Rowan Atkinson has clown-stepped forward to defend the undeniable right of comedians to offend any people, including religious believers. Atkinson is opposing those parts of MP David Blunkett’s Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill — which itself sounds like something from a Monty Python sketch — that would outlaw an incitement to religious hatred.
As Sarah Left and Tom Happold report in The Guardian, “The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and anti-racism campaigners have long argued that the law is a necessary protection against extremists who incite violence against Muslims.”
Toby Helm of the Telegraph offers this helpful summary of Atkinson’s argument before a House of Commons committee:
“To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion — that is a right. That is a freedom,” he said.
“The freedom to criticise ideas — any ideas[,] even if they are sincerely held beliefs — is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.
“And the law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.
“It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended.
In this Guardian report by Sarah Hall and Tania Branigan, an MCB spokesman offers my favorite rhetorical flourish:
Sadiq Khan, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the bill closed a loophole which meant those who incite hatred against Christians and Muslims could not be prosecuted. “The law will not mean that comedians like Rowan Atkinson cannot take the piss out of religion,” he added.
Sometimes I wish the original version of English prevailed in North America.
As the author of a Christianity Today editorial opposing a religion-based hate-speech law in Illinois, I tend to side more with Atkinson on this.
Indeed, I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s long-held argument that laws limiting speech are not the best way to combat the toxin of hate.
Pop culture note: In an editorial opposing Blunkett’s proposal, the Telegraph refers to a skit in which Atkinson plays the devil sorting newly arrived citizens of hell. Sketches often do not translate well into print, but here’s a text for that skit (see “A Warm Welcome”) and others. As the Complete Guide to Rowan Atkinson mentions, the skit also is available on Rowan Atkinson Live! (1991).