Sunday, October 31, 2010

United Kingdom of Censorship

The UK is clearly currently losing it on the censorship front. On the one hand, thankfully parliament abolished blasphemy legislation a few years back. On the other hand, the country's Advertising Standards Authority in recent months cancelled two advertisements because they ('potentially' - I like that phrase) offend the feelings of religious folks. The ads were both for - get this - an ice cream. In each of the advertisements, while religious symbols were used, the actual transgression did not take place. Let's leave aside for a moment the question of whether in the age of gay marriage and legal civil partnerships two guys in black dresses kissing each other is a transgression of a kind. Oh, right, the transgression is about the black dress. They're God people. God people don't kiss (each other) it seems. Well then, it's here where the Advertising Standards people moved in. They cancelled one advertisement because they received six complaints from Catholics saying they're - get this - offended by the ad.

Why would a tiny number of complaints (six) justify canceling a nationwide advertising campaign? Advertising is still a speech act, so really the advertising watch dog is saying that freedom of speech may legitimately be curtailed when a - however small - number of religious people complain.  This is surely unacceptable. I get offended all the time by the activities of religious folks (eg Christian aid agencies taking photos of starving black kids to get money out of me so they can use my donations to feed and indoctrinate kids in developing countries). I'm hugely offended by this. If I wrote to the Advertising Standards Authority, would they cancel those ads, too? I bet you that they would not. Should they cancel this ad because I am upset? Of course not. Offense in its own right is insufficient a reason to limit speech acts. Nobody has an absolute right not to be offended (pace Muslim activists who think otherwise)! The very idea that offense could be a reasonable principle for limiting speech acts makes no sense, because on that logic the most fanatic folks (of whatever persuasion) would decide what can and cannot be said. After all, they'd be most likely to be upset whenever the views that they hold fanatically are contradicted. So on this logic the most fanatic would also be the judge of what can or cannot be said with regard to whatever they are most fanatic about. Absurdistan in action. Yet this is precisely the logic of the UK's Advertising Standards Authority. I wonder how long it will take until Il Papa central will declare it a 'saint' :-).

There's another aspect of this that also troubles me. The advertising company that produced these two advertisements will probably think twice about using religious symbols for future ads, seeing that two of its ads were cancelled. Almost certainly self-censorship will occur in the wake of these decisions! Seeing that the new government in Britain has a liberal coalition partner, I wonder whether the powers that are in charge now will do something about this.

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