In his weekly column in Vice, Warren Ellis explains why we should expect to see much more activity filed under “blasphemy” than “libel” going forward:
All sides of a society can agree that speech should be free. Until, of course, it isn’t. George W Bush famously said, “There ought to be limits to freedom.” It’s the right to free speech until you say something that some people really don’t like. Often, something that the offended parties find it really hard to criminalise. It’s not quite as easy as it used to be to get libel, slander or malicious communication charges to stick to uncomfortable statements. Luckily for the uncomfortable, conservative countries have an ancient recourse. Something that was invented many thousands of years ago for the express purpose of keeping the uppity in line. Since summer, it’s been used in Russia as a political lever to shut people up, and in Greece too.
Blasphemy. The act of insulting something regarded as holy. Thomas Aquinas characterised it as “a sin against God”. He was big on the idea that sinners needed to be killed, was our Thomas, with the ethical caveat/fig-leaf that it should be secular courts that saw people “exterminated” so that the Church could pretend to have clean hands. Because, apparently, a god is not such a big thing that it cannot be made to feel sad.
Of course, the gods and prophets don’t even notice. The latter are dead and the former never showed any signs of life. Blasphemy, like heresy, is thoughtcrime: a questioning of institutions, authority structures and the way we live. When I wipe shit on the face of your god, I’m not doing it to your god – I’m doing it to you, because it’s you who serve it and you who use it as justification of your position. It’s a political act. It does, however, allow the state to pick up one of its most ancient weapons.