Culture Shock


I am reading far too many newspapers. It isn't good for my sanity and well-being.

To take one example: last week several of the broardsheets carried advertisements for a make of beer named Abbott Ale. The adverts took the form of quotations from the Bible, apparently torn out and stuck down in the manner of ransom demands in B movies. The verses, including some sayings of Christ, were tangentially and ironically concerned with beer, as 'Come unto me all ye who thirst'. (I was surprised to note that they did not use Acts 28:15 'They travelled as far as the forum of Appius and the Three Taverns...where Paul thanked God, and took courage.')

I am not going to say that this advert offended me. To be I honest, I don't know what sensation the words 'I am offended' refer to, so I have no way of spotting when I am experiencing it. But I did feel a very mild and easily suppressed urge to write a letter to the editor. It would have said something like this:

'Dear Sir.
If a brewery had submitted a paying advertisement to your paper which made use of pages ripped out of the Koran would you have printed it?
Yours etc.
A. R. Rilstone (Mrs.)'

It's a halfway serious question. Why is it OK to treat the holiest things in Christianity with contempt and disdain, but quite unacceptable to mete out the same treatment to Islam?

Perhaps it's because Christianity and the Bible have been part of our culture for so long that they are practically invisible. People regard Christianity as a neutral, base line religion; a synonym for 'moral', 'compassionate' and 'middle-class'. If a cartoonist wants to say that Tony Blair is being treated as a some sort of God, they draw a picture of him in a stained glass window or give him a halo. They don't put him in the lotus position or show people sacrificing wildebeests to him. Heavy Metal groups invert crosses if they want to symbolise the Unholy: if they used a multi-armed image of Shiva, it would not signify 'religion', but 'exoticism' or 'ethnicity'. If I wrote a book which contained absolutely everything you could possibly need to know about Aspidistras or Locomotives, I would be unlikely to refer to it as 'The Houseplant's Torah' or 'The Steam Train Enthusiast's Baghavad Gita.'

It happens the other way around as well: people with no particular religious beliefs—sometimes, people who are downright hostile to actual Christian doctrines—approve of the singing of hymns and the reciting of the Lord's Prayer out of a vague belief that 'religion' is good for people.

So–it is very possible that the newspapers' advertising departments saw the advert as a mildly cheeky joke about religion and not as an attack on any religion in particular. Abbot have been using an image of a tonsured monk in their advertising for as long as anyone can remember. Why should tearing up a Bible be any different?

Or try this for an explanation. The editor was perfectly well aware that the advert would be 'offensive' (whatever that means) to Christians, but he didn't think that offending Christians mattered too much. He reasoned that a majority culture needs and deserves less protection than a minority one. It is worse to call a black man 'nigger' than to call a white man—er...some equivalently offensive term which mysteriously doesn't seem to exist in our language—because white men run the country and black men don't. (Emphasis on the 'men', obviously.) Christians have got less right that Moslems to complain about having the piss taken out of them in beer adverts because Christians, as a rule, don't have their corner-shops fire-bombed by skinheads.

But of course, neither of these good and sensible explanations fit the case. We all know why no national newspaper would dream of printing an advert that involved tearing up the Koran. They are afraid that if they did, a posse of middle-eastern assassins would be training their machine-guns on head office before your could say 'religious tolerance.'

Say what you like about the Church of England, it rarely declares fatwahs. It rarely declares anything at all, in fact. If the General Synod were to declare the odd crusade—if there were a Temporal Arm consisting of Girl Guides with uzis; or if Songs of Praise regularly listed the names of un-Christian breweries and commanded the faithful to boycott them then you can bet people would treat the church with more respect. It might also make the services more lively. If, on the other hand, you follow the path of religious tolerance—if you 'don't try to force your religion on people' or 'respect those of other faiths and none' then this public desecration of the holy is inevitable. It is not an unfortunate side-effect of tolerance; an abuse of freedom of speech perpetrated by someone irresponsible. If the Koran is not being spat on and the Bible ripped up, then you don't have 'religious freedom'. The position which says 'I will allow you the freedom to desecrate my religion providing you promise never to do so; (and if you break the deal, you lose the freedom)' is theocracy by another name. New theocracy, new inquisition?

It's a problem.

In the actual news bits of the same newspapers, we were rapidly learning exactly how far we are prepared to go in our 'religious tolerance' or 'respect for other cultures'. Several medium sized Brazilian rain-forests were given over to the story of the two ex-pats who were apparently in danger of being beheaded, whipped and imprisoned by the Saudi Arabians.

