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106. Fifty Shades of Grey (#-91)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with Marianne Cassidy and Grace Duffy, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Sam Taylor Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

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Holy Blasphemy Law, Batman!

As a lot of people reading this blog are probably aware, the Irish government recently proposed a new crime of blasphemy. Predictably, the media has erupted in a massive firestorm, free speech activists are pledging to fight tooth-and-nail, religious groups are distancing themselves from the law and the Minister for Justice is covering his backside by claiming that – due to an archaic provision of our Constitution – he is only doing his job.

Putting on my rather dusty ‘lawyer’ hat, he’s half-right. He is supposed to obey the Constitution and cannot directly act against it, nor can he ignore it. However, even the most stoic drafters of the document realised that social values tend to evolve over large periods of time and put in a get out of jail free card intended to be invoked in situations like this.

An impromptu staging of The Life of Brian was not a good idea given Ireland's new blasphemy law

An impromptu staging of The Life of Brian was not a good idea given Ireland's new blasphemy law

As one my most learned lecturers drilled into my head while at college, Ireland has one of the most flexible methods of constitutional reform in the world. Unlike England, we actually have a constitution. Unlike America, we don’t require a nigh-impossible unity of political thought in our houses of government to change our guiding principles. We hold simple ‘majority-wins’ referenda to amend our Constitution. There’s no requirement of turnout, nor of government or judicial support. All power to the people and all that.

The biggest stumbling block is getting the referendum held in the first place – that requires government support. The Dail and Senate need to agree to have a referendum (though all the Senate does is either rubber-stamp the proposal or delay it two months). I don’t understand why the Greens are the only party who seem to be pushing for an actual debate on whether we want blasphemy to remain a crime in this jurisdiction – especially given we’ve held plebiscites on everything from divorce to abortion to immigrant babies to Europe (often until we get the ‘right’ answer).

Although, given the debatable role that the ‘silent’ religious majority may have played in defeating the godless baby-killing European Union in the Lisbon referendum, maybe I do see why the major parties might shy away from a public debate on the matter. I’ve only seen one abortion referendum while living in the country, and it was a very messy affair. I would hope that something as simple as freedom of speech wouldn’t be so viciously divisive in modern Ireland.

Better off Ted...

Better off Ted...

I believe. I am a Catholic (albeit lapsed, slightly). I still view this proposal as a huge step backwards. I don’t intend on doodling images of the Prophet, nor of insulting any belief that people hold sacred, but I like to believe I have the right to. If a system of belief is so blatantly ridiculous and offensive as to deserve my scorn (and I can think of one example in particular), I would like to think that they are not above debate or discussion merely because they are a religion. If people want to insult God or Allah or Buddha, well… I’d like to think the believers who invest faith in these religions worship beings that have more important things to worry about that what some blogger or newspaper columnist thinks of them.

Freedom of speech is a core part of democratic freedom. Sure there are grey areas where it becomes hazy – like incitement to hatred, or maybe holocaust denial – but blasphemy isn’t one of them. Sure, it might not necessarily be conducive to polite discussion to bring up the topic (it’s easy to point the finger at willfully offensive content like South Park or Family Guy here), but sometimes it is (Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is proclaimed a masterpiece, Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is a flawed but thoughtful film). Even if it’s not intrinsically valuable or even if it doesn’t contribute to discourse, the principle of freedom of speech loses any value if we restrict it to protecting only speech worthy of our protection. Who makes that call?

I love this country, but we do tend to lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to distancing the personal religious affairs of our citizenry from the rule of law in our state. What worries me is that – for all the observations from legal scholars and government officials stressing the constitutionality (as distinct from the moral correctness) of the law – we’ve yet to have any return shots fired from the pro-criminalising-blasphemy side.

Still, it’s early days.