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The giant Inflatable of a nappy-clad president will be aloft again today.
Some will remain angry, believing it offensive to an important visitor, disrespectful of the country he leads. Others will chuckle that it’s a legitimate exercise of the free speech which both nations say they cherish.
But how far should we be willing to take it?
The Old Testament prophet Amos rebuked the wealthy women of the rich pasture land of Samaria: ‘Hear this word, you cows of Bashan… you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy…’ Or try Jesus: ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.’
Vigorous and colourful, for sure. Ridicule hurts, sometimes it wounds, which is why the Bible was warning about the power of words and the perils of the tongue long before any lives were being smashed up by social media.
So when is ridicule off-limits? Always, I think, when it demeans someone weaker, when it mocks a person because of physical or mental disability; always when it makes fun of someone on the grounds of poverty, race, colour, gender, sexuality, language, religion. And even when it’s not against the law, gratuitous offensiveness can be as painful as a libel on your mother.
This should not, however, limit robust expression of opinion on any number of big issues, even in language (verbal or visual) which opponents might find unpleasant or cruel - many of the best cartoonists would be out of work if it did. The right to offend is an intrinsic element of free speech, and it’s probably wise if the most powerful don’t cherish a particularly thin skin, because they can both achieve most - and do most harm.
Humour, ridicule, strong language can be important tools in defending those who can’t defend themselves. They need people to make their case in whatever language will be understood, need to know they’re not forgotten.
Whenever we mock a major public figure, though, it’s as well to ask ourselves how our own performance could withstand such scrutiny, and to note what the Orthodox spiritual writer Anthony Bloom saw as a greater danger.
He lived in London, and when Russia had just invaded Czechoslovakia, he met a Czech Reformed theologian who pleaded: ‘Tell everyone not to hate our invaders for love of us. Those who hate the ones for the sake of the others give a free hand to the devil.’ He knew, observed Bloom, that the real battle took place in the human heart, ‘between love and hatred, light and darkness…’