15 February 2006

And we’re back

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:45 pm

dinoblog.jpgEagle-eyed readers will have noticed that there hasn’t been any activity here for several months, for which many apologies. There are a few reasons: I was very busy wrapping up a rewrite in time for Christmas; most of the website database got deleted during a server upgrade, and after restoring what I could (sorry to everyone whose comments were lost) I felt a little despondent about the transience of all things; and so on.

Another reason is that I’ve been taking some tentative steps into the print media, something I’d always meant to do after using this blog to hone my sense of outrage and perhaps develop something of a personal style. On 30 September last year I published a piece called “A Bad Example” in the Review section of the Australian Financial Review; it was about the Commonwealth Health Department’s petrol sniffing information kit and the unfortunate things Tony Abbott said launching it. It began like this:

Steven Uluru made front pages across the country in August when he appeared with a can of petrol under his jumper before a coronial inquest into the deaths of three other petrol sniffers. It was impossible not to be affected by the picture and its contrasts: the resort guests enjoying sundowners on the bright side of Australia’s most celebrated rock while the rock’s namesake, and one of its custodians, shambled dead-eyed through its shadow.

The coroner, Greg Cavanagh, immediately adjourned the proceedings, held in the small town of Mutitjulu, some 20 kilometres from Uluru. He later explained that he hadn’t been distressed by the sight but had been frustrated by his own inability to help. “I was angry with myself at my impotence to stop what was going on,” he said. “No one, not me, white lawyers, uniformed police, Aboriginal men and other community members, did anything.”

If only Tony Abbott had been there. The federal Health Minister invoked—perhaps milked—the scene when he launched his department’s new petrol-sniffing information kit last Friday.

“That was a terrible thing, and getting the message out that petrol sniffing kills people and it can kill them fast, that’s important if communities are to do their bit to end this dreadful scourge,” he said. Although Steven Uluru won’t be able to read the flipchart himself, “the people who love him hopefully will, and rather than permit him to wander sniffing petrol all day, they will insist that he attends some kind of rehabilitation program”.

Of course Steven Uluru and everyone he knew had tried every kind of rehabilitation program available to sniffers the Northern Territory, but the facilities have been famously lacking. It was difficult to see how much good the information kit would have done in his case, and it was satisfying to be able to point that out. The article went over reasonably well, so last Friday I published another one, again in the AFR‘s Review section, this time called “No Laughing Matter” and about the Danish cartoon controversy. I concluded that both sides were to blame for the whole thing getting out of hand.

Of course freedom of speech is critical to any non-dystopic society, and its interaction with religious sensibilities must be debated. But these issues need the right cause, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are hardly up to it. There is much to be said about Islam’s relationship with violence, with women, and with other faiths, and much of that might be blasphemous but worth defending; these cartoons attempt none of it They are empty provocation; they express nothing beyond their own mischief. And, fatally, they’re not funny. Freedom of expression covers worthless as well as weighty expressions, of course; but to defend such a gratuitous exercise with so much righteous bluster seems itself gratuitous. It appears to be driven by the same moral panic—the fear that Islam threatens our most cherished institutions—that prompted the Jyllands-Posten’s ill-fated initiative.

It is true that many protesters are now demanding government intervention of a kind that would seriously deform the boundaries of our freedom of expression. They are free to ask it; we are free to refuse. As a corollary to religious freedom, most Western democracies have abolished their laws against blasphemy or allowed them to atrophy. Some Muslims have asked how Denmark’s Lutheran majority would feel if Jesus were given the Muhammad treatment; doubtless many would be outraged, but it is unlikely that legal sanctions would result. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the public reading of James Kirkup’s poem suggesting Christ was gay attracted plenty of protest but no prosecutions, exactly as it should be.