There's nothing the English like more than an execution. Since they only happen in foreign countries, it allows us to read all those gory prisoner-ate-a-hearty-breakfast column inches, while maintaining a sense of self-righteous superiority over Johnny Foreigner. The Americans, who let journalists film inside the lethal chamber and conduct interviews in condemned cells are particularly good value. This time around, we had to make do with blurry photos of criminals being whipped (they might as well have been participating in a morris dance for all you could see from the picture) and quotes from people who had witnessed beheadings. There was an interview with a nice old lady whose husband's murderer had had his head chopped off. It made her feel much better, she said. They executed him on what would have been their wedding anniversary, which was especially nice. Honestly, I haven't see so much morbid excitement since Mr Burnam announced to the fourth form that he was going to cane Mike Bell's bottom.

The prize for 'most loaded headline' goes to the Daily Mail who accompanied the flogging picture with a massive headline saying 'Can Blair let this happen?' One could think of more relevant questions. 'Can Blair stop this from happening' would be one. 'If this doesn't happen, will Blair be able to take the credit?' would be another.

Robin Cook remarked that the sentence of three million lashes was 'unacceptable in the modern world'. Now, doubtless this was intended as a synonym for 'bad thing'. But let's spend a minute or two getting our head around the implication of his words.

The objection to whipping people is not that it is bad, or wicked, or immoral. The objection to whipping people is not that it appeals to low human instincts, that it brutalises the society in which it happens, and that crowds of people turn up to watch it. The objection is not that it doesn't do any actual good—or at any rate, no more good than a less brutal sentence would. The objection is not even that it is very widely supported by members of the Conservative Party and the Daily Mail.

No, the objection to this very extreme piece of cruelty is that it is not modern.

I wonder if any Arab diplomat has thought to turn around and say 'That's all right. We aren't part of the modern world, and we don't want to be, thank you.' It would be unanswerable.

Cook does not, I assume, believe that some law of the universe changed in 1878 so that cruelty, which had up to then been a Good Thing, suddenly became a Bad Thing. The claim that the Arabs are not modern—that they are barbarians, or medieval or savages—clearly amounts to a claim that our culture is superior to theirs. So far as I can see, the only sort of superiority one culture can have over another is moral superiority. Shirts and ties can't be 'better' than kimonos; eggs and bacon can't be 'better' than chicken madras. But giving people fair trials can be better than giving them unfair trials; and humane prisons can be better than torture. If this is what you believe, why not say so, rather than hiding behind a mantra like 'modern'?

An even more important news story received front page prominence in the Bristol Evening Post ('the paper at the heart of Bristol'). It seems that one Sam Holliday has been sent home from school for wearing an ear-ring. Er, right. I recall the aforementioned Mike Bell being sent home from school for acquiring a mohican haircut. It was quite a moral dilemma because he couldn't shave it off without becoming a skinhead, which was equally against the rules. A teacher with an uncharacteristic sense of humour resolved the problem by finding (goodness only knows where) a school cap. It was quite a talking point in the school playground, but I don't recall it making the front page of the Barnet Press.

In the small print, the story turned out to be even less interesting. Sam had not been sent home at all (that is called 'exclusion' nowadays, and requires documents signed by three Justices of Peace and a six month appeal process with a theoretical right of appeal to the House of Lords). He he'd been asked/told/ordered to take his ear-ring off, and was so upset by this that according to his mother his mother Mrs Maxine Holiday ('31') 'his health was affected and we had to keep him home for two days.'

Why ear-rings, any more than mohican haircuts, should be such a big deal is anybody's guess. English schools are very like fundamentalist religions: they maintain traditions, and perform excommunications and anathematisations long after anyone can remember what the rule is there for. Mike Bell's chastisement was for the appalling crime of smoking a cigarette. It couldn't have been a moral judgement, considering the blue smoke that billowed from the staffroom door; nor could it have been concern for his health, given the greasy chips which issued from the school canteen. He was being punished because schoolboys have always been punished for smoking: he had broken a taboo. There was a news story a while back about a Moslem kid expelled from an English school for refusing to take a shower after PE. The Moslems are quite strict about physical modesty, apparently; and obviously, no English PE teacher could possibly allow a child to shower in his underpants: its another sacred taboo. Two world views, utterly irreconcilable: a philosophical chasm.

Sam may get to go back to school: they'll let him keep his ear-ring providing he puts a plaster over it in PE lessons. And—in what might have been tiny flash of sanity—the National Union of Teachers doesn't agree with the policy anyway:

'We cannot put a blanket ban on earrings because it is part of the traditional practice of some cultures that children should wear them.'

The following week, Norman Tebbit made his 'multi-culturalism' speech to Tory Pary conference.

We live in interesting times.