No laff riots, please, we're British

Atkinson_posterIf you’re a member of the House of Commons and the comedian known for his roles in Mr. Bean and Blackadder opposes you — not once but twice — it’s probably a good time to rethink your proposal.

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).

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  • Charlie

    “It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. …”

    John Leo of US News has written often about hate-speech codes popular on college campuses, all of which assume there should be a right not to be offended. That idea has been gaining popularity in religious circles — I think of the recent outpouring of criticism of the movie The Passion for its alleged anti-semetism, and examples of art offensive to Christians such as Serrano’s Piss Christ.

    My faith (in Christ) is offensive to some on its face, and if speech is restricted so as to not offend, it will certainly become difficult to debate questions of religious belief, not to mention any number of other controversial subjects.

    In the end, perhaps we need to become more thick-skinned (and less Oprahfied) in order to preserve the right to vigorously debate important issues of faith and public policy.

  • Joel

    Would it be unChristian of me to have laughed my hindquarters off at some of those sketch transcripts? The last one (with the schoolboys’ names) I had trouble staying on the chair for.

  • Will

    So, Mr. Blackadder, er, Atkinson: if I say something nasty about “Jews”, am I criticizing people’s “race” or their “religion”?

    (s) First-degree Mischling who is fed up with people having it both ways in that respect.

  • Paul Barnes

    Sigh…to think that this is the nation that could produce Monty Python.

  • Will

    Remember, Paul, penguins are more intelligent than BBC program planners.

    (s) Colonel Lindsay-Woolesey in a white wine sauce