Rochdale, Free Speech, Bob Dylan

This post is another sweep-up of odds and ends.

Rochdale

There’s nothing quite like a disturbing case about organised child sexual abuse – where race and/or religion are potentially relevant factors – to get everyone foaming at the mouth. Or, to discourage them from discussing race and religion in frank terms.

The standard question posed in response to this case has tended to be, “was race a factor?” . Most people shift nervously in their seat at this question on the assumption it suggests Asian/Pakistani/Afghan men are perhaps more pre-disposed, genetically, to violate girls.  They are not, but in any case the mistaken assumption misses the point.

I say race was a factor here: the race of the girls who were raped, that is.  Judge Gerald Clifton said the men treated the girls,

“as though they were worthless and beyond respect”.

He also added,

“One of the factors leading to that was the fact that they were not part of your community or religion.”

The judge chose his words carefully, and wisely.  There is nothing in the above statements suggesting the race of the perpetrators makes them more likely to commit rape, or that their (unnamed) religion is evil; the judge is merely demonstrating the harsh consequences of viewing people as “the other”.  In this instance “the other” was girls of a different community (which I say means the white community) or girls of a different (or no) religion.

That some of the men pleaded that the prosecution was triggered by their race was as predictable as it was pathetic.

“Is it ’cos I is black?”

“No, it’s because we have reason to believe you’ve been raping girls.”

Other than noting the judge’s comments above I’m not going to examine in depth any additional possible reasons for the men’s behaviour, but while I’m still allowed to express my opinions freely I will make some general comments which may or may not be relevant in the context of this case:

– A culture where “honour”-based violence is commonplace probably doesn’t help.

– A culture where women are blamed for sexual violence they receive on the basis they were immodestly dressed, or not covered up from head to toe, probably doesn’t help.

– A legal system where the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man’s probably doesn’t help.

– A (as in any) theology which demonises those of other religions or of no religion and imparts this information to people in their childhood, within a data vacuum, probably doesn’t help.

– An education system (here in the UK) which is legally permitted to discriminate on the grounds of religion, and which therefore helps set in perpetual motion the very problem of religious division in our society, probably doesn’t help – unless you think sectarian dystopia is a good thing.

– The religious labelling of children generally probably doesn’t help.

– Having a government that is too shit-scared to regulate madrassas probably doesn’t help.

I don’t know if that helps.

***

Free speech

I am pleased to see the launch of a new campaign to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Section 5 outlaws “insulting words or behaviour”, which is way too low a bar to restrict anyone’s right to free expression.  I recommend reading the National Secular Society’s response on the Section 5 consultation here.

Here are two examples of the use of Section 5: a student was arrested for saying to a police officer, “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?”, and a teenager was arrested for displaying a sign outside a Scientology building reading, “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult”.  You get the idea.

You also get an idea of just how important this issue is when I say the National Secular Society has teamed up with the Christian Institute for this campaign.

I attended a course last week run by a prestigious firm of media solicitors in London.  It was a general catch-up on legal developments and it also included the latest news on libel reform and media issues generally.

I took the chance to speak to one of the hot-shot partners in the break and asked whether she was aware of the Section 5 campaign; unfortunately she wasn’t.  That’s understandable because it’s a new campaign.  What was depressing, though, was that she wasn’t terribly interested in it.  That’s a partner, in a media firm, who acts for media clients, who is not really interested in a campaign to protect free speech.

I also managed to speak to a few of the other lawyers attending the course.  Having sat through a good presentation on libel reform and media regulation I thought they might be interested in the wider civil liberties angle of freedom of speech, but then I’m wrong about a lot of things a lot of the time.

I was met with utterly perplexed, uninterested faces which were screaming out to me, “this isn’t strictly my practice area and therefore by definition I could not give a fuck”.  Yes, ok, but it sort of follows on from the presentation we were listening to a minute ago, doesn’t it?  Aren’t you interested in core freedoms, such as freedom of speech?  Or was it the tax treatment of non-doms that first got you interested in law as a teenager? (Try to imagine a Scorsese film starting with the immortal line, “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a tax lawyer”.  It doesn’t really work, does it?)

One guy asked me, “why would you want to insult people?”, which reminded me how free speech these days is seen as a bad thing whereas it was once seen as a good thing. And that’s a bad thing.

***

Bob Dylan

Richard Dawkins wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian yesterday about the literary merits of the Bible.

This has reminded me of one of my favourite Bob Dylan albums, Saved.  It’s not considered to be one of his classics by “Dylanologists” but I couldn’t care less about that, or them.

If the subject of the album is not clear from its name then maybe you will work it out from a list of the tracks:

  1. Saved
  2. Covenant Woman
  3. What Can I Do for You?
  4. Solid Rock
  5. Pressing On
  6. In the Garden
  7. Saving Grace
  8. Are You Ready?

My favourite track on this album is “Pressing On”; the religious subject matter of the song is absolutely no reason why I should not consider it awe-inspiring (listen out for the gospel singing).  I tried finding the original version on YouTube to link to it, but no luck.  Sorry.

I see no reason to be instinctively against everything religious.  I see every reason to be instinctively against everything that is harmful – and religion often is just that – but religion is not always harmful.  I think it would be a little O.T.T. to decide I was never going to set foot in a church ever again, for example.  Saying that, I could understand that level of reaction from someone who, say, had been abused while under the care of a religious institution.

When I was growing up my dad would often deliver moral lessons through the medium not of religion, but of Bob Dylan.  I am very grateful for that.  Many a discussion would be punctuated or even settled by a sentence starting, “Well, as Dylan said, [insert usually incorrectly quoted lyrics].”

Once, when my dad discovered I had accidentally inhaled cannabis against my will and under severe duress, he fetched one of his Dylan biographies and showed me a picture of the singer “when he was taking lots of drugs”.  I specifically remember remarking to my dad, “he looks like a ghost”.  These days I might be tempted to research whether the photo was taken during the time Dylan was deeply religious.

***

And finally

While I was getting changed after my shower the other day there was a knock on the front door.  I covered the essentials with a towel and went downstairs to see who it was.  It was a pleasant elderly lady from Christian Aid.  She asked me for my money.

Regardless of the cause, I don’t give money to people just because they have knocked on my front door.  I didn’t want to be rude or aggressive to this lady but I did want to make my disapproval clear.  I also wanted – as a service to my fellow citizens – to discourage her from doing this and to have a think about what she was doing.  So I said,

“I don’t knock on people’s doors asking for their money because I don’t think that’s a terribly polite thing to do. Therefore I will not be giving you any of my money today.  Or tomorrow.  Or ever.  Bye.”

Then I went back upstairs and carried on listening to a possibly drugged-up Dylan evangelising to me through my iPod docking station.

And I finished drying my bollocks.

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