Rolling news does not give its participants the option of shutting their mouths and biting their tongues, even when shutting and biting are the best available options. Silence is the producer's greatest fear. The supposedly contrarian presenter has to keep talking. The supposedly tough-minded pundit has to show she is nobody's fool. Better that than a hushed studio.
Last night, Owen Jones of the Guardian made the rather obvious point to Mark Longhurst, a Sky News presenter, and the Telegraph’s Julia Hartley Brewer, that a terrorist who slaughters LGBT people in a gay club hates homosexuality. The biggest single homophobic killing in the West since the fall of the Nazis confirmed what Jones already knew: ‘there are people out there who are sickened and repulsed by our very existence’.
His fellow guests could not just agree with an argument so clearly true it should not need to be made. They could not say that they had never seriously thought about homophobia, and hence had nothing useful to add. They had to shout Jones down.
Longhurst began to burble about the terrorist merely killing 'human beings' as if he were auditioning for the part of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Hartley Brewer, auditioning for Pollyanna alongside him, said that ‘whoever these people were and whatever their motivations’ they were just mad and bad.
Jones walked out, and rightly so, for they sounded like Barack Obama when he described the killers of Jews in the Hyper Cacher as men ‘randomly shooting a bunch of folks in a deli’. Obama could not acknowledge that anti-Semitism is a core value of radical Islam, and that the ‘bunch of folks’ were Jewish for a reason. Equally, Sky News, or to be fair the commentators on air that evening, could not acknowledge that a supporter of Islamic State would, if he got the chance, kill as many LGBT people as he could because his ideology authorised homophobia.
In Paris, Marseilles, Copenhagen, Brussels, and of course, Israel, Islamists murder Jews, because they are Jews. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, Islamists execute liberal Muslims and ‘apostates’ simply for following their consciences. Given that every Muslim-majority country in the Middle East has anti-gay laws, that along with Islamic State, Iran executes gays, and that homosexuality and cross-dressing are punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Western LGBT people have reason to be frightened that there will soon be police officers outside gay clubs as well as synagogues. At the very least, they are entitled to ask for a frank discussion of murderous homophobia.
The simple explanation for the failure of the Sky News pundits to produce one may just be that they are stupid. I accept they may not be stupid all the time. They may be able to ride a bicycle without assistance and master the instructions for a tin opener at the second or third attempt. But they know nothing about the millenarian hatreds swirling around the world, and cannot admit their ignorance on live television.
There is a more ominous reason for their refusal to admit what is in front of their noses, however, which goes to the root of the difficulty of challenging homophobia. The reasons for it are endlessly discussed. There is evidence that the worst bigots are closet cases, concealing their fascination with hatred, and it may be that masculine institutions such as armies and prisons need strong taboos to deter male rape.
But for prejudice to take off it needs authorisation from above. I have yet to meet a black or Asian man of my age who was not beaten up in the school playground after Enoch Powell authorised racism with his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. The election of Jeremy Corbyn is provoking justifiable fear among British Jews because he is no longer merely a cranky backbencher with a sick penchant for defending anti-Semites, but has the authority of the office of the leader of the opposition behind him.
In the case of homophobia, authorisation in the Abrahamic religions comes from the top: God. To take it on you have to take God on, or rather his sacred texts. Leviticus justifies homophobia for Jews and Christians by saying:
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.
St Paul condemns:
Men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another
In Islam hadiths announce that Muhammed said:
Religions, to use Dawkinesque language, are pre-scientific memes, and their DNA carries the hatreds and blood-lusts of their time. Their authority has to be destroyed, so that they can no longer authorise murder. The battles against textual authority can be won. British Christianity is no longer oppressive, not because of any virtue in the creed, but because generations of liberals have destroyed its authority to authorise brutality.
The point I want to make after Orlando, however, is destroying authority is a hard struggle that most people do not wish to join.
There are two courses. You can advocate atheism – I would argue for moral as much as intellectual reasons – but most people in the world will not listen. Alternatively, you can downplay the barbarism in the sacred texts in the hope of setting believers off on a new and more tolerant course. Jews and Christians have offered alternative readings of Leviticus and St Paul, which may not be credible but are at least noble lies. Muslims, with more justice, point to the strong homoerotic tradition in the literature of the Islamic golden age, and add that the homophobia in the Koran, as distinct from the hadiths, is hard to pin down.
Whether you are a liberal believer or outright atheist, your fight will be hard. You will upset innocent believers, who might have the most appalling ideas, but would never harm anyone. You will be accused of bigotry yourself. Your enemies will be rewarded while you are ignored.
To take the example of Britain, to stick with my country, liberal Muslims, receive astonishingly little support, while Muslim homophobes are knighted . Anyone who takes on Christian or Jewish homophobia, meanwhile, will be accused of militant atheism or anti-Semitism by the religious, and with tampering with the natural order by anti-gay conservatives.
Most people do not want the trouble. They shy away, and look for the exit. Hardly anyone has noticed, but as gay people become targets, not just conservatives but the pseudo-left is giving signs it wants to abandon them, as it has already abandoned Jews and Muslim liberals. Peter Tatchell, about the most consistent defender of universal values I know, is regularly branded an ‘Islamophobe' because he will not confine his criticism to reactionaries with white skins. The National Union of Students recently decided that gay men did not need special protection because they ‘no longer faced oppression’. (The gay men of Florida might beg to differ this morning, if they did not have more pressing matters on their mind.) The common thread is that no one under attack can count on the support of those they thought were their allies.
In a moving moment, Tell MAMA, an embattled and authentically liberal campaign against genuine anti-Muslim bigotry rather than phoney Islamophobia, recently tweeted the sad words of Martin Luther King after receiving another stab in the back:
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Many could echo that sentiment. Liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims have turned round looking for the support of their ‘friends’ in the West only to find that they had urgent reasons to be elsewhere. As have Jews on the left. The insolence and rank stupidity of Sky News suggests that gay people are about to discover the same silence engulfing them.