At the same time, many democracies have strengthened their laws against racial and religious vilification and incitement to hatred. Some critics argue that it is hypocrisy to prosecute extremist Muslims and neo-Nazi propagandists while allowing cartoonists to draw Muhammad however they like; but these arguments ignore critical differences. Blasphemy is not vilification: it is not committed against people but against God, who hardly needs our protection. We have to understand that many Muslims are deeply pained by portrayals of or disrespectful references to Muhammad; we need to use our freedom sensibly and not gratuitously. But until mockery becomes incitement to hatred—until it turns from God and threatens people—it is a matter of personal responsibility and cannot be the subject of legal proscription. That is where we have placed our line, and it is a reasonable boundary.

I’ve already learned a couple of things about writing for newspapers—which Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur strip calls “dinosaur blogs”—as opposed to the writing straight to the Internet. The first was that whatever personal style I had developed here was of little use in print, partly because space limitations preclude the kind of rambling delivery I prefer, perhaps also because of the need to mask suspicions of personal inadequacy with an authoritative-sounding tone. The second was that links really help in presenting an argument: they save you having to summarise everything and reduce your responsibility for accurately putting someone else’s case—readers can simply see for themselves, if they’re interested. In a newspaper you can use quotes, but again space constraints limit their effectiveness. When consumer-grade electronic paper becomes popular, it’s likely that many of these differences will disappear as newspapers embrace the advantages of hypertext.

On the other hand, newspapers’ editorial oversight gives them more credibility than most weblogs out in the anarchy of the Internet. They also have a proven financial model (for now) and so tend to pay their writers better. So I’m going to try to do more dinosaur blogging, but will continue to post here when I wind up with something that doesn’t fit anywhere else. I will also try to restore the hundreds of comments on Missy Higgins: lesbian?, because they’re brilliant.

5 Responses to “And we’re back”

  1. Alastair Says:

    I for one welcome the return of our dinosaur blogging overlord. Even when he mixes many large complex topics in one post!

    Don’t worry about getting the missy higgins comments restored, I found them tiresome. My comments, on the other hand, were gold.

    On blasphemy vs. vilification: surely the believer would say that they respect (deity) above themselves, hence blasphemy is worse than vilification to them? In other words, it would make no sense to ban vilification but allow blasphemy, in their eyes. (Thought experiment of course, I’m an atheist). Maybe the rest of the article will make things clear. I’m assuming it’s not online anywhere otherwise you’d have a link.

  2. Matt Rubinstein Says:

    I think mixing large complex topics in one post is half the fun! And another thing you’re not allowed to do in the dead-tree media.

    The devout believer might well say that blasphemy is worse than vilification, though most believers seem to be a bit more self-serving than that. But a society can’t be expected to give legal effect to everything believers believe; it has to decide what it should protect. And there’s a better (though certainly not airtight) case for legislating against vilification since it can result in physical violence, exclusion from society etc than against blasphemy, which can result in outrage but not the more tangible ills. It’s not always a clear line but I think there’s a useful distinction.

    But yeah, there’s more discussion of that in the article, which you can purchase from the Fairfax News Store for the low price of $3.30! Unfortunately the Fin doesn’t make much of its content available for free.

  3. Jody Marshall Says:

    Can I humbly request that you post links from your blog to your dinosaur blogging (when they happen) in case those of from interstate miss them?

  4. Jody Marshall Says:

    Sorry, to be clear, when they actually do have links of course.

  5. Kirsten Says:

    I am not sure I agree with your causation analysis matt (nerdy lawyer-speak for “hang on but…”) neither villification nor blasphemy directly result in violence: both involve words which hang in the ether but both can cause violence by the emotional impact of the words. Villification can incite people to violence and blasphemy can lead to protests like we saw in Denmark and in the Middle East. If you want to go on a strict utilitarian basis for legislating then insulting Mohammed should be an offence because it can result in extreme, violent protests and innocent people can be placed in danger. The difference is that with blasphemy the offended people are doing the protesting and creating the violence and with villification the oppressed group is vulnerable to violent attack. The distinction is not risk of violence; its your view (entirely reasonable) that the offended folk should ‘suck it up’ and behave themselves and write a grumpy blog if they don’t like it.

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