Finally, sense prevails – the ‘Gay Cake’ debacle

The decision of the Supreme Court is essential in upholding our basic freedoms

Whilst my readers are hopefully now used to a robust and frank style from Off the Party Line, this is obviously a sensitive topic and I have absolutely no intention of hurting or upsetting anyone, so rather than diving straight in, let’s get the context of this clear.

Several years ago now, a couple running a bakery in Northern Ireland refused to bake a cake with an explicitly pro-gay marriage slogan on it for a potential customer. This was deemed contrary to Equality Law and was taken to court, where the couple lost their case on appeal. Having taken it to the Supreme Court, here is what has happened (taken from the Guardian):

“In a unanimous decision, the UK’s highest court found in favour of an appeal by Ashers, which had refused to produce the cake in 2014 for Gareth Lee, who supports the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

“The judgment, delivered after the supreme court’s first hearing in Northern Ireland in May, reverses earlier decisions in Belfast county court and a court of appeal ruling that the company discriminated against Lee, who is gay, on the grounds of sexual orientation.

“The five justices on the supreme court – Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Hodge and Lady Black – found the bakery did not refuse to fulfil Lee’s order because of his sexual orientation and therefore there was no discrimination on those grounds. The business relationship between Lee and Ashers did not involve people being refused jobs or services because of their religious faith, the judges added.”

So that’s where the story is up to. I’d also like to explain my personal views on some of the matters covered, before explaining why most of them are utterly irrelevant.

Firstly, I am a Christian and I attend an evangelical church. Secondly, I have no issue whatsoever with same sex marriage. I do not speak for the church on that issue, nor the other way around – these are my own views and I assert my right to hold them and have them defended anywhere. Thirdly, if it were me, I probably would have made the cake as requested. Fourthly, I believe that the law should uphold the right for nobody to be discriminated against based on who they are – including race, gender, sexuality, political views, whatever. The last one is a position that I tentatively hold purely on the grounds of pragmatism, it doesn’t necessarily line up exactly with my general outlook.

Now – why most of that doesn’t matter.

There’s a lot of froth in this story when really it is very simple and can dispense with many of these factors. The allegation was that the gentleman was discriminated against because he himself was gay. The defence was that they would have served him any cake he liked, as long as they weren’t forced to say something they did not want to say. Therefore, they weren’t refusing to serve a gay man, they were refusing to say something they did not themselves believe. The couple, indeed, said they wouldn’t print any message that was nasty to gay people either. There are plenty of straight people who are pro-gay marriage, and even some gay people who are against it, so it can’t be that simple.

Hitchens put it this way in his column on the matter: “The planned cake is far more than a cake. It is a publication, because it will bear a political message to be displayed in a public place, perhaps to be photographed and filmed and shared on the internet.

“If this were a poster, a pamphlet, a newspaper or a book, the problem would be obvious. A publisher is being asked to publish a message he disagrees with. In a free society, he can refuse.”

With that in mind, the Christianity element is froth, the gay marriage element is froth, the fact that it was a cake is froth, the fact the guy was gay is froth – the key element here is ‘can the State force somebody to say or publish something with which they do not agree?’ And surely – surely – if we can’t agree on anything else, we can agree on that?

The original rulings were so clearly and obviously wrong that I was seriously frightened about the precedent it had set. I questioned the defence counsel, the judges, the supporters…how could they have got this so wrong? I genuinely feared for our liberty and what on earth they might make us do next. To state the blindingly apparent, they wouldn’t have served this cake to a straight person either.

It is often distasteful in these situations to go straight to the ‘what if it were a Muslim?’ defence. It is of course true, but the sheer scope of what could be allowed here is staggering. Here is a short list, off the top of my head, of things that could have happened had this precedent been set:

  • A bakery run by a gay couple could be made to bake a cake saying ‘gay marriage is an abomination’.
  • A bakery run by a Jewish couple could be made to bake a cake saying ‘The Holocaust may not have happened – who really knows?’.
  • A bakery run by a Palestinian rights campaigners could be made to bake a cake for an Israeli saying ‘Bibi Netanyahu is always right’ with a picture of him in the ‘thumbs up’ pose, winking and smiling.
  • A bakery run by a trans person could be made to bake a cake saying ‘real women don’t have penises’.
  • A bakery run by a Labour councillor could be made to bake a cake saying ‘vote UKIP’.
  • A bakery run by a Northern Irish Catholic could be made to bake a cake by a Northern Irish Protestant saying ‘The Pope is a nasty, nasty man and really ought to be locked up’.

