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Your unfunny t–shirts are not the answer

Your unfunny t–shirts are not the answer

Student atheist and humanist societies should think again before using their ‘Jesus and Mo’ t–shirt stunt, argues Ben Ryan.

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A blog was recently drawn to my attention by one Dr Chris Moos that tries to paint the LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun as a “faith warrior”. By deigning to argue that religion ought to be taken more seriously in academia in a range of different subjects as an overlooked cause Calhoun is displaying some sort of scary Christian zeal (apparently).

It is the second half of Dr Moos’s blog that what I suspect is the real reason for the anti–Calhoun attack. Moos led one of a series of stunts in which atheist and humanist societies show up to Freshers’ Fairs wearing t–shirts showing “Jesus and Mo cartoons”. Reports as to what happened next differ depending on who you ask, ranging between just short of the heroic martyrdom of these champions of free speech to a minor disagreement after which they were asked by the LSE to stop wearing the t–shirts or leave. This event has somehow become a cause and argument which has rumbled on now for years.

My concern over these stunts is that in this ongoing pointless dispute the protagonists are actually becoming part of a rather more sinister trend and that they have lost sight of the point of their campaigning. 

First to be entirely clear – this is a deliberately provocative gesture, whatever its supporters might say to the contrary. The cartoons have been a cause celebre for years, the effect they have is well known. Wearing the t–shirts (especially having worn them before and caused a reaction) is a deliberate challenge to take sides. University student unions and staff are forced to either take the side of those saying these are a necessary example of free speech or the side of those who saying they shouldn’t be allowed because they offend some students. Since the university wants to promote a happy, cohesive student body without this fuss, particularly at the beginning of the academic year, they find themselves placed between a rock and a hard place.

If it were simply provocative that would be a bit irritating but not especially problematic – perhaps universities ought to be forced to be clearer on their stance on particular issues. However, it is the choice of target that I find distasteful. It’s the unpleasant use of jokes and mockery to create an acceptable “other”. In Britain in the past the butt of such jokes have at various times been the Irish, Jews, or among others, West Indians. Each time the effect is to justify a perception that “those people” are not welcome here or that they undermine the efforts of the rest of us. In our own time the acceptable other at which abuse can be thrown has become Muslims.

Every time these student societies decide to be provocative it is invariably Muslims who bear the brunt of the mockery. It is never Sikhs, or Hindus, or Jews or any other minority group. Muslim children are among the least likely to go to university and disproportionately likely to be poorer with lower educational qualifications. They are a group that needs encouragement and support to go to university – not the group that needs to be singled out as being unwelcome. 

Why is it that Judaism, a religion which is presumably from a humanist perspective just as irrational, and which equally requires special food and (for some) dress, are never the butt of the jokes or campaigns? Is it because Jewish students at the LSE are likely to be white and middle class (the same demographic that overwhelmingly accounts for the membership of humanist student societies)? Or is it because the crimes of the 20th Century still loom so large in our consciousness that the “othering” and making jokes at the expense of Jews remains utterly taboo?

Either way I fail to see how ridiculing and ostracising the group that is already the most widely ridiculed and ostracised is a helpful approach – rather it shows a distinct moral cowardice and unnecessary nastiness. Student humanist societies argue that they want a healthy pluralist space in which no religion is privileged over any other and where faith is privatised within a space which prioritises and supports free speech.

Fair enough. But given those aims there ought to be a sense of responsibility. If you have the right to free speech, you ought to take the responsibility to play an active role in building a cohesive plural society and proving that under secularism that is possible. Free speech should be a tool for building society, not dividing it.  Being the group that chooses to join in the mockery and abuse of society’s latest acceptable whipping boy is not only unhelpful, it actually undermines that campaign. Perhaps instead of seeking out all those scary “faith warriors” Dr Moos should revisit what he’s actually trying to accomplish and ask whether these clichéd provocations are really the answer.

Ben Ryan is a Researcher at Theos

Image from wikipedia available in the public domain.

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

Watch, listen to or read more from Ben Ryan

Posted 2 July 2015

Ethics, Freedom of Speech


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