Monday, 23 February 2009

Freedom of Expression (Part Two)

When I wrote this post at the end of December, about freedom of speech and expression and how it impacts on writers, I wasn't responding to anything in particular. It was just something that had been on my mind, mainly because of a project a friend was workshopping that some may deem controversial or even offensive, but that I did not. That tension, as well as being able to stay objective whilst giving feedback, was something worth thinking and writing about. It's also true to say that I was pretty shocked and dismayed by Channel Four's choice of that man to give their alternative Christmas message. But a couple of months on from my post, another, far more contentious example of the difficult balancing act we can sometimes face when writing has surfaced; this time from Caryl Churchill and her 10 minute play, Seven Jewish Children.

Written as a so called response to the recent conflict in Gaza, and staged free of charge at London's Royal Court Theatre, Churchill has stated that she will allow anyone who wishes to produce the play to do so gratis, "so long as they do a collection for people in Gaza at the end." According to Churchill, the play is not just a theatre event, it is a political event. Churchill has offended many in the Jewish community and has been accused of historical inaccuracies and outright anti-Semitism. I have not seen the play performed, but you can download the script so I've read it. And I'm not sure if she's guilty as charged.

There are a few things to consider. What's very clear are Churchill's politics, of which she makes no secret. Being a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (with other luminaries such as Tony Benn and Jenny Tonge, you know the ones who attend rallies with placards threatening to behead people and smashing up London) it's clear where her political beliefs lay. That's fine. That's no problem. She is free to believe and write what she wants. But predictably, what you then get is a totally and utterly one sided view of what most right minded people acknowledge is an extremely complex situation. But are historical omissions the same as historical inaccuracies? If a Nazi was to write a history of the Third Reich, recalling how it put Germany back on its feet and solved unemployment in the thirties, and then glossed over the rest, is that historically inaccurate or just a selective memory? It doesn't make it right or wrong, but we have to be careful how we label things. But when do historical inaccuracies become out and out lies? In college we did a study of In The Name Of The Father. It's a good movie, right? But when we were made aware of the historical innacuracies, it was staggering. It's virtually a work of fiction.

Do people going to see or read Seven Jewish Children know they are getting a completely myopic view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict or do they assume this is a balanced drama? Do they care? Does Churchill care? She has stated it's a political event, not necessarily just a piece of drama.

My MA feature project was based on the true story of The 43 Group. They were an organisation of Jewish Ex-Servicemen who had returned to London after the war only to find Oswald Mosley's fascist supporters still operating and preaching on East End street corners. This group fought them in no uncertain terms, often outside the law. The script certainly concerned itself with issues of free speech, but also, the main antagonist was a far right politician, inspired by someone living at that time. Early feedback was all the same. The goodies were all whiter than white, the baddies were bad all over. There were no shades of grey and for it to be a compelling drama, there needed to be. So I worked very hard trying to get into the mind of a fascist leader, reading literature and the 'real life' man's autobiography. It was uncomfortable to say the least, but for me to write a better character, I had to understand what made these guys tick, and what made them believe unquestionably that they were right and acting in Britain's best interest. It took a year but I did pretty well, and it was this script that was shortlisted for the Red Planet Prize 07. But maybe I needn't have bothered. Maybe if you call something a political event, you can write what the hell one sided stuff you want and the rest be damned?

Issue number two with Seven Jewish Children is the charge of anti-Semitism. There are two classic responses to this charge. Many, including Churchill, state that legitimate criticism of Israel does not make it anti-Semitic. Whilst this may be true, it ignores the counter argument that many hide behind that to covertly make anti-Semitic statements. Certainly, many make no distinction between anything that happens in Israel and the British Jewish community. Just look up the enormous spike in anti-Semitic attacks on Jews, Jewish buildings and graves (yes, graves) since the turn of the year. I also find it interesting that Churchill decided to call her play Seven Jewish Children... not Seven Israeli Children. Maybe she could explain that? But, as I suggested in my previous Freedom of Expression post, it all comes down to intent. Only Churchill knows what her intention was, but by the same token, there are laws against incitement to racial hatred and if she has contravened any of them, she should be charged as such.

