Thursday, January 07, 2016

Blasphemy That Dares Speak Its Name

In November 1976, her crusading zeal and indignation never greater, Mary Whitehouse announced her intention to bring a private prosecution because of a poem that had been published five months earlier. It was to become one of Britain's cause célèbre moral trials, of which those for D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and "Schoolkids Oz" had been earlier ones. But what distinguished this particular trial from others were the theme of homosexuality and the blurring of blasphemy and obscenity.

James Kirkup's "The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name" alluded to having sex with Jesus. It appeared in "Gay News" in June 1976. Five months later, having been shown the poem, Mary Whitehouse was on the case and on a trail that led to the trial at which the publishers were found guilty of blasphemous libel. A suspended sentence given to Denis Lemon was subsequently quashed, but it would be 31 years before blasphemous libel was struck from the list of common law offences.

Come forward almost 40 years since that trial and to a different place - Mallorca - there is great indignation at something which, in a multimedia incarnation of contemporary times, bears similarities with Whitehouse v. Gay News Ltd, with a touch of "Schoolkids Oz" thrown into the mix.

A 17-year-old male pupil at the Josep Maria Llompart school in Palma produced a video as part of his Baccalaureate art studies. He was awarded an "outstanding" mark of nine out of ten, which might have been the end of the matter, had the boy not posted it to his Twitter account, with the video on YouTube. Even in restricted viewing mode, it didn't prevent (one assumes) viewing by those with a Whitehousian flair for rooting out all things un-Christian and/or obscene.

Without going into detail, the video starts with taking a call from God and continues with a mixture of queerdom, swear words and references to sexual acts involving Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Perhaps only in this latter regard might it be said to fundamentally differ to the infamous poem from 1976.

To the fore in the outrage this has caused have been the moral custodians of the Balearic Institute of Family Policy and HazteOir, both of whom might have been expected to have made their objections clear, the latter having started a petition for which some 18,000 signatures have thus far been received. The aim of the petition is to call on the education ministry to act against religious hatred. The Association of Christian Lawyers is also up in arms, preparing a case against the teacher for offences against religious freedoms under Article 525 of the Penal Code and further offences of the corruption of minors and pornography. Its president says that the boy who made the video is a victim.

To their number have been added the voices of the Partido Popular's parliamentary spokesperson, Marga Prohens, and the Ciudadanos parliamentary deputy, Olga Ballester. They have both made similar observations regarding lack of respect of religious believers and for the gay community (there is an interpretation that the video satirises gay stereotypes).

As of the time of writing, the education ministry has had nothing to say on the matter, but it presumably will have to make some statement and not have to wait until parliament sits and questions are demanded of the minister, Martí March. Meantime, the dogs of the media have got the story firmly by the throat and are savaging it for all their worth, making it perhaps ever more imperative that the ministry steps in and at least offers its views.

I make no particular judgement on the affair, not least because it might end up in court, but it does perhaps offer an insight into tensions for a society that has increasingly been losing its religion in a manner not dissimilar to the way in which 1970s Britain had and is thus presented with a case that bears uncanny similarities to a combination of two celebrated trials - Oz and Gay News - which encapsulated much of what Mary Whitehouse deemed the devil of the permissive society.

Is this, therefore, an example of Mallorca playing catch-up? It's stretching things to draw such a conclusion, but what one also has is the tension that religious affairs cause at a political level. Administrations, many of them, might currently be characterised as being anti-religious, or at least indifferent. It's a very different example, but Palma's decision to exclude the mass from its Sant Sebastià fiestas programme can strike one as more than just the assertion of the fiestas being a "lay" occasion. Any response from the ministry, therefore, might be seen within this current context of dominant political ideology.

Meanwhile, there is probably a lesson. If you're going to get top marks for a video with arguably blasphemous content, don't put it up on Twitter. It doesn't take five months now.

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