Satire tends to be used for humour, sometimes ridicule, to expose and criticise relevant issues. Sometimes, however, individuals get in trouble. When this happens, the privileges in society, global or national all comes to light and, moreover, reveals a grand irony…Louis Antoine Smith was born April 22, 1989, and is an artistic gymnast from Great Britain. He is a four-time Olympic medallist. He did this by only the age of 27. He has earned a bronze and silver metal on the pommel horse. He won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics as well as a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Recently, there was a film shown about the gymnast in which, during a night-out with his friends, he drunkenly shouted: “Allahu Akbar,” (which translates into ‘God is Great’ in English – from the Arabic). He was in the video with a gymnastic trainer named Luke Carson. The consequence of this would prove unsettling. Indeed, it resulted in Louis Smith being banned for two months in light of interpretations by some that Louis “mocked” the religion of Islam. Note, it is a religion, not the individuals or the membership at large of the religion.
Before the ban, however, under minimal pressure Louis Smith apologised, “I am deeply sorry…I am not defending myself, what I did was wrong. I want to say sorry for the deep offence I have caused and to my family who have also been affected by my thoughtless actions…I have learnt a valuable life lesson and I wholeheartedly apologise.” However, this wasn’t enough – he was banned for two months regardless.
To me, and perhaps I am crazy to spout ideas from the Enlightenment, freedom of speech extends to ridicule and satire of any religious symbolisms, ideas, and words, even its patrons, prophets, and patriarchs. The same is the case regarding irreligious heroes too, who are alive and experience ridicule and satire all of the time. However, there have been failings here in the west to extend such freedoms of speech to both religious and irreligious ‘heroes’. Indeed, it’s a one-sided affair. Religious ‘heroes’, and all the baggage that go with religion, are safe-spaced – protected under religious-sensitivity, whilst irreligious heroes are deemed inconsequential and legitimate topics of mockery.
You can see the double-standard. This cooked up controversy highlights the privilege in society that religion still has. The outrageous implication of his ban is that the coverage is over the mockery of a religion, not the members at large with individuals within the religion that adhere to the principles, doctrines, and practices thereof.
He did nothing wrong other than ruffle some feathers and mess up a new hairdo. My sense of the outrage is, rather, that superficial sensibilities have been raised to heights and praised as ‘virtue’, when, in fact, they are virulent vices blocking the secret sauce of the ongoing integration of a pluralistic, global society – freedom… of speech, to and from religion, to ridicule, of conscience, and so on.
As Lenny Bruce noted decades ago in America, a bastion of free speech in many ways, if you “Take away the right to say “fuck” and then you take away the right to say “fuck the government.” Some words and actions can be unpleasant, indeed, but you can’t force another individual to not say or do something.
It is someone’s right to pray and say their God is just super in the Olympic domain, and mean it, as it is another person’s right to pray and say their God is just super-duper in the Olympic domain, and not mean it.
Lenny Bruce’s statement, by analogical reasoning, works the same with ideas and behaviours. If you take away the capability to think or do something, you take away the possibility of ridicule, of satire, often needed, about sacred cows.
It would be the same as doing the motions of the Catholic religion, wine and bread (the whole ritual, by a priest), or prayers of Evangelical Christians, and then being banned from an organisation for having been seen as mocking the religion in general rather than religious individuals. Religions don’t have rights. People do.
What does this incident, among countless more severe examples, then show? It shows religion, by default and historical inertia, has privileges, globally. There is a distinct error in conflation between mockery of religious motions, such as behaviours, and terminology, such as ‘sacred words’, and the doctrines and ideas as abstract concepts that influence behaviour.
People that don’t think it works and then do it in satire, or in ridicule, are not harming individuals. Consider the opposite case, the fact that many pray and say ‘holy’ words in front of individuals that do not believe. It could be offensive to them.
Are football and NFL players being banned for 2 months when they score and then thank God and pray because it is offensive to the irreligious? I don’t think so. In many places, by law, the irreligious can be killed or whipped simply by self-identification as non-religious.
Consider this: should we ban those from the Olympics that are showing religious behaviours in the Olympic context where the irreligious are present because they are offending irreligion – and so, as is sometimes asserted, the irreligious as well, by analogy?
It would be proportional, but it would be absurd – because this ban is so absurd. You can’t insult abstract objects or ideas. You can insult individuals that hold certain ideas and behave in certain ways. But it’s not up to Louis or others to justify their every single move. It’s up to the offended to make the distinction between ridicule of ideas and mockery of individuals.
I can imagine a hypothetical Smith Antoine Louis in an alternate universe saying, ‘I am so, so sorry…I can’t defend what I said because it was wrong, like…super wrong. I apologise to the irreligious. I am sorry for the deep offence I have caused and especially to my dear family who have been also deeply affected by these brainless actions of mine….I learned an important lesson and with all my heart say sorry to those offended.”
This is simply a case of imposition of religion into the public and professional sphere to limit the behaviour of others. Nothing more, nothing less, it is outrageous and insulting to those of good conscience with sufficient rational capacities to make a distinction between people and ideas.
The mockery and satire of ideas and concepts and behaviours is freedom of speech, but it is not a mockery of particular individuals. This is a case of a privileging of religion within society and then being imposed on a high-tier Olympian, Louis Smith. And it is being implemented because everyone has been raised with the tacit (wrongheaded) principles of ridicule of ideas and behaviours as ridicule of particular individuals.
It is not. There is no necessary logical connection between the two. This distinction is an important part of consciousness-raising. This is a damn good time to reflect too. If that is the case, and it is, then Louis Smith should not have been banned and the ban should be repealed because he is mocking ideas and not individuals. In addition, 2-months is rather stringent if you think about it, he spent some time laughing at the repetition of a two word statement in Arabic, which took less than a minute.
Yet, he’s been banned for over 80,000, close to 90,000, minutes. Does that not seem excessive? …The grand irony is, as with numerous examples of banning or attempted suppression of behaviour and ideas in history – barring the fire at Alexandria (where the burning of books succeeded and warped knowledge of aspects of human history), the 2-month ban brought even more attention to the ridicule of religious symbols.
*No irreligious or religious individuals were harmed in the writing of this article
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.