Not everything is about freedom of expression

The Times (paywall) reported yesterday that a teacher in Batley has been suspended for showing an apparently offensive cartoon of Muhammad. It bears saying that the cartoon has not been shown in the media, so I don’t actually know what it looked like so we’re in no position to judge whether it was “totally inappropriate” as described.

The reason why that matters is because I suspect it depends on your particular bent as to how you view this story. Remember, we haven’t actually seen the cartoon. There will be those who have views about free speech and free expression who think this is appalling. It will be viewed as yet more evidence that we are pandering to the sensibilities of one particular religious group. Would we have the same sort of protection against potentially offensive Christian material? They would see it as free expression takes a backseat to protecting a minority against offence.

On the other hand, there will be those who think that minorities do need particular protections who would be inclined to view this suspension as entirely right. It is inappropriate to show pupils – and being in Batley I think we can safely assume there would be Muslim pupils in the class – inflammatory material relating to a religious belief. It is surely understandable that people would be upset and it is right that we should protect people against such offensive material.

In this particular instance – remember we haven’t seen the cartoon – I think that is a vital piece of information. Not only have we not seen the cartoon, this happens to be a school. We don’t know whether the cartoon was “totally inappropriate” because it was of Muhammad per se or because of what it depicted Muhammad apparently doing, which would have been inappropriate whomever it was portraying. The news reports simply don’t say. Whilst for some it may read as though anything depicting the Muhammad would be deemed “totally offensive”, it is entirely possible that Muhammad per se was not the “totally offensive” part of the cartoon.

What we do know is that the cartoon was taken from Charlie Hebdo. Anybody who knows anything about Charlie Hebdo is that they draw cartoons specifically for the purposes of being offensive. I think we are on fairly safe ground in assuming that the cartoon was of more than just a picture of Muhammad, but almost certainly Muhammad doing something grotesque. It is likely (but, of course, I haven’t seen it) that it would be similarly offensive and “totally inappropriate” whomever it was depicting.

As a former RE teacher – and in light of the fact that the teacher in question has apologised for the resource – I would be willing to bet the lesson was probably intended to be some sort of discussion about the acceptability of images in religion and the reality of offence. Again, I can’t say for sure, but I’ve taught enough RE lessons to hazard a guess.

Of course, the focus has become on the Muslim protest outside the school. Sky News report:

Yunus Lunat, an executive member of the Indian Muslim Welfare Society in Batley, told Sky News he thinks the teacher “went off script” and was trying to “provoke”.

“They talk about freedom of expression, but I question what freedom of expression has to do with an RE lesson,” he said.

“You will never see an image of the Prophet Mohammed in our mosque, in any mosque in the world. It’s not acceptable.”

He added: “That gives you some sense of understating as to why these cartoons cause aggravation.”

Again, that gives the impression that the offence caused was because of the depiction of Muhammad altogether. Whilst it is true that most Muslims are not happy when Muhammad is depicted, it is notable that Mr Lunat says that fact give ‘some sense of understanding as to why these cartoons cause aggravation.’ Some sense. As in, that is not the whole story. It’s not just that depicting Muhammad is unacceptable to Muslims, it is that someone has depicted Muhammad in a particularly degrading way. Mr Lunat says ‘they talk about freedom of expression’ – which suggests that was the intended aim of the lesson and the teacher was purposefully taking a provocative image to get the pupils asking the appropriate questions regarding freedom of expression and religion. As I say, I have taught enough RE lessons to figure that is a fair guess at what was going on.

Ironically, Mr Lunat asks, ‘I question what freedom of expression has to do with an RE lesson’ as he and his Muslim friends freely express their religious views on Muhammad outside of the school. The question the teacher was probably attempting to pose – should Charlie Hebdo have freedom to express themselves in ways religious believers might find offensive – was the same question being applied outside the school in protest. Namely, the freedom to express a different religious point of view over the offensive nature of the cartoon on show. Perhaps if Mr Lunat had been in the lesson, he would have found the answer to his own question, I don’t know.

Freedom of expression has a great deal to do with Religious Education and to pose the question in a classroom is entirely right and proper. The question is not whether freedom of expression has anything to do with RE (it patently does), nor whether it is an appropriate question for an RE discussion (it clearly is), but whether the particular image was appropriate for a school class.

The issue is not one of out and out freedom of expression. That would be the question if we were discussing, for example, the depiction of a grotesque image of Muhammad in an adult discussion group. If we showed the picture in that class and it was deemed wholly inappropriate and offensive, we might want to have a discussion about the limits of free expression. We could argue that, despite the image having potential to cause offense, it was an appropriate image (even then, if it is pornographic, for example, it still might not be appropriate in such a setting).

But, in truth, that wasn’t the setting. The setting was a school classroom full of children. Under those circumstances, there are all sorts of images we shouldn’t share. For example, we would not share (or, certainly should not share) pornographic images. We can talk about free expression all we like, but it is patently true that to show pornography to children in a classroom – even if you were having a specific conversation about it – isn’t appropriate. So, whilst we should defend the right to free expression, there is an appropriateness to the setting in which we might be expressing something. For example, it would be inappropriate for me to wander into the mosque – midway through Friday prayers – and start loudly proclaiming the gospel. I might have the freedom to proclaim the gospel in general, but that setting and time is not appropriate, in exactly the same way as my imam friend would be inappropriate to traipse into our church midway through my sermon, lay out the prayer mats, and start salat. We should each have the freedom of expression and religion to do those things, but they are both inappropriate in those settings.

And so, we need to be clear about the issue here. Is this a case of Muslim sensibilities being defended in a way that no other religious group would get? I suspect probably not. Nobody protesting outside the school, to my knowledge, is suggesting that the image should not be allowed to exist (as was the case in the Charlie Hebdo shootings). The argument appears to be that the image, whatever it was, is not appropriate for a classroom setting full of children. It may well be the case that if the same image was printed of Jesus it would have equally be deemed ‘totally inappropriate’. We can’t say for sure because we haven’t seen the picture, but the question seems to be more about the appropriateness in the setting rather than the existence of the image at all. That is why Sky News report ‘Mr Lunat said he also fears the debate may be “hijacked” by people not directly related to the school.’ It is a school issue of appropriateness in the setting, which seems to be the same view taken by the school itself.

Those who have followed this blog for a long time will know that questions of free expression, freedom of religion and freedom of speech crop up frequently. I don’t think many would question, based on what is written here, my commitment to those things. But we need to be careful that we don’t confuse those issues with other things. Not everything is a matter of free expression, but appropriateness of setting. If we were discussing the existence of the image in a magazine, I would be arguing – though I understand why people don’t like it and I wouldn’t publish it myself – they should be free to print it. But just as I would not advocate showing all sorts of things to children – even if they should be permitted more widely in society regardless of how offensive I might personally find them – that seems to be the issue at play here. Not whether the thing should exist because it’s offensive, but is the image appropriate to show to children in a classroom setting?

Now, we haven’t seen the image, so I can’t possibly comment. I suspect the image was offensive for reasons beyond the mere depiction of Muhammad because that is the Charlie Hebdo modus operandi. I don’t think Charlie Hebdo should be impeded from printing whatever it was, I don’t have to see it to know that, but I do think there is a legitimate question about whether it is appropriate to show to school children. I minimally have to see it to be able to begin to answer that question. Charlie Hebdo remain free to express themselves in print however they will, but the question of whether showing it to children in a school setting is appropriate is the live one and in no way impinges on their freedom of expression. Parsing the issues at play will help us consider the question properly rather than reaching for our gut reaction as (potentially) missing the point.