Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Risk Assessing Blasphemous Pineapples: The Fruit of all Evil?

The beginning of the university year has its ups and downs. On the negative side there are undergraduates everywhere, the world’s brightest frequently stumped by supermarket self-service machines and deciding that the middle of a busy pavement is the perfect place to conduct an in-depth conversation. On the plus side, there are undergraduates everywhere, including at Bristol AASS which means the weekly meetings have started again.

Last week’s drink and think discussion was on “Free Speech and the Media”. Inevitably, the Reading Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society’s (RAHS) blasphemous pineapple came up in discussion and provoked quite a lot of debate about free speech in student unions.  It was especially relevant because the University of Bristol Student Union (UBU) has policies curbing “offense” under its “safe space” policy which is similar to the “behavioural policy” which has been used by RUSU against RAHS.

A lot of the debate about blasphemy follows two major lines of thought. Firstly, should RUSU have prevented RAHS displaying their blasphemous pineapple? Secondly, should RAHS have displayed the blasphemous pineapple in the first place and was causing offense a productive method for engagement? To the first question, most I’ve spoken to think that the student union officials did not make the correct decision - a fresher’s fair is an event open to all students and as a public space there should be no expectation of comfort nor protection of your own worldview from challenging worldviews. To the second there is a more mixed response - with some thinking it was an excellent way to bring attention to the issue of free speech and blasphemy whilst others criticised RAHS for “gratuitous offense” or even “Muslim-baiting”.

I fall on the side of thinking that this was a perfectly valid way for RAHS to make their point. It seems that many of the concerns people have about this are actually not about the act of blasphemy itself, but about a bunch of attendant anxieties. Such worries might include a fear that the EDL or the Daily Mail may appropriate the story to feed their narratives of "creeping Islamisation," for example. Earlier this year, one Muslim student suggested to me that blasphemy rules were a good way of preventing stereotyping by the far-right, but such a blunt policy erodes freedom of expression to an unacceptable degree. It might therefore be useful to think about blasphemy campaigning not in terms of whether you should or should not do it, but carry out a risk-reward calculus and how the risks can be avoided and the rewards maximised. Such an analysis might look something like this:

Good risk mitigation involves building a highway from the danger zone.

The relative position of each of the risks on the graph can be useful for identifying the most important risks and therefore the amount of effort that should be spent trying to address them. You can then look at ways of addressing each risk:

Excluded from Student Union events

Probability: Low

Impact: Medium

Description: Being kicked out of Fresher’s Fair or involvement with student council. This will impact on building relationships with other societies and will impact member recruitment and membership fees!

Mitigation: If this does happen, are there other ways members could sign-up? Make sure there’s an online sign-up form that you could direct people to or bring some paper forms to events. RAHS got other societies to hand-out leaflets on their behalf at Fresher’s Fair.

Hastily scrawled graphs = great success!

The rewards graph is the reverse of the risks graph - you want to build on rewards and maximise their impact and probability! Looking at the potential rewards, you can think about how to best capitalise on them:

Publicity, Increase Membership, Advertise Event
Probability: Medium
Impact: Medium
Description: If people complain and action is taken against your society then the ensuing controversy is likely to attract media attention. Exclusion from student union events might hamper recruitment and event advertising, so it’s important to use the attention received to drive society membership and event attendance.
Capitalisation: Make sure that the society name is included in press releases and that the purpose and aims of your society are emphasised. RAHS used their initial press release to advertise their first event of the year “Should we respect religion?”

This is just a quick analysis because you’re going to encounter different risks and rewards at different universities and with different student union officers! Norman R and I were thinking of developing a more general AHS workshop on risk management so societies can feel more confident judging how effective campaigns might be and how opportunities can be best exploited.
This is certainly a different approach from a lot of the discussion so far - do you think this is a useful tool for thinking about the issues like this?