Now of course, you can take your pick of the above statements you agree with, disagree with or find downright horrible. But of course, that’s the point isn’t it? If you were to agree or not care, you could bake the cake. If you were to disagree or strongly condemn the message, you could refuse. That’s the mark of a free society. You may disagree or condemn and still accept the job and do it – that’s fine too.

I find the lack of any imagination on the other side of this debate quite staggering. If you’d won, are you really saying that this precedent is fine and you foresee no issues at all? You don’t see, given the furore around this, seriously disagreeable and nasty people trying this theory out and making a big deal over their resistance? You can’t imagine Tommy Robinson seeking out a bakery run by Muslims and filming himself applying this legal precedent that you’ve just won for yourselves?

The freedom to say or not say whatever we do or do not want is fundamental to this country’s liberty. You have no idea when and in what form this could come back to bite you. Ask yourself seriously – is this the country you want to live in? If it is, I honestly fear you. Who knows what you’d happily make me do by force of law?

The rather wonderful and very brave gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said in 2016, “I profoundly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to same-sex love and marriage, and support protests against them. They claim to be Christians, yet Jesus never once condemned homosexuality, and discrimination is not a Christian value. Ashers’ religious justifications are, to my mind, theologically unsound. Nevertheless, on reflection the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision.”

Take or leave the theology comments – I’ve heard it argued both ways.

Following the ruling of the Supreme Court, he stuck to his guns (emphasis mine).

“This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans.

“Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose. 

“The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people. Such discrimination rightly remains unlawful.”

Perfectly summarised. The law, as it stands, is good and it protects all of us – all of us. Given the content and the nature of the particular circumstances, it doesn’t feel like much of a victory. I’m certainly not celebrating. But I am relieved. Much as this has been a difficult conversation to have, it needed to be had and we got the right result. With any luck, we can draw a line under this and move on.

A comedian has been convicted for a joke. This should be a wake up call for us all

We have just set a very dangerous precedent…this must be resisted

WARNING – this post will contain videos and links with some choice language and adult themes.

For those of you who have not yet heard this story, let me start with a quick summary. A Scottish chap called Mark Meechan, a so called ‘video comedian’ has been charged under the Communications Act with a hate crime. This hate crime was “grossly offensive”, “anti-semitic and racist in nature” and was “aggravated by religious prejudice”.

So that was the charge. That such charges can even exist in this country is something I may come back to, but for now let’s stick to what actually happened. Mr Meechan posted a video to YouTube in April 2016 of himself and his girlfriend’s pug dog. The thrust of the video is that he is teaching the dog a trick, which is to perform a ‘nazi salute’ (it raises a paw). The commands for this trick are the phrases ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘sieg heil’. The joke being that such a cute dog is doing the worst thing imaginable. You can watch the full video below, if you so choose.

For this alleged ‘crime’, Mr Meechan could face prison time. It’s unlikely, but possible. Either way, he will be punished for this by the British Justice System. I’m struggling to quite put into words just how chilling, horrifying, moronic and authoritarian this is.

Right, well let’s start with the blindingly obvious – it was a joke. A joke. A joke that you are allowed to find funny, a joke that are allowed to find unfunny. A joke that you are allowed to be offended by. A joke that you can choose to share, a joke that you are free to ignore. A joke.

Are we saying jail, a place where the worst people in the country are sent (given that we don’t have the death penalty), should be there to deter jokes? We want jail to be a place that people would look at, and then think twice before making a joke?

Here are some more jokes:

“They say there’s safety in numbers. Yeah? Well tell that to six million Jews”. That was Jimmy Carr.

“Palestine is like a cake being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew”. Frankie Boyle.

Louis CK opened a special by saying he would do all of the announcements so that they can just start the show already. “Turn off your cellphones…or at least leave the flash off…don’t yell out…don’t text or Twitter during the show…what else…oh yeh no Jews, I think they said that earlier…”

So these guys should be jailed for these jokes? Or are these ok?

As expected, most of my comedian friends have shown concern about this, but weirdly there has been some pushback even in this community. There has certainly been very little outcry in the wider media, and this is such a concerning thing. A couple of things have been raised which I will attempt to address now.

The first being something to the effect of “why are you defending this guy, it wasn’t even funny”. Well that doesn’t matter. Because whether you think it’s funny or not shouldn’t be the basis on which another person’s freedom is decided. And if we don’t stand up even when we disagree, it will come back to bite us later down the line. “Is he really someone you want to defend?” I don’t care who he is. I’m not defending the person, I’m defending the principle. You’re the one turning him into a martyr, not me.

I used to watch Frankie Boyle a lot, until I got bored. I was offended by loads of things he said (who wasn’t?), but when I decided I didn’t want to watch him anymore, I didn’t demand that he be jailed or ostracised, I just stopped watching him. I watched Jimmy Carr’s last special, thought it was ok. Not particularly my cup of tea, but I appreciate the structure and the skill. I love Louis CK, Bill Burr and Chris Rock. I’m watching Ricky Gervais’ new special ‘Humanity’ as I write this. First ten minutes have been pretty good. But whether I find it funny, whether I find it offensive doesn’t matter, because if any of them were threatened with jail for anything I’ve heard them say, I would defend them.

Secondly, “well he’s been defended by and pictured with Tommy Robinson”. So what? Is that a crime now as well is it? “Well it doesn’t help his case”. Again, so what? I would caution you to be very, VERY careful using this type of argument. Anyone who is a Corbyn supporter for a start can knock this one on the head, standing as you will be in a tiny, fragile glass house. I can assure you, this won’t end well. Put. The gun. Down.

Ken Livingstone (we’re talking about Nazis, might as well bring him into it) was once asked in an interview why he spent so much time defending Muslims, given that the ideology of most followers of Islam are opposed to his own brand of politics. He answered that they were currently facing oppression, and much as he had defended the Irish in the past and Palestinians now, he wants to provide a voice for the voiceless. It’s a similar thing here. It is you, the person who would jail this man for a joke that forces people like me to defend him even though I don’t even find his joke funny. I would never teach a dog to do that, I think it’s awful and immature. I think the Charlie Hebdo cartoons weren’t funny. But for goodness’ sake, I don’t want them jailed or killed for their bad jokes.

I have never had the inclination or a reason to draw the Prophet Muhammed. Why would I? But as soon as someone says I can’t, or threatens me with punishment by law or mob violence if I do, the urge gets stronger. Notice how in all of these reports of the Nazi dog, the original video is shown. Apparently it’s ‘grossly offensive’ according to a judgement passed down in a court of law, but it is embedded on every article. The full thing. Was that true with Charlie Hebdo, or did you have to ‘deep Google’ it? Nobody had the courage to show them, but this is apparently ok.

People don’t seem to realise that legislation or precedents like this can be used against them. They seem to live in this world where only their enemies and people they don’t like are the only ones who will be punished by it. But once these things are law, once the precedent is set, that will be it. Some of the things I hear said about Margaret Thatcher or the Queen or Theresa May…well if this guy is going to jail, so are most of my friends. Or at least they ought to be if we had any kind of consistency.

This passage in a CNN piece explains it very well:

“You might say “so what?” You might think that “offensive” speech is of low value, so who wanted it anyway? However, if you don’t believe in protecting “offensive” speech, you don’t believe in protecting speech at all. What you deem “offensive” could be “humorous” to someone else. And what you find valuable, can very easily wind up on someone else’s “offensive” list.”

 

Given how social media outlets are prone to bias against Conservatives and favour Liberals, we already have a small window into how this could pan out.

Let’s just pause for a second – do you think, based on what you’ve seen or read, that Mr Meechan is a racist? An anti-semite? A genuine hater of the Jewish people? If you do, then you might as well stop reading if you haven’t already. Nothing I say here will convince you. If you don’t – then what on earth are we even talking about here? Anti-semites exist, undoubtedly (many in the party most of my friends seem to support). Some are awful, horrible, virulent anti-semites. What happens to them? Should they face the same punishment as a guy making a joke about it? Or do they now look a lot less harmful when equated to some tattooed ‘shitposter’?

I said it earlier, but it’s difficult to put into words just how frightening this is. That a judge can declare context irrelevant, and a prosecution can persuade enough that a person making a joke is being serious and should be taken seriously makes me question what year I’m living in. I hate it whenever anyone posts a thing simply alongside the phrase ‘it’s 2018’, as though that’s supposed to somehow prove something. But come on, the year 1984 has to be the one that comes to mind more than any other. Jonathan Pie says it the best:

We are so complacent. I am so complacent. We forget that rights have to be constantly fought for, not just won and then left alone. Authority will ALWAYS look for ways to erode our freedoms, and it is up to us to be vigilant in protecting them.

If we aren’t, we won’t have anyone else to blame when they come to our doors demanding our papers. We have been warned.