This is my rutabaga. His Name is Mo.
There are many like him, but he is mine. He has never let me down, and in sharp contrast to the lot of you, he never will. I mean, until he rots.
I would like to take Mo on a trip. It's been 21 years since I lived in England; I thought I could take him there. But I have some concerns — and I'm not just talking about the TSA violating him.
In fact, I'm worried that I might be banned from some places in England if I bring Mo.
The Pineapple Incident
That worry arises from an incident at the University of Reading in England. The University of Reading has something called the Fresher's Fayre every year, at which new students can learn about all the groups and activities open to them and perhaps reconcile themselves to the fact that even with a degree they will never be taught to spell things properly. One of the groups set up to greet new students was the University of Reading Atheist, Humanist & Secularist Society, or RAHS.
RAHS, which has opinions about freedom of expression, and which is in solidarity with other university branches of their group that have recently been disciplined by student unions for blasphemy, decided to express themselves and engender debate by bringing along a pineapple named Mohammad.
Among the material displayed on our stall was a pineapple. We labeled this pineapple "Mohammed," to encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion, and liberty, as well as to celebrate the fact that we live in a country in which free speech is protected, and where it is lawful to call a pineapple by whatever name one chooses.
The end result was that the officials (and I use the term loosely) of the Reading University Student Union shouted at the members of RAHS and kicked them out of the Freshers Fayre. The Student Union defended itself as follows:
Nick Cook, vice-president of student activities at Reading University, defended the union's actions, saying:
"RUSU is dedicated to promoting an environment in which all students feel welcome and included in all of our activities, while at the same time being committed to our members maintaining a culture of free speech.
"Our Equal Opportunities Policy and our Behavioural Policy (which all clubs and societies agree to be bound by), state that RUSU will create a culture based on the principles of fairness, respect and of valuing difference. The events did not comply with these ideals and took the action we felt necessary to maintain the culture that we exist to promote."
There are words I understand in there; I'm just not sure what they mean when you run them together like that. I'm frankly not sure they mean anything.
My Concerns And Questions
You see my dilemma. If I bring Mo to the United Kingdom in this political and — using the term generously — intellectual climate, might I find myself unwelcome?
I've decided some inquiry is in order. I've decided to pose them to Mr. Cook of the RUSU. I recognize that he and the Reading University Student Union are not in charge of the entire United Kingdom, but his attitude and exercise of power, however petty, strike me as emblematic of the attitude that the anti-blasphemy laws ought to be enacted and used to protect professed religious sensibilities from speech that offends people.
So, Mr. Cook, if you would, please:
1. I note that Mohammed is the most popular baby name in England. Does this mean that it's inappropriate for a student to label a pineapple "Mohammed," meaning to offer gentle ribbing of his school chum Mohammed who is a bit of a thicky? Would that be provisionally acceptable until some onlooker forms an opinion that the pineapple is actually named after Islam's prophet? Does it matter what the pineapple-owner's intent is, or is the only question whether or not the onlooker is offended, regardless of whether that offense is based on facts?
2. I understand that you've prohibited naming pineapples Mohammed, deliberately referring to the prophet, as a comment on blasphemy laws and free speech. What about my rutabaga named Mo? Is he a violation of your policies? Some people link Mo is short for Mohammed (in this case it's short for Montesquieu). If people are offended seeing Mo with his ironic name-tagged bowling shirt, because they assume he's a reference to Mohammed, will I be kicked off your campus if I come to visit?
3. Also — and sorry if I am belaboring this point, but I want to understand — what about even shorter names? Can someone have a pineapple on campus with a label that simply says "M."? Or would that be taken as a reference to Mohammed, and therefore banned because you've decided to use your secular power, however petty, to enforce a religion's anti-blasphemy laws? What if someone brought a pineapple simply labeled "you know who?" Would that be taken as a reference to this incident, and therefore an act of labeling the pineapple as Mohammed, and therefore as unlawful blasphemy? My rutabaga Mo might wear such a label, but I want to make it clear that in his case "you know who" is strictly a Harry Potter reference. He's a huge fan. (You have no idea how distressed he is by that woman's new book.)
4. For that matter, at this point, might the professionally and politically offended now view any pineapple displayed on your campus — label or no — as not only defiance of your authority, but as a reference to this incident, and therefore as an implied depiction of Mohammed? Are pineapples now banned on campus because they do not create a "culture based on the principles of fairness, respect and of valuing difference"? What if people try to evade that ban by carrying about other fruit, or even vegetables, intending them to be a reference to the incident and therefore a depiction of Mohammed?
5. On a related note, I assume based on your conduct here that you stand with other Student Unions that have attempted to ban drawn depictions of Mohammed by groups using Student Union resources. Say people wanted to defy that rule. Would it be impermissible not only to post or wear or distribute a detailed drawing of a recognizable Mohammed, but a stick figure labeled "Mohammed"? What about a stick figure labeled "M." or "Mo" or "you know who"? If the idea became sufficiently widespread, and a mere stick figure became in the minds of free speech advocates and blasphemy-ban advocates a generally understood symbol for drawing Mohammed, would you ban stick figures on campus? If not, why not? What's the difference, for the purposes of your decision to use secular power to enforce a religion's blasphemy rules against non-adherents, between (1) a drawing clearly depicting Mohammed, or a pineapple labeled Mohammed, on the one hand, and (2) a stick figure understood by both sides to be intended as a reference to and depiction of Mohammed, or an unlabeled piece of fruit understood by both sides to be a reference to Mohammed, on the other? In fewer words: just how ridiculous do you intend to make yourself?
6. What are you going to do if people start saying that invoking the name Mohammed — even in a discussion about whether or not depictions of Mohammed should be permitted — is blasphemous and offensive? What are you going to do if people start saying they are offended and intimidated and feeling that their differences are not valued merely by this discussion of whether it is appropriate to depict Mohammed?
Mo and I appreciate any responses you — or anyone who advocates enforcement of such anti-blasphemy laws — might be willing to give.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Follow-Up: U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Right This Time - September 12th, 2014
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- Yale Might Want To Look Into Some Sort of Basic Civic Literacy Course - September 10th, 2014
- U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Very Wrong - September 6th, 2014