On blasphemy

So, I wanted to write an article about blasphemy in Greece for a while now, since there has been several events in the last years that show, once again, that there is a need for reform and strong voices that will oppose the church (and now their partner in crime – Golden Dawn). I have postponed posting this article for a while now and every time I think it’s not news anymore but my country takes care of that by making it news again and again.

The right to be offended

For several years now I cry my lungs out “shouting” that we should learn to be offended and live with it. And by that I don’t mean that we should go out of our way to offend people, that’s a jerky thing to do. And honestly I don’t understand why people immediately go to that extreme conclusion when I say something like that. I urge people to be a bit more open to being offended, not people to offend others. There’s a huge difference there and this is so important that it’ll get its own analysis in later articles. In any case, my point is that just saying “I’m offended” doesn’t give anyone any rights over another person’s ideas or actions.

Blasphemy in Greece

Blasphemy is the biggest “I’m offended” card in Greece the last years. Being a bit behind on the whole political correctness issue, you can offend almost everyone in Greece, even on public TV, especially if you sit in a position of power and / or fame (true story, bishops and archbishops have mentioned on interviews one too many times that homosexuals are abominations and you can make sexist remarks without too many people batting an eye). There might be some outrage from some groups but I have the impression that it’s not that loud or big in numbers. But offend Christianity and you can be in serious troubles.

From a guy on facebook who had a satirical page for a dead monk and has been dragged to the court for years, to theater plays that had to be canceled or be performed under threats and danger for both actors and spectators, the situation is out of hand.

Some quick facts for these stories:

There was actually no real case against that guy (Loizos) and yet he got a 10 month prison sentence, which was suspended and later dropped. Loizos made a facebook page to make fun of a dead (and while alive crazy, conservative and misogynistic) monk who was gaining a following in Greece. Golden Dawn members filed an official request on the Greek Parliament to do something about him on the grounds of blasphemy and within days Electronic Crime had his name and arrested him. The blasphemy law doesn’t cover monks but AFTER Loizos was found guilty, the monk was proclaimed a saint – very quickly and without asking too many questions in terms of miracles performed or why now.

As for the theater performances, there has been violent protests against three plays which the church and the extreme right feel that offend the “greek orthodox values”. The plays were Corpus Christi, The Hour of the Devil and, the most recent one, Jesus Christ Super Star. It seems that the protesters often have no idea what the plays are about, but they have religious references in the titles so they must be offensive. They reacted with threats and law suits, burning the cars of the actors, and actively and violently trying to stop people from going to the theater.

The common denominator in all these situations? Golden Dawn. Of course these things are fueled by the fascists in our country – an average, normal christian would not just go violent no matter how offensive they find the play. But that average, normal, non-violent christian does not necessarily and always condemn Golden Dawn’s actions. He might say that yeah, you know, he’s against violence in general BUT the plays were very provocative so he can understand why some people are enraged. And that’s how public opinion reacts to these things. There’s no public outrage, there are no huge waves of support for the producers and actors, there were no huge waves of support for Loizos. I’ve actually heard even non-christians saying that what he did was blasphemy and offensive to many people so if the law is like that it’s only natural that he has to go to prison. Why does he want to provoke? Why do the guys who made these theater plays want to provoke? Well, one of them is dead (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Pessoa) but the other one is still alive so we could maybe ask him (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrence_McNally) – and I don’t even know what to say about Jesus Christ Super Star. As someone said online, it’s not the first time this is played in theaters in Greece and it’s on tv every Easter but apparently the climate in Greece has gone south the last years.

So anyway, there are some serious problems with this approach:

The normalization of violence and hate

To begin with, we have the “both sides are wrong fallacy”: they were offensive – they were violent. You cannot equate the expression of offensive ideas (especially when it’s done through art) with death threats and actual violence. It’s not the same thing, one side is expressing ideas and the other one is trying to oppress the expression of ideas. One could say that it’s the exact opposite thing, only it’s even worse because the side that’s just expressing ideas does not hit people with wooden planks.

This attitude just normalizes violence. It implies that if you offend someone you deserve to be beaten up. So sure, we can talk about empathy, we can talk about respect and all agree that it’s generally not nice to try and hurt or offend people, but not at the same sentence with “extreme right protesters beat up theater lovers”. And that’s where my “we should learn it’s ok to be offended” narrative comes in. People should learn that being offended is not the end of the world. You can talk about it, you can try and change it peacefully, you can try and get the public opinion on your side (the best way to marginalize and change offensive behaviours in my opinion – and yet maybe the most difficult usually) but it does not give you any right over other people’s ideas and certainly it cannot excuse violently imposing your value system on them.

The lack of balance

Religious people feel self entitled to a special status of protection (in Greece at least but that’s more generic I think). You have to respect their religion and if you don’t the reactions are not only lacking balance but also any kind of logic.

And let’s see now how this lack of balance works in this case:

On one hand we have the religious people. I understand that their faith is important for them and I’ve heard many times that insulting Christ for them is worse than insulting themselves or their family. I understand that, I know the feeling. I might go deeper on that in some other article. The point here is that this way of thinking leads to them being very defensive. Even some people who would definitely condemn violence on any other case, find it sometimes difficult to condemn violence as a response to blasphemy. And when they hear something that they perceive as blasphemy then they become more and more extreme in their ideas, lean more and more towards religion and its meaning to them. This is not an “eye for an eye” reaction though (which I find bad in itself anyway), it’s a “a head for a slight push”, it’s disproportionate and leads to an unfair society.

The rise of the extreme right

Extreme right is happily using all these to manipulate public opinion. From slowly creeping into society’s ideas, they are now openly shouting and bullying everyone who disagrees with them. They play on sentiments of insecurity, identity and tradition to promote their agenda, to ignite violence, to split the country into groups that hate and fear each other. The extreme right finds weapons in all things that are attached to national identities – unfortunately religious belief is a very strong one. The biggest problem is that this way is still very sneaky and goes unnoticed – and that’s what’s making this so dangerous. If people don’t see it they won’t fight against it.

An epilogue on irrationality

In the midst of all these, the justice system keeps failing spectacularly.

In 2015, some members of the LGBT community sued a bishop for homophobic hate speech due to an article he posted on his personal blog regarding the expansion of the civil contract to include homosexuals. The title of his article roughly translates to “the scumbags of society are raising their head – spit on them” and the rest of the article continues on a similar tone.

In a trial last week, the bishop was found non-guilty with the defense claiming that he was talking about the politicians who wanted to extent the civil partnership and not about the members of LGBT community – ignoring passages that were presented and were proving the opposite. To add insult to injury, in his “plea” the bishop said that “…to say “spit on them” is the least one can do. If I had a gun and the law allowed me to, I would use it and we’d be done with them”. Not guilty.

Further reading:
In the first article Aorati Melani writes about her experience with the demonstration against the first play. It is a shocking report, especially if you know her, because she’s the most calm, non threatening, respectful and eloquent activist I’ve met. In the rest you can find more information on all the events mentioned above.



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