Well, Now I'm DEFINITELY Not Taking Mo the Rutabaga to England!

A couple of weeks ago I introduced you to my rutabaga, Mo.

Mo, my sun and stars.

I expressed my angst at traveling with Mo to England because lunatic student union "officials" at universities there apparently have a grave problem with offensive fruits and vegetables, as demonstrated by the experience of the University of Reading Atheist, Humanist & Secularist Society, which got in trouble for naming a pineapple Mohammed.

Most people — sensible people – recognized that the Reading University Student Union "officials" acted like jackasses. There was hope — a hope born from faith, not experience — that over time cooler heads would prevail.

As if.

Via Ophelia Benson, I see that the Reading University Student Union has sent the Reading Atheist, Humanist & Secularist Society a letter telling them that they shall be subjected to a "disciplinary panel" for wounding the fee-fees of those offended by a pineapple named Mohammed. The letter, copied from the AHS's Facebook page in case it disappears, with hyperlinks added by me, read as follows:

"22nd October 2012

Dear Adam

Outcome of investigation

Further to the recent investigations into the events of Wednesday 3rd October 2012, I am contacting you with our decision.

Our investigation involved meeting with Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society, relevant RUSU members and staff members. I have attached a copy of the transcript of our meeting.

After investigation, we have come to the conclusion that the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society acted in breach of the behavioural policy. It states; "Behaviour should be appropriate, RUSU member’s behaviour should be lawful and not cause offence to the local community or other RUSU members nor bring the reputation of the Union or University into disrepute”. I have attached the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society’s signed copy of the behavioural policy.

Whether it was the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society’s intention to cause offence has not been a consideration in the investigation. However, during our investigation, it became apparent that the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society committee members became aware of offence being caused at some point during the afternoon of the 3rd October, yet took the decision to continue to display the item in question.

Our decision is that the Reading University Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society should be referred to a disciplinary panel.

You will be contacted by Richard Silcock (Chief Executive) or Ceri Jones (Vice President Democracy & Campaigns) with further details about the process and who will be invited to attend. Their email addresses are r.j.silcock@reading.ac.uk and vp.democracyandcampaigns@rusu.co.uk. Please find attached a copy of the disciplinary procedures.

This is the end of the involvement for myself and Kath Davey, Advice and Representation Manager.

Thank you for your co-operation during the investigation.

Yours sincerely

Kara