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The arts are under threat in Scotland

New legislation endangers freedom, but the arts have been enabling its suppression for some time

Scotland’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act comes into effect on April 1st, but it’s no April fools for the arts world, following leaked guidance that suggests actors and comedians could be targeted under the offence of “stirring up hatred”. Police Scotland’s training slides were recently leaked to The Herald, followed with a statement from Police Scotland saying the reports are misleading.

When a group of Scottish artists lodged submissions in 2020 when the bill was being designed, Humza Yousef, then Justice minister, amended Section 4 — culpability where an offence is committed during the public performance of a play — and assured that directors or theatre promoters would be exempt from offence. However, as revealed in the Police Scotland training manuals, there is a reference to offensive content that could be spread “through public performance of a play”.

This leaked police training is very worrying, and many would like to understand in more detail what it means for live performance of any kind. We should know, pre-Edinburgh Fringe, not only how performers can be protected, but also how this will be enforced. Will we see Police regularly at the theatre, reviewing for offensive material? Is this the best use of their time? The effect is extremely chilling and will no doubt lead to greater self-censorship.

Our world famous and incredible British arts scene has taken for granted the reality of freedom of conscience, freedom of thought and freedom of expression. These values need to be protected, which is why Denise Fahmy and I set up Freedom in the Arts

The fundamental problem with the idea of hate speech is that you have to defer to the definitions established by the authorities. The history of banned and censored work is long and illustrious, and to me, a Generation X artist who grew up with the impression that artists were controversial and glamourous figures in society, “banned” artwork has the whiff of glamour and prestige. A work that is banned holds deep allure and could be a mark of thwarted genius. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Salome by Oscar Wilde and The Crucible by Arthur Miller were all works that were banned either at their conception or at a later date as tastes and moral mores shifted.

In the UK it is over 50 years since the Theatre Act of 1968 did away with the office of Lord Chamberlain, abolishing the state censorship of the British stage. Set up in 1737, the Lord Chamberlain had the power to veto or licence which plays were to be seen on the stages of the United Kingdom and could prosecute theatre owners for staging a play that had not been granted approval. By the 1960s the Act was becoming untenable, and it was finally abolished in 1968.

Of course, there have been modern bannings and cancellations of works, and they tended to be quite major arts news scandals. One such production was the 2004 Birmingham REP production of Behzti by the playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which led to a small “riot” which stopped the production after two nights. The work has been performed since, with no outrage. Another key moment was the 2014 cancellation of Exhibit B at The Barbican Vaults, which recreated “human zoos” and was deemed offensive and was cancelled due to “safety concerns”.

This cancellation culture has emerged from the inside

But since 2020 we have seen a very different kind of cancellation in the arts; the cancellation of artists due to their own privately held beliefs. Often, if these views are expressed, the cancellation comes from inside the arts world itself. Many female artists have seen their work cancelled, deplatformed and any performances removed for holding and expressing, even in private, so-called gender critical views, or a belief that sex is real, and important in some situations. Other artists have faced accusations of racism for holding “colour blind” views, as expressed by Martin Luther King, which has led to pile-ons, doxings and work cancelled.

One of the confusing factors of the modern and cancellation culture, is that it does not follow traditional lines. This cancellation culture has emerged from the inside — and up until now, and the new “Hate Monster”, has largely not depended on state sanctions. 

What is particularly distressing about the Police Scotland training is that there hasn’t been utter outrage from the arts world in Scotland. So many vital Scottish artists have been hounded out of their positions, their jobs and nearly their sanity, that those that stay and manage to work are often the strident John Knox-esque “be kind” brigade; they welcome instruction from the government and police not to be “racist, transphobic, sexist or homophobic”. Many artists will be onside with this guidance; “let’s smash the patriarchy” they will say, without realising they are the mini-McCarthyites censoring the arts from within, all in the name of “safety”. “The Arts” are fully on board in the muzzling of different or dissenting voices who do not hold the same views and proselytise on a set of ideological beliefs that are constantly shifting yet violently defended. Only one set of views is allowed on any subject, but never mind that — just make work about identity, gender or climate change and you’ll be fine (if you have the right opinions of course).

Already there is evidence of many works pre-cancelled for various reasons; too dangerous, they could make communities unsafe, there are issues of cultural appropriation. Just try to make a pro-Brexit work or a gender critical Orlando in the UK and see how far you get. 

So, the problem with today’s arts censorship is not the same as one of the past, the “f-you” attitude of fighting the system. No; the artists are joining in and have led the way; protecting themselves and others from “harm” includes stifling and cancelling anyone with a different viewpoint, a sense of humour or a genuine sense of wanting to say something new.

What makes it worse is the blatant hypocrisy as exposed by the sex-cave, trans-dyke Creative Scotland funded REIN project, which spoke the language of disability, accessibility and self-care, but also included non-simulated sex, sex workers and “daddy’s watching”, all within the audition notice. 

Anyone with a unique individual voice will be pre-cancelling themselves and their thoughts, or more frankly, never going anywhere near the arts. What amazing works are we already missing? Ultimately the arts are themselves to blame in this pre-chilled culture. The police are just adding the fear factor.

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