Funnily enough, it's the third issue, and one Churchill is not directly responsible for, that is perhaps the most troubling. When asked whether he would put on a play critical of Islam, Ramin Gray, the Associate Director at London's Royal Court Theatre, answered, 'you would think twice, if you were honest. You'd have to take the play on its individual merits, but given the times we're in, it's very hard, because you'd worry that if you cause offence then the whole enterprise would become buried in a sea of controversy. It does make you tread carefully.'

What the hell does that mean?? Well, it means that the worry of causing offence and the need to tread carefully did not bother him with Seven Jewish Children, but would to a play of similar tone about Islam, or I assume any specific Islamic country. I don't think that post Salman Rushdie and Theo Van Gogh that I need to go into why these fears are perhaps justified. But it's clearly artistic bias and cowardice to willfully offend thousands of Jews, whilst openly admitting you would not take that risk with Muslims. Where does that leave freedom of speech and expression? The loudest advocates of those tenants, those on the liberal left and belonging to the arts, have been betrayed by one of their own. Shame on him and the Royal Court Theatre.


John said...

one of the best things I've read on this subject.

Jez Freedman said...

thanks very much, I appreciate that

Lucy said...

As you know, I'm completely neutral on this subject neither being a Muslim or a Jew - or any religion. I am not however neutral on the idea of free speech or how people get offended on stuff to do with this: I was as peeved as you were with the Atheist Bus campaign if you recall, Jez.

However, I do wonder if there is another way of looking at what Ramin Gray was trying to say - perhaps he meant he would "tread carefully" with the Muslim thing *because* of The War on Terror and the whole anti-Muslim feeling it has engendered... When my friends are worried about wearing their hajibs for fear of being spat on by random strangers, that does say something about how twisted society has become on this at the moment. However -- your average Brit doesn't know that much about Judaism or Gaza. There are plenty of people in rural areas in fact who aren't even aware of the large Jewish population of London; Jews are only "those guys" Hitler went after as far as they're concerned... Yet the press will tell them, again and again, we are being "flooded" with Muslims.

So perhaps it's not that he doesn't care about offending Jews, it's just about the group who is more "politically sensitive"?

Jez Freedman said...

Well, my dismay at the bus campaigns (both pro and anti religious ones) were not based on free speech, but that they were completely stupid and a waste of everyone's money!

But back to free speech. I am of course in favour of it, but I dislike when it is used to hide behind and defend disgusting racial or religious slurs. If a drama seeks to intentionally cause offence, does it relinquish its right to freedom of speech? However as I suggested in my original post, intent is the hardest thing to prove.

But more concerning is that equality seems to be irrelevant. Leaving aside the sweeping rise of anti-Semitism across Europe, which has seen many Jewish men afraid of wearing their head coverings because they have been punched and kicked for doing so, this debate surely can't just be about numbers or which religious group is persecuted the most!

Figures from wikipedia show religious belief in Britain as follows: Christianity: 71.6%, Islam: 3.1%, Hindu: 1.1%, Sikh: 0.7%, Jewish: 0.5%, and Buddhist: 0.3%.

Do these figures then mean you don't have to 'tread carefully' with any group say, below 1%? Blimey, wouldn't wanna be a Buddhist.

Political sensitivities can shift and change. Moral ones don't.

Lucy said...

Very true Jez, morality is woefully neglected - by society, by school curriculums, the works. I have chosen for my children to go to church schools not because I am religious, but because I feel the school in question address moral ethos in a way state schools don't. I want my children to consider their actions, how they affect other people and I want them to not worship at the altar of consumerism: I find it depressing the majority of schools are only interested in league tables and who has the best IT suite.

Jez Freedman said...

Well as I saw on facebook that your son did the business, I think congratulations are in order! My niece finds out today what school she got into so keeping fingers crossed it's her first choice!