Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons https://bit.ly/2ZzrzZw Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Batley Grammer School: Whatever happened to the spirit of ‘Je Suis Charlie’?

It is indeed time to stand up against real bullies and real hate speech. Not the sort that merely offends but the sort that demonstrably endangers. Our culture has become obsessed with microaggressions, yet it often fails to challenge the kind of thuggish aggression, masked as righteous anger, that threatens the fundamental freedoms of others. The kind of aggression that disrupts civil live, puts livelihoods at risk and not infrequently poses a threat to life itself

At least that is how it is when the offended are a protected group, a minority to be appeased. Case in point is the suspension without due process of a teacher in Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire for showing his class the now notorious Mohammad cartoons that were first published in Denmark in 2005. Back then, global outrage was whipped up when the Danish government refused to get involved and there were violent protests around the world. In 2015, when similar cartoons were published by French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, the outrage was more immediate and deadly. Twelve people were murdered in the offices of the journal and eleven injured. The worldwide reaction that followed the killings brought world leaders to Paris to stand in solidarity with the French people and the principle of freedom of speech.

That was 2015 and indeed ‘another country’ in cultural terms. Nowadays, the politically correct and more prudent response to the self-righteously outraged is to appease them by offering them a head on a plate, pound of flesh, whatever it takes to call off the dogs. It is shameful that a teacher who used the offending material as a classroom resource for a lesson on freedom of speech should be summarily suspended.

It is even more shameful that the teacher and his family have been forced from their home for their safety and that police consider threats to the life of the man credible and are currently providing him with protection. Hardly an overreaction when a French teacher who caused the same offence was decapitated in the streets of Paris only a year ago. Meanwhile those who have incited this oversouped outrage are not being arraigned for incitement to hate crime.

Apparently, the offended have managed to mount no more than fifty braying protesters at the school.  Not all are parents of pupils. The febrile atmosphere of the gathering was considered of such menace that the school was advised to suspend classes. We have come a long way, under woke culture, from 2015 when the British Prime Minister flanked French President, Francois Hollande and leaders from nations across the globe as they led a march down the Champs Elysées defending both the rule of law and the right of free speech.

On this occasion, apart from some subdued protest from individuals like Rishi Sunak, the British government has had nothing to say on this assault on fundamental freedoms and due process at Batley Grammar School. Even with concerns around breaches in covid rules, the police seem to consider the most appropriate intervention is to provide the teacher in question with security at taxpayers’ expense rather than break up an intimidating protest that potentially endangers public health, causes children to miss out even more than they have already in their education and endangers the safety of a teacher who has not done any wrong, whatever anyone may think about his judgment.

Some years ago, when I taught a module on media studies in a secondary school, I once showed the class Christopher Hitchens’ documentary that demonised Saint Theresa of Calcutta.  I followed in the next class with a favourable and fairer account of her life and then compared both videos to discuss the techniques film makers use to manipulate the audience. Everything from camera angles, to background music to choice of interviewees was discussed. Suppose after the showing of the Hitchens film, some devout Catholic parents brought a complaint to the Principal. I can say with certainty that under no circumstances would I face suspension or anything beyond, at most, a request to explain my choice of material.

Shockingly today, western democracies with their well developed systems of justice and due process have lost the self-belief to defend those systems when faced with attack from those who come with very different notions of justice.  If we don’t stand up against this sort of bullying we edge even closer towards the collapse of the democratic order that, whatever its weaknesses and failings, has served our world well. There are countries in the world whose notion of justice is to cut off the hand of a thief without recourse to judicial process.

There are death sentences for unthinking acts of alleged blasphemy in countries like Pakistan. In 2009, a trumped up blasphemy charge against Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who relieved her thirst by drinking from an old metal cup she found by a well, when working in the fields in Pakistan earned her the sentence of death by hanging. When the Supreme Court failed to uphold the sentence on appeal because of lack of evidence, there was mass violence across the country and she was only finally given her freedom nine years later.

Over many centuries in western democracies, notions of justice and jurisprudence have evolved and that is something we don’t have to apologise for. We certainly should not be bullied into setting these hard won principles of justice aside to accommodate those with far less developed. more visceral and vindictive ideas about how justice is served.

This is more than a cautionary tale from Britain. We are already experiencing something of the same ideological lynching here, though it is as often as not a rather faux version of it. If a cartoon can be construed as politically incorrect, like the one that depicted Mary Lou McDonald as a witch beside a Sunday Independent article by Eoghan Harris recently, then why not exploit it to bring down a politically incorrect columnist or newspaper? Stir up a woke storm and the elected defenders of our freedoms will dutifully fall in behind you and give your cause heft. We saw how well that worked to send Kevin Myers into journalistic oblivion.

 

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