About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Currently reading: Behzti (Dishonour) by Gurpeet Kaur Bhatti

The play Behzti, by Gurpeet Kaur Bhatti, is probably most famous for being the subject of protests in Birmingham by militant Sikhs, who objected to what they saw as an offensive depiction of the Sikh community. Bhatti herself received death threats, which is pretty much par for the course these days when you upset a religious community.

Behzti is undoubtedly sensational - involving rape and a murder - though there are also light moments, some appropriately corny stage business that would delight theatre goers, and a (somewhat) touching love story.

I have not seen the play staged, and I don't know whether there has been a stage production in Australia. I very much doubt it, or there would have been heavy publicity and public controversy.

Apparently it's been performed in Belgium and France, but I don't know where else. Thus I have to imagine how it would work on stage ... though of course we all do this all the time if we are interested in the study of drama. Bhatti's play seems to show mature stage craft and to have much potential for humour, drama, and some shocks near the end that would leave audiences gasping. It would be fascinating to see how the public would respond if an effort were made to stage it here. In any event, I'd now love to see how it would come alive with quality staging and a professional director and cast.

Behzti is, of course, in no way a racist or quasi-racist attack on Sikhs. This is not a work of racist propaganda. However, it is set in a Sikh temple and has been accused of being especially offensive for portraying violence and sexual abuse (to put it mildly) within such a location.

In case you were wondering, the Catholic Church appears to have come out firmly against the play during the controversy in Birmingham - at least if Wikipedia is reliable on this. Did the local bishop make a strong, unambiguous statement in favour of freedom of artistic expression? Ha! Wouldn't it be nice if this happened one day? I'd be happier if Wikipedia provided a citation, so we could be certain it is accurate, but it says:
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, said the play was offensive to people of all faiths: "The right to freedom of expression has corresponding duties to the common good. Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion."
In other words, freedom of expression is only freedom to express what is supposed to be for the "common good". You're not supposed to be free to express yourself if your expression - even if fictional - violates and "demeans" religious sacred places.

As always, however, freedom of speech and expression does not mean freedom of pretty, uncontroversial speech and expression, or freedom to express yourself in a way that meets the approval of the local bishop. It includes the right to express ugly sentiments in ways that might offend.

I'm not saying that Behzti should be looked on as ugly speech, but even if it were, goddammit, the emphasis in the midst of a public controversy should be on the right to utter it, not on a responsibility to censor yourself or to accept being censored. But that's the Catholic Church for you. Shame.

Edit: Thanks, guys, for the citations for the Nichols quote and for the edit by Friend of Icelos to Wikipedia so there's now no doubt for readers over there.


Blake Stacey said...

That quotation from Vincent Nichols appears in this BBC article.

Friend of Icelos said...

I found Nichols' quote in this article at The Daily Telegraph and added the the citation to wikipedia.