The right to offend religious sentiment is a necessary part of a free society where we are not subject to religion. So, when Humanists UK protest about a recent ruling by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, I might be expect to join in. But I’m not.
“Demi Lovato must have the right to blaspheme”, declares Stephen Knight, a writer I usually agree with. But a right to blaspheme is not the same as the right to display a blasphemous poster on an advertising billboard in a public place. I will strongly defend the publication of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but that doesn’t mean they would be appropriate on billboards in Piccadilly Circus.
The standard for acceptable advertisements is tighter than for publication in one’s own magazine or on one’s own website. That’s because the public encounters adverts when going about their daily life. They aren’t opting in to seeing them, as they would be when picking up a copy of Charlie Hebdo. As a result, the Advertising Standards Authority requires that adverts not cause “serious or widespread” offence, taking into account “prevailing standards in society”. The threshold will, of course, be subjective, but the ASA take their role seriously, including the polling of public opinion.
The advert in question, for an album by Demi Lovato, depicts the singer in a sexualised pose while wearing bondage gear. That alone makes the advert questionable. According to ASA polling, objections to sexualised images are the most common form of objection to adverts. Then there is the album’s name, “Holy Fvck”, alluding to a swear word that many would regard as inappropriate for a public billboard. Further, the combination of these items with a crucifix, a symbol strongly associated with Christianity, would indeed offend people.
Perhaps that offence is the whole point of the album’s title and artwork, which would be absolutely fine in itself. “Corruption of youth” is, after all, the raison d’etre of rock music. But the ASA ruling is not an imposition of a blasphemy law, no-one is objecting to the album or to its art-work, only to its display on an advertising billboard. And in that the ASA is just upholding a generally applicable standard.
I reject the idea that religious groups have any special right to not be offended, but, equally, nor should offense to religious sentiment be discounted as less important than offense for any other reason. If the ASA would ban an advert because it is offensive to Manchester United football fans, then it is appropriate to ban an advert that is offensive to Christians.
Humanists UK are calling this a “de facto blasphemy law”, and are petitioning the ASA that “religious offence should never be grounds to ban an advert”.
But do they think that offensiveness should never be a consideration in banning an advert, or are they asking for religious offence to be a type of offence that is specially disregarded?
I can’t agree with either. Yes there needs to be a threshold of offensiveness for adverts, and, since religious people are our fellow citizens, their sentiments should count equally to those of others. Traditionally, of course, religion has had way too much special privilege (and still does), but we shouldn’t now advocate for religious beliefs to be treated worse than other beliefs.
Provided that the ASA try to apply the rules neutrally — so that religious and non-religious forms of offence are weighed equally — I’m comfortable with their ruling that this advert fell on the wrong side of the line.