, art, friendship, music, spirituality of whatever form, these things make no rational sense yet they are more important than any qualities that are rationally measurable. Those who think that, as they lie on their deathbed, they will be able to judge the success of their lives by how big a BMW they could afford at the end of it, are in for a big surprise. However, it’s their irrational nature that leaves religious beliefs wide open to interpretation, allowing occasionally practices to be established that are wholly contrary to the mores of a civilised, liberal society.

Those practices must remain open to the widest critique, including what could be perceived as insult or abuse. Now you may say, Oh well insult and abuse that doesn’t sound very nice, we should have a law against that. Well, we do – and if anybody has any doubt about the power and reach of the Public Order Act, the arrest and prosecution of the man in Oxford for accusing a mounted policeman of riding a gay horse was I think some kind of indication. Sadly, the action was wisely dropped before the veritable treasure trove of comic possibilities the case had opened up could be plundered. But not before a successful prosecution had been brought. The problem is judging what constitutes insult or abuse in an irrational realm. Race is a rational concept, He is of that race, She is of this; and it is not difficult to judge with reasonable objectivity what constitutes insult and abuse. Such judgments are almost impossible with the irrational quality of religion: where for some, any critique of their religious practice constitutes an insult, to question anything is an abuse.

A key element of this revised bill is an attempt to distinguish between attacks on beliefs and attacks on believers, the former to be allowed, the latter disallowed but it is a distinction which, like so much of this bill, is of laudable intent but which in my opinion is doomed to fail. Beliefs are only invested with life and significance by believers. If you attack one, it is very difficult to claim that you are not attacking the other, because the believers are the only people who invest the beliefs with significance or can take responsibility for them. You wouldn’t need to ridicule the beliefs if noone believed them. From a comedian’s point of view, you cannot make a joke about a belief or a practice without characterising it in human form. Every joke has a victim and with a religious joke, it is bound to be a practitioner, even if the target is the practice.

Indeed, this dilemma is neatly encapsulated by the much-trumpeted “Savings for discussion, debate and criticism” clause, by which I was so encouraged when I read it for the first time:

“A person is not guilty of this offence by reason of anything done … so far as it consists of criticising, expressing antipathy towards, abusing insulting or ridiculing any religion, religious belief or religious practice …”

“Excellent” I thought. “Fantastic”. “Job done”.

Sadly, the next word is “Unless”. “UNLESS he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred or was reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up”.

In order words, you haven’t committed an offence unless of course you’ve committed the offence, in which case I’m afraid you’ve committed an offence.

Laying aside the fact that lack of intent is never going to be a defence for a comedian, as the very nature of a joke is that it is a construct, a deliberate act with a victim in mind, it is the recklessness provision that is most pernicious. “You should have known you were going to cause trouble and yet you went ahead and staged your play all the same”.

In my opinion, freedom of expression is being allowed to cause trouble, or create discomfort, or offence, as long as your words or behaviour are not threatening. Yet again, when it comes to recklessness, the Bill naively hopes for a distinction between attacks on beliefs and attacks on believers. I want you to picture a scene. A 19-year-old police constable has been called to the stage door of a theatre, having received a complaint from a religious group that a comedian or a play is being offensively critical of their religion. Is the performer being reckless as to whether religious hatred will be stirred up? Luckily, the constable has a paragraph of legislation to clarify the situation:

“For the avoidance of doubt … A person is not guilty of an offence under this part of being reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up if he is reckless as to whether hatred would be stirred up against a religion, religious belief or religious practice but is not also reckless as to whether hatred would be stirred up against a group of people defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief”

I wonder what that constable’s going to do? For the avoidance of doubt, I would say, he is going to close down the performance.

I am not attempting to defend freedom of speech merely on behalf of my self and a few comedian friends. Freedom of speech is not the preserve of the white liberal or the black agnostic. I wish the oxygen of free expression to be available to all but it is not enjoyed by all and where its availability is most poor is often within religious communities. The very nature of a religion is that you subscribe to its beliefs at the expense of some of your individual free expression, the degree of sacrifice required depending on the nature of the faith, so it is hardly surprising that it is factions within religious communities who have lobbied so hard for this legislation. Those who are most keen to stifle the free expression of others are often those who do not enjoy true freedom of expression themselves. And therefore fear it. Much is made quite rightly of this bill’s capacity to increase litigation and conflict between faiths but a little discussed aspect is the potential for its use as a weapon within faiths to stifle the voices of change. In every religion, there is a broad spectrum of faith from the most conservative to the most secular and those at the secular end, many of whom seek reform but live in fear of the demands of the devout, will derive no comfort from this bill whatsoever.

Ridiculous, outmoded or hateful religious practices need to be criticised and exposed. But because you cannot criticise practices without implicating the practitioners, practitioners are bound to be caught in the crossfire and in my opinion, they should just accept that. If the exposure of hateful or ridiculous religious practices generates dislike of that religion’s followers, they should accept that also and not seek legal immunity. They cannot renounce responsibility for their practices. They should defend them, justify them, or correct them. What is so frustrating for the creative community is the intransigence of the government on this issue when the amendment proposed by the Lords is such a workable compromise. My impression is that government ministers themselves are by nature of a reasonable, liberal bent who, along with the majority of their party would love to have the compromise but like Thunderbirds puppets, their movements are unnatural because they are being guided by strings being pulled from elsewhere, by those factions that have lobbied for this legislation for so long. This is ridiculous and frustrating.

My plea to them is to cut those strings and give themselves the freedom to accommodate a proper political compromise. The short-term political imperative really can be satisfied without the introduction of a permanent, censoring chill on free expression.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Guardian, UK
Jan. 30, 2006
Rowan Atkinson

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 31, 2006.
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