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I reserve the right to upset you

Only idiots think we should succumb to the special pleading of intolerant majorities

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When I was a child there were seven educational and pedagogic establishments in Salisbury Cathedral Close, all of them contaminated by Anglicanism which was in those days bellicose, harsh, punitive. 

As I dawdled on my way to school I would pass ordinands, naked save for a dog collar, wrestling to the death; gibbets from which hung decomposing apostates; nuns exhibiting their lacerations, Sten guns and bloodied wimples; stoic flagellants; pious trebles submitting to castration; mitred zealots lapidating blasphemers; pyres of witches …

I am possibly overdoing Borowczyk and Potocki. But this was before Vatican II, which influenced communions other than Catholicism. It was before John Robinson’s Honest To God and the craze for ecumenical hug-ins. It was before guitar strumming curates thrilled congregations-in-the-round with renditions of Kumbaya and We Shall Overcome.

That was in the near future, which was, nonetheless, still the future. Meanwhile the god of my infancy was not cuddly. He and his works were Victorian, fleshless as a nave’s ribs, moralistic. He was a Tractarian with a finger in every schism. This god who was omnipresent in the Close (and, who knows, everywhere else too) was as austere and unforgiving as the cathedral itself: a magnificent, unlovable, distended parish church which incited fear and belittlement. 

It demanded submission and loyalty

It demanded submission and loyalty. It was a press gang made in stone. It echoed with the belligerent chants of the Anglican imperium — “throng his battlefield”, “the noble army”, “the sword of the Lord”, “when the battle’s over”, “we are soldiers”, “we are little soldiers”, “we are soldiers of Christ”, and, of course, “onward Christian soldiers”. The combination of place and the presence of a psychotic thaumaturge dodging about behind the clouds was effective, it did indeed put the fear of god into me. 

I knew that were I to speak frivolously of priests or think about nuns’ candles or wonder about the lax Health and Safety on Golgotha, let alone make a gag about god’s protracted absence, I would be tracked down by the all-knowing and delivered of his wrath. 

Better, at that tender age, to aim for purity through timidity and obedience. Quash original thought. Ignore the supposed invitations to secularism proffered in Matthew 22.21 and John 18.36. Accept the dogma and creed of an off-the-peg mindset — that after all is what Islam prescribes. 

It is by recalling the mental trap of those years when Anglicans were high-tar believers that we can begin to empathise with the Religion of Peace whose adherents are victims from their very first breath. The blank sheet of the child is parentally scrawled with superstitions dignified as dogmas and decrees. The child is coerced. As it grows, any dissent is punished. The idea of choice is quashed.

There is an elephantine irony that Persian visitors to England in the early years of the evangelical movement were astonished that Oxford and Cambridge colleges and public schools were madrasas in all but name. It could, then, happen to any denomination in any society which neglects to value free exchange of ideas. And which succumbs to the special pleading of intolerant minorities which — such is the way of bourns and springs — burgeon into intolerant majorities. They are of course supported by an auxiliary army of useful idiots who defend the indefensible and wishful idiots who would sprinkle the world with the dust of angelism. 

Two days after the assault on Salman Rushdie, The Observer published an article by Martha Gill berating Terry Gilliam (and his generation, which includes Rushdie) for an anything-goes approach to giving offence. 

“It is of course deeply alarming that books have been taken off reading lists,” Gill says. Then she employs Macron’s en même temps device: “But trigger warnings are not censorship; in fact, they may help broaden the audience for certain texts.” Pull the other one darling. They do precisely the opposite. 

She further states the bleeding obvious: “Jokes about Christianity, the monarchy and sex, including women joking about their body parts and bodily functions — these have become less and less taboo. As has swearing.” One might add hunting, those biped animals called men, opponents of the hijab, carnivores and of course, in perpetuity, Israel. 

What sort of society is it that smugly approves and accredits safe targets for “offence”? A society in which we are enjoined to “respect” drivel when graceless tolerance would be apter. A society presumably regulated by Gill and her regiment of the sensitive which would not include her late namesake Adrian (A. A.) Gill, a writer who, like Bernard Levin, didn’t practice something called “responsible journalism”. 

Offence is meant to hurt

Offence is meant to hurt. To acknowledge taboos is to surrender. British resistance to publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was pusillanimous and sanctimonious. Everything, every creed, every ideology, every rookie king, every “spiritual” authority is fair game. “The Prophet” Mohammed (why not, incidentally “The Saviour” Jesus Christ) married a seven-year-old and in his Tahrir al-Wasilah, “The Murderer” Khomeini counselled sexual foreplay with babies but no penetration until they were nine. 

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