Picture the scene: an idyllic summer landscape populated by those much-loved icons of goodwill, the Care Bears. These instantly recognisable figures, fluffy and colourful and surrounded by butterflies and tiny floating hearts, are indulging in a rare bout of mischief.
One is smashing up a laptop with a hobnailed club. One is dangling on a swing between two freshly hanged corpses. Another is idly reclining on a bed of skulls, while a pair are greeting each other by shaking the hands of two amputated arms. Nearby, one of their friends is having sex with a decapitated head. All are grinning in that cute little Care Bear way.
The Care Bears Movie was one of the first films I ever saw at the cinema, so you can imagine how traumatic it is for me to contemplate my childhood heroes engaged in such wanton depravity. Still, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo isn’t known for going easy on its targets, and if I’m offended by their Care Bears cartoon I can always choose not to subscribe.
This particular image appeared in an issue last September, and was satirising the practitioners of what has become known as “cancel culture”. The censors of our time, the artist reminded us, are acting au nom du “bien”. People are harassed and threatened, livelihoods and reputations obliterated, and all by those who believe themselves to be allied with the angels. Their language is that of “inclusivity” and “compassion”, even though their ruthlessness and intolerance betray the insincerity of their stated goals — or, at the very least, the way in which self-righteousness can blind people to the evil they commit in the name of a noble cause.
The furore at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire is the most recent example of how the lexicon of “social justice” has been weaponised in the name of progress. A teacher who had shown a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed — either from Charlie Hebdo or the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (reports differ) — has been suspended for causing offence, and has now gone into hiding. Protesters outside the school have stated that they will not disperse until he is sacked.
Given that blasphemy laws no longer exist in the UK, these protestors have largely couched their complaints in terms of “safety and wellbeing”. On Friday, a man arrogantly claiming to speak on behalf of “the Muslim community” read out a statement in which the school authorities were accused of failing in their “duty of safeguarding”, and the teacher himself was charged with “threatening and provocative” behaviour. The Muslim Council of Britain has deployed similar tactics, suggesting that the teacher “created a hostile atmosphere”.
As much as I prefer to take people at their word, it seems unlikely to me that the protestors or the MCB seriously believe that the children’s safety has been compromised by a Religious Studies lesson about free speech. Certainly the pupils don’t appear to agree with those who are speaking on their behalf, which is why some of them have created an online petition to have their teacher reinstated.
What’s striking, though, is that despite all their talk of “safeguarding”, the protestors seem to be oblivious to a far more dangerous trend: that as a result of the various Islamist terrorist attacks in France in recent years — from the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015 to the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty last October — the right to criticise and ridicule religion has been increasingly under threat.
It isn’t simply the prospect of violent retaliation; it is the climate of intimidation that is fomented by the kind of protests we have seen in recent days. Cancel culture is sustained predominately by self-censorship, by those who see the consequences to others when they step out of line. After the events at Batley Grammar, how many teachers are likely to include the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in their lessons now?
Yet there has never been a more pressing time to engage with these issues in the classroom. If I were a teacher of Religious Studies, I would find it difficult to justify ignoring the question of the perceived conflict between religious faith and free speech, or not to discuss the murders of Samuel Paty and the satirists of Charlie Hebdo. While there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the potential offence that depictions of the Prophet Mohammed might cause, it is not a sufficient reason to avoid the topic altogether. I am sure that many pupils are disturbed by the anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda cartoons that are routinely included in history textbooks, but they serve an important function in the learning process. We know very little about the context in which the images of Mohammed were shown at Batley Grammar, but it is implausible that the teacher’s motives were anything other than educational.
Still, the protest itself is not all that surprising. As someone who attended a convent school as a child, I am all too aware that religious conservatives are often displeased at the contents of school curricula. When I became a teacher, there were often complaints from parents who disapproved of certain books or plays, either on grounds of religious belief or sheer prudishness. Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children was a particular bugbear for some parents, although at no point was the possibility of substituting texts or withdrawing pupils from class ever entertained. They had a right to be offended, but their offence was their own problem. I even taught briefly at a school run by an evangelical Christian who attempted to prohibit the teaching of novels that featured gay characters. It’s the reason I resigned from my post.
Teachers cannot be in the business of tailoring their pedagogic practices in order to appease the most intolerant elements of society. Nor should we be indulging those who feel that their particular worldview should be imposed on society at large. That is why there is more at stake in the case of Batley Grammar than the fate of this one teacher. With the immense publicity this event has generated, the outcome — whatever it is — will no doubt set an important precedent. If the school continues to capitulate to the demands of protesters, it will have a chilling effect on teachers in other schools who might wish to explore tendentious subjects.
But in the coming days, that won’t prevent the usual politicians, commentators and activists from emerging from their dens in Care-a-Lot, thirsting for the blood they can smell in the air. They will be saying things like “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences”, and other mantras that act as surrogates for thought. They will assert that the teacher is “Islamophobic” and “hateful”, because they are invariably convinced of their own telepathic capabilities. They will accuse the teacher of “bullying” as they sidle up to theocrats calling for his ruination.
Already the protestors have demanded that he face criminal prosecution for “stirring up hatred”, a favoured formulation of today’s “progressives”. Cancel culture is the Inquisition of the digital age; it is how blasphemers are subdued, whether religious or secular. We mustn’t let the Care Bears win.