Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Temple of Free Speech

The forces of violence won. The Sikh protestors succeeded in their aim to see a play in Birmingham removed from production, having forced its premature cancellation through storming the theatre on Saturday night. As such, all the well-worn arguments about freedom of speech have been dragged up. My sympathy is very definitely on the side of the playwright - if a play can find an audience, then it is right to show it (assuming, of course, that the play does not fall foul of current laws banning incitement to racial hatred). If it is offensive, raises no valid points, or is simply not very good, it won't last long on production. Now, I have neither seen nor read the play in question. But it seems to me that a couple of important points have been missed in the controversy surrounding it.

Birmingham's Repetory Theatre, which cancelled the play, has said that being 'forced' to take such action was a curbing of free speech. This is a view with which I would definitely concur. Yes, the play may have been offensive to certain members of the Sikh community, although this article suggests that it was far more offensive to Sikh elders than to younger members of the faith. The key question must be, however, whether or not it was gratuitously offensive. If it was, then I have to question why the play was ever afforded a production at a prominent theatre. It would confirm thoughts I often have that modern "art" (and here I am using art in the broadest sense of the word) is used more to shock people and drag them out of their "comfort zones" than to raise valid points about societal issues.

So I read the following article with dismay. It suggests that it is OK to be unnecessarily offensive. I think such comments also detract from the message the play appears to have been trying to put forward (the letters page in today's Times brought up this point which I had been thinking about earlier). The point of the play is to discuss the nature of hypocrisy within religious belief - and the way in which it is done actually raises a significant number of valid points for discussion. To this end, it is absolutely essential to the message of the play that the rape and murder scenes take place in the temple - for it is this seemingly inappropriate juxtaposition of action and location that is necessary to the message.

Why would the Sikh community have found it acceptable for Sikhs to have been portrayed raping and murdering outside of a temple? Surely it is outside of any religious morals for these vile acts to be perpetrated? And this is the crux of the scene, as far as I can tell. The scene is set in the temple so as to set one man's proclamation of religious values against the immoral and corrupt acts he is prepared to carry out. If rape is wrong, it is equally wrong whether carried out in some bushes in a park or in a temple itself. Religion demands standards of personal morality throughout daily life - not just once a week, or when you are inside a place set aside as particularly spiritual. Personal probity should be on display the whole time. The point of the play was to highlight the hypocrisy of those who may otherwise appear as upstanding members of the community.

Did the message have to be portrayed in such a way? Possibly not, but the key point was made all the stronger by the symbolism of the location. Yes, the playwright was undoubtedly courting controversy with the script, but we should remember that this is her right. Free speech demands that views, however unpalatable, have the right to be aired. In the context of the arts, views of no merit simply get no audience. And this is as it should be - views should be met with debate and not blanket repression. But a stronger lesson should be taken from the controversy brewing over this play. That upholding a moral standard has to take place everywhere, and all the time. It may not be easy, or even possible. But making a distinction between the same crime based solely on location is a large mistake.