Archive for January, 2010

Holy Orders

Posted on January 2, 2010, under evoting, general.

So, yesterday marked the day that the new Blasphemy law came into force in Ireland. It also marked the day when Atheist Ireland published 25 “blasphemous” quotes, in a supposed act of defiance.

Atheist Ireland have gone about it in a very strange way; the url in their blog post is not a hyperlink, and the quotes aren’t simply in their post or on their front page. That’s their prerogative, of course, but I do wonder if it’s a sign of overt caution. Either way, the circus seems to have worked, and CNN and the BBC have both picked it up, among many more.

As a press-stunt, it’s genius. Getting the attention of the international media like that is not easy, and through careful choice of celebrities to quote, and the right tone, Atheist Ireland have pulled off a well-executed PR coup.

But as an act of online advocacy, and of affecting political change, frankly it’s stupid. And I think that Atheist Ireland will have approximately zero success. Such is the magnitude of their “not getting it” that they are probably forever doomed to an existence of committeeism and tokenism in near-equal measure.

Firstly, the action itself is ineffective, it does not – in my opinion – constitute any kind of an offence. Let’s go to the source, the 2009 Defamation Act;

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—

(a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and

(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

(3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

Clearly there is political, scientific and academic value in Atheist Ireland’s statements. If they really wanted to engage in civil disobedience, it would take something akin to cartoons of the prophet, getting it on in a threesome with Buddha and Jesus while being bitten by some vampire Jehova’s Witnesses. That’s what the law was designed to impede. To be clear, I don’t agree with that law, I think freedom of speech is more important than a bizarre right not to be offended, but the law simply isn’t of the nature that Atheist Ireland and others imply.

I’m not sure if it’s willful misrepresentation, but by conveying the impression that the new law is designed to outlaw such trivial, and relatively innocuous, statements of the sort that Atheist Ireland quotes it is only serving to undermine Atheist Ireland’s own credibility. In light of the actual facts, it’s hard to take them seriously on the issue. Sacrificing integrity and accuracy for punchy-PR is never a great idea, long term.

To be fair to Atheist Ireland, they don’t actually claim that their statements are prosecutable, and are making the broader (but again, tokenistic) point that the law is simply silly and unworkable. Great, that’s an important point – but what use is making so much noise about it? This actually entrenches politicians and makes them less and less likely to respond favourably. It’s ironic that this the kind of reactionary “we must be listened to” tokenism that led to the law in the first place.

PR-led advocacy groups, which are really pressure groups almost never work in Ireland. There simply isn’t any political incentive to respond to pressure on these kind of issues. Across all of Ireland there are maybe 200 swing votes on the Blasphemy issue, thinly spread across the constituencies. Elected politicians, rightly, place it very low on the agenda. Going to 2 funerals, fixing some lamps, and changing a speed limit or two will get you as many votes – and in one parish.

Real, successful, advocacy groups don’t look like this. Instead there are small, targeted and strategic efforts. It’s lots of small meetings, tactically-directed briefs and letters and relationship building. The effective groups work somewhat within the system, more quietly, and get a lot more done. Groups like Barnardos get more mileage from lobbying the Department of Finance behind the scenes than they do out of a hundred press releases.

When we were running our campaigns against E-voting, I’m convinced we made ten times as much progress by working quietly behind the scenes than we ever did through PR-based activity. In order to run a successful effort, I think it’s important to keep some basics in mind;

  • Think in terms of the people you are trying to influence, and how they perceive it. How do you make your cause be in their interest? What can you do for them?

  • If it’s a political change you need, how do you frame the issue in terms of jobs, money or core political ideology (ideally patriotism)? If you need to influence a small number of politicians, how do you make the issue about their legacy?

  • If you plan to take your case to the courts, how do you influence the context in which judges rule? How do you develop and frame legal theory, how do you make it such that “your side” seems like the obviously equitable one, to judges and their peer-group. An article in a legal journal espousing your side will go a long way.

  • When you do make a press-release or PR effort, consider very carefully the question “How will this actually progress our cause? what are we aiming to achieve here”. Inciting rage, generating “pressure” and elevating one’s personal profile should be non-goals, they aren’t effective. A lot of progress can me made by suppressing your ego and not taking credit; ghost-writing political speeches and news editorials is incredibly common, for example. Have those been considered first?

    An effective goals would be “increasing awareness, and converting this into membership and resources”. A clueful organisation ends their campaign with a notice to donate money, rather than to sign a petition. It’s an important dictinction, the money can help make real change, most petitions are ignored.

Bottom line; always judge an advocacy group by the amount of actual progress they make on their issues, not column inches. And if you are an advocacy group, ask at every stage – for every action – “what is the sequence of events I hope to trigger that will actually cause the change I desire?”.

Now, to be more constructive. What would I do? Firstly, I think the priority should be to convert all of the PR into money, and to use that money to fund legal research. Small, but targeted academic briefs – aiming for 3 or more papers a year establishing the jurisprudence of the blasphemy law. The aim would be to establish a credible context in which it showed that the law is out of place, that it doesn’t fit with many of our international treaty commitments and is comparatively regressive.

Next priority would be to start to frame the issue as anti-republican. Ireland is at a very important cross-roads, in the wake of the Ryan and Murphy reports there are calls for more church-state separation. The way to capitalise on this is to make the case for a newly invigorated Republicanism, one of the great Irish political ideals. Republics are supposed to be by and for the people, relatively free of church interference. Our proclamation says;

The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

It’s not that hard to frame the blasphemy law as anti-republican.

With a few short years of that kind of hard work, it would be possible to create a context in which an Irish politician could see it as in their interest, and in the betterment of their legacy, that they bravely spear-head a new Republican ideal.

Backed by research and briefs which will help them not look stupid to their peer-group, or in the face of opposition questions, we can give them the confidence to propose it in the first place. This is what achieving real change looks like; careful groundwork. The system simply isn’t going to respond whining from a marginalised minority group.

The good news is that it’s doable. It took us a long time to get it finished, but a relatively small group of e-voting campaigners finally managed to get a key government policy 100% reversed. And this was in spite of far more political (and real economic) capital having been invested than in the new blasphemy law. There were many many small meetings, letters, briefing documents, ghost-written speeches and editorials, researched papers, legal strategies and only about 2 press releases per year on average – with a cluster around 2004 during the run up to the elections.

To me, based on experience with ICTE and other lobby groups, that’s a lot more like what this kind of successful advocacy looks like. I do hope Atheist Ireland, or another secular-interest group, can find the time and experience to develop these issues properly, but for now it doesn’t seem promising.

Update: Throwing caution to the wind, Atheist Ireland have now made the url I mentioned a hyperlink and published the quotes on their front page. Also, there’s some lively discussion in the comments to this post.