In 1983, the Mozert family of Hawkins County, Tennessee, took its local education administration to court. The Mozerts, fundamentalist Protestants, objected to a civics textbook for fourth grade pupils — nine-year-olds — which, in a particular passage, showed boys toasting bread for girls. This, the Mozerts contended, constituted a violation of divinely-ordained sex roles. They also brought charges against the book for citing Anne Frank’s remark that unor thodox religious belief was better than no belief, and for making a mention — and no more — of witches and magic.
The case went as far as a federal appeals court, which concluded in 1987 that a mere exposure to the pictures, in effect, to diversity, did not constitute teaching, indoctrination, opposition, or promotion of the things exposed and was therefore not an infringement of the right to free expression created by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The court ruled against the Mozerts, in fact, on all the three counts, and the decision contains the remark that although followers of a faith might find some passages offensive, the book was neutral on religion.
In response, the Mozerts transferred their children to a local self-run school attended only by children of fundamentalists, in which only fundamentalist values were taught. In any case, the strict separation which the U.S. Constitution requires between faith and the state means children in any faith school in the U.S. receive an education in the content of which the state plays no part. Neither, as some educationists have pointed out, do such children in the U.S. have much contact even with coreligionists of less extreme parents, let alone those of other faiths or of no faith at all. If an education is supposed to turn out well-informed children who can make friends with children from other backgrounds and learn about ways of life other than their own, this rigid separation would seem to achieve the exact opposite.
In today’s political context it is very significant that the court — a public body conducting a public procedure — examined the book in question. Other courts have undoubtedly done just the same, in that they have examined, often very closely, the texts or films or anything else at issue. The trial — for obscenity — in the English courts of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 took six days and involved testimony from dozens of highly authoritative witnesses, including novelists, critics, and professors of literature. The same goes for the European Court of Human Rights, which in 1996 — in a judgment which surprised many observers — ruled that director Nigel Wingrove’s 18-minute video about St Teresa of Avila was blasphemous, despite the high standard of proof required by English law in such cases. Wingrove brought the action himself as he apparently feared criminal action for blasphemy in the English courts by followers of the Church of England or by the Anglican Church itself — the Anglican faith is the official state religion of the United Kingdom and the only faith protected by a blasphemy law in the U.K. In the event, an eminent commentator who happens to be a devout Christian said publicly at the time that serious faith had no need of a blasphemy law; that commentator also analysed the content of the film and the ruling itself gives a detailed account of the film.
Needless to say, the problems around such texts — in the widest sense — and the issues arising are not confined to the reflection and reasoning of the courtroom. After — and despite — the Mozert ruling, the publishers of the book, the prestigious firm of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, removed the passages in question from subsequent editions. As an eminent American political philosopher has pointed out, American fundamentalist Protestants are numerous and powerful; they are highly politically active, and are a very influential element in the American social and political order. It is far from clear whether or not anyone actually threatened the publishers in any way, or if the publishers would even admit it if they had been threatened. Therefore, it could well be the case that the publishers were simply acting out of fear, and thereby fuelling further a climate of fear engendered by religious fundamentalism in general.
The generation of that kind of climate of generalised fear is a familiar strategy on the part of a wide range of the religiously extreme. For example, the Northern Ireland Protestant leader, the Rev Dr Ian Paisley, has said publicly on several occasions that he would not incite violence, but if certain policies were adopted there would be violence.
Such strategies raise the important question of incitement to violence, or to communal or racial hatred, which are criminal offences in a number of democracies; for example, the U.K. recently deported an Islamic cleric for speeches in his mosque which the English courts, on consideration of evidence, deemed to constitute incitement. While few democracies wish to limit freedom of expression, most draw the line at incitement or at what some legal systems call hate-speech.
It is highly significant here too, that incitement has to be established in and by a public judicial process in which the text or texts involved are examined. But in the partisan and party-dominated politicisation of such issues, the text is the first thing that disappears from the public debate, either because passages are excised, or because whole texts are banned, often by an executive order rather than the application of law in the courts, or for a range of other reasons. Those who make the initial complaints are therefore apparently asserting — with a remarkable and scarcely-justifiable effect — no more than the right to be offended, which is simply not to be taken seriously as a right.