All sides of a society can agree that speech should be free. Until, of course, it isn’t. George W Bush famously said, “There ought to be limits to freedom.” It’s the right to free speech until you say something that some people really don’t like. Often, something that the offended parties find it really hard to criminalise. It’s not quite as easy as it used to be to get libel, slander or malicious communication charges to stick to uncomfortable statements. Luckily for the uncomfortable, conservative countries have an ancient recourse. Something that was invented many thousands of years ago for the express purpose of keeping the uppity in line. Since summer, it’s been used in Russia as a political lever to shut people up, and in Greece too.
Blasphemy. The act of insulting something regarded as holy. Thomas Aquinas characterised it as “a sin against God”. He was big on the idea that sinners needed to be killed, was our Thomas, with the ethical caveat/fig-leaf that it should be secular courts that saw people “exterminated” so that the Church could pretend to have clean hands. Because, apparently, a god is not such a big thing that it cannot be made to feel sad.
Of course, the gods and prophets don’t even notice. The latter are dead and the former never showed any signs of life. Blasphemy, like heresy, is thoughtcrime: a questioning of institutions, authority structures and the way we live. When I wipe shit on the face of your god, I’m not doing it to your god – I’m doing it to you, because it’s you who serve it and you who use it as justification of your position. It’s a political act. It does, however, allow the state to pick up one of its most ancient weapons.
“Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” was the BBC’s translation of the sentence brought against three members of the Russian activist band Pussy Riot, a direct punishment by the state for entering a church and colourfully imploring that Vladimir Putin be removed from office. Many of the words were what some people call obscenities. Obscenities, like gods, are incorporeal things loaded with scary meaning for people who let that happen to them.
In Greece, just a couple of weeks ago a young man was arrested for “malicious blasphemy” against a dead man. Elder Paisios was a monk. He died in 1994. There is apparently a movement to see him canonised, but right now he’s just bones and a beard. The young man operated a Facebook page that satirised Greek Orthodoxy, Elder Pastitsios – Pastitsio is a Greek pasta dish, and the name invoked Pastafarianism. It turns out the Greek police have a “cyber crimes” unit that was, presumably for want of anything better to do, peering at this page. And then Golden Dawn asked questions in Parliament about it, forcing them to act. Golden Dawn, you will recall, is the Greek Nazi party, openly being given power by the police to attack immigrants.
This is power consolidation. Committing blasphemy against a man who is neither a god, a prophet or even a saint is like committing blasphemy against my dog. My dog is not a god, a prophet or a saint, and, in fact, it also doesn’t exist because I don’t own a dog because I fucking hate dogs. But the Golden Dawn has just caused a man to be arrested for blasphemy in protection of the wounded feelings of Greek Orthodoxy in order to present itself as an ally to the Church.
It’s got nothing to do with God. It never did. If there were a god, and it felt mortal pain at the sin of blasphemy, it would be a vain and weak creature, unworthy of sympathy, let alone worship. But there isn’t. There are simply poisonous little men and women who build cages in the night for the people who remember how to think and laugh, and they stack those cages into great black iron walls of monolithic, truthless authority.
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Image by Marta Parszeniew