Sunday, 15 February 2009


Are we rapidly becoming a society devoid of the concept of personal and corporate responsibility? I cite some recent examples.

Listening to the radio a few days ago I heard a financial expert explain how the bankers weren’t to blame for their profligate casino style practices; it was the fault of the regulatory authorities who should have stopped them. Well yes, our financial regulatory authorities have been exposed as inadequate, though we should remember who screams every time even the mildest regulatory reforms are proposed. But the regulators didn’t actually indulge in the activities which have nearly bankrupted the nation, the bankers did. The argument seems to be that it’s not our fault if we behave irresponsibly or illegally but the fault of others for not stopping us.

At a personal level the same argument is applied. ‘It’s not my fault that I have racked up huge amounts of debt maxing out my credit cards and taking out a massive mortgage which I never had any hope of paying off. It’s the fault of those willing to lend me money.’ This is the cry being uttered every day on radio phone in programmes and vox pop news items. Of course the bankers shouldn’t have been lending this credit (and are now reaping the whirlwind) but they didn’t force people to take the money at gun point did they? Presumably people applied for the credit, decided to take out the mortgage, had some grasp of the fundamentals of mathematics that tells them how much they earn and how much they owe?

A further example is the argument surrounding the banning from this country of Geert Wilders the controversial Dutch politician and maker of the film Fitna. Wilders strikes me as an extremely unpleasant character, at present facing charges of inciting racial hatred in his country, and the film is a nasty piece of work (yes I have seen it). But what I find extraordinary is the claim, made by politicians in this country, that Wilders should be banned in case by his presence he incites people to acts of lawbreaking. The claim seems to be that Wilders’ film is offensive to Muslims and therefore there is a risk that they will behave badly, so they need to be protected from their own uncontrollable emotions. Are these people really saying that Muslims are incapable of controlling their responses to offence? I have rarely heard such condescending rubbish. Do people not realise how patronising this is?

Why was the same argument not applied to the BBC showing of Jerry Springer The Opera? Many Christians found it offensive but I didn’t hear any politician say it shouldn’t be shown in case Christians took to the streets. This is presumably because, though some Christians might exercise their right to free speech by complaining, the authorities didn’t expect Christians to start rioting. Why the presumed difference in response, unless there is an underlying assumption that the Muslim community is incapable of controlling its response, which strikes me as being a racist generalisation. If the authorities really believe that Muslim relations with the rest of society and the rule of law are so dangerous that the risk of offence couldn’t be countenanced, then the central thesis of Wilders’ film is shown to be true.

Suppose it were true that members of the Muslim community were likely to react illegally in response to offence given by Wilders’ presence, then the authorities have been blackmailed into banning him. People have a responsibility not to break the law, even if they are upset by the presence or actions of others, and that needs to be stated clearly by those charged with upholding the law. We’ve been here before with Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. There is an excellent comment piece by Catherine Bennett in the Observer which recounts the shameful response by politicians at the time to the fatwa issued against Rushdie by the Ayatolla Khomeini in 1989.

I recognise that there are situations where freedom of speech and movement may be curtailed for the common good. Part of my childhood was spent growing up in Belfast and I remember the Marching Season all too clearly. I can understand why at times it has been felt that, in order to avoid stirring up sectarian tensions within communities, it has been considered sensible to restrict the marching routes. It has always seemed a shame to me that this was necessary; far better that the marchers voluntarily select routes through their own communities but I guess that would defeat part of the purpose of the exercise. In 2006 the Racial and Religious Hatred Act was passed. This law recognises a restriction on freedom of speech and it will be interesting to see how this Act is enforced over time. However, freedom of speech is not the focus of this post and further consideration of that issue will have to wait for another time.

My contention in this post is that we each have a responsibility for the consequences of what we say and do and we also have a responsibility for how we respond to the words and actions of others.

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