The first I heard of the Reading University AHS Society Pineapple related fiasco was when the statement they released was posted by a Facebook friend. I was a little bit outraged that something of this nature had happened again – to summarise, for those who don’t know, when the Reading University Atheist, Humanist, Secularist Student Society (RAHS) displayed a pineapple with a name badge on it that said Mohammed at a student fayre some people complained, and the Reading University Students Union (RUSU) ordered RAHS to remove the pineapple from display. When they refused they were told to leave, and later escorted away by security staff.
Out of curiousity I contacted the Student Union at Reading University to see if they really thought it was appropriate to place the religious freedom of some students above that of others, among other questions. In response to my email James Flectcher, the RUSU President told me
RUSU is dedicated to promoting an environment in which all students feel welcome and included in all of our activities, while at the same time being committed to our members maintaining a culture of free speech. Our Equal Opportunities Policy and our Behavioural Policy (which all clubs and societies agree to be bound by), state that RUSU will create a culture based on the principles of fairness, respect and of valuing difference. The events did not comply with these ideals and we took the action we felt necessary to maintain the culture that we exist to promote.
I didn’t feel this completely justified what happened, and I felt that the removal of RAHS didn’t help in ‘maintaining a culture of free speech‘. I then listened to an interview on The Pod Delusion Podcast with Sean Oakley, the president of RAHS, about what happened. In the interview Oakley talks about how the society were trying to promote an upcoming debate they were hosting called ‘Should we respect religion?‘, and how the pineapple was displayed in an attempt to draw attention to freedoms being restricted. In the interview he used the case of Gillian Gibbons as an example. Gibbons was arrested in 2007, interrogated and then held in prison in Sudan for allowing the pupils in her class to name a teddy Mohammed. She was found guilty of “insulting religion” and was sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment and deportation while protesters called for her to be executed. Gibbons was later pardoned.
In the Pod Delusion interview Oakley also spoke of how he felt that the decision of RUSU was justified because of the behaviour policy they had in place for the event, but how he (Oakley) took issue with the policy because of the restrictions it enacted on people.
For the RAHS to display a pineapple with a name badge that read Mohammed after signing a behaviour policy suggests to me that they could only have known what sort of reaction it would provoke and I think they went ahead despite this, to highlight the absurdity of such a reaction from religious students. They weren’t disappointed by the crowd either, because those who took offense automatically attempted to censor the RAHS representatives rather than thinking about their offense rationally, or entering into a civil debate.
The displaying of the pineapple seems to have been a provocative move in order to easily gain attention. The displaying of the pineapple feels more like a PR stunt than unanticipated censorship, even though Sean Oakley denies it being a PR stunt on the RAHS facebook page. There’s nothing inherently wrong with attention grabbing stunts like this if they have the intended outcome – in this instance drawing attention to a debate focusing on the problem of censorship in the name of religious freedoms (in favour of the religious).
However, I do wonder if groups setting themselves up to offend Muslims has become the go-to action of those who want to highlight the already easily demonstrable problem of censorship and blasphemy laws,
and whether that might just be a bit lazy.
Can you imagine how effective a campaign drawing attention to cases like Gibbons’ would have been if it had fallen within the policies enacted by the Reading University Student Union? Not only would it have highlighted a very important issue that we should be vocal about, but it would have meant that those who opposed what RAHS were saying wouldn’t have been able to censor them so easily. Instead the society have put themselves in a position where they can be portrayed as offensive rebels who hate the religious. PR Fail.