In the wake of recent outrages such as the Charlie Hebdo magazine massacre in France and blogger Raif Badawi’s punishment in Saudi Arabia, freedom of speech appears to be under sustained attack across the world. Comedian and activist Bridget Christie wonders whether shutting down independent thought can ever be a good idea.
I was brought up by strict Irish Roman Catholics. When I was little, I wasn’t allowed to question any aspect of my inherited religion, not even its theologically-driven dietary stipulations. I was to accept transubstantiation, the Virgin birth (that occurred WAY before the invention of in vitro fertilisation) and abstinence from meat on Fridays, all without the merest whiff of confusion or sarcasm. So I did. I accepted it because I was scared of the Devil and fire and of being damned, but mostly I believed these things because I didn’t want to lose out on my Friday-night treat of meat-free Corona Lemonade and meat-free crisps and sweets.
Looking back, perhaps my parents didn’t encourage questions because there were nine of us, and there just simply wasn’t time for washing hundreds of shitted nappies AND explaining astrophysics in nine different ways. Even the logistics of Christ’s Ascension into heaven, which seemed like a scientific improbability to the four-year-old me, was off-limits.
What was the weather like? Was it cloudy and if so, did Jesus disappear really quickly and was the event somewhat of an anti-climax for his followers? Or was it a clear day, giving the disciples perfect visibility? Did they have to stand there for ages until Jesus had completely disappeared in case he looked down and saw they’d all wandered off to the market for some olives? Did they all get cricked necks? And what about that old chestnut, gravity?
All these questions, and more, went unasked and unanswered. I don’t think these enquiries are blasphemous, offensive or disrespectful. I think they are perfectly reasonable questions that should be encouraged and welcomed at all times, whether from the mouths of children or from Stephen Fry’s Twitter feed. Whatever that is.
As a parent myself, shutting down my children’s ideas and independent thought is like denying them air and water, and even though their constant probing of the metaphysical and scatological can be wearisome, I try to answer as many of their questions as I can, using Wikipedia and The Sun online as guides.
I’m not in any way judging my parents. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, my answer-free childhood has meant that now I question everything. Being intellectually and spiritually stifled and suffocated as a child turned me into a curious adult.
I’m a stand-up comedian, so I think carefully about my material and how it might be received. Jokes about the Ascension of Christ could potentially offend a Christian, but I’m only talking about Christ’s ability to exit the earth’s atmosphere in physical form without the proper equipment: I haven’t questioned His existence or called him a rude name. But even if I have, does this potential offence mean that I shouldn’t do it? Absolutely not. Freedom of expression and thought is our most basic human right. It’s as fundamental as our right to an education and the right to love and be loved. Many people around the world don’t have these rights.
When comedians are described as being brave, risky or edgy, I immediately think of Raif Badawi, a liberal Saudi blogger. Raif was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes for setting up a website that championed free speech in Saudi Arabia. His blog, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum, was shut down after his arrest in 2012. He’s so far received 50 of those 1000 lashes.
Badawi, a father of three young children, said: ‘States based on religious ideology … have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life. Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.’
Badawi is brave. I have nothing to lose by talking about religion or politics or women’s rights. My life and my family’s life have not been threatened. If that ever does happen, I don’t know how I’d react, or whether I’d start talking about toasters instead. I just don’t know. I’ve been intimidated and criticised online, but I won’t be lashed or imprisoned for doing a routine mocking the inventor of female genital mutilation. Putin won’t liquefy me because I said his propensity for shirtless photo-shoots lowered his status.
Even though everything she says makes me feel sick and violent, Katie Hopkins has as much right to voice her political opinions as I have. So while I don’t believe in censorship, I do believe in using our freedoms for the greater good. If we don’t, and we squander them by spreading hate and intolerance, to encourage twats to think and behave like twats and to divide communities, it’s an insult to democracy and to the thousands of prisoners of conscience around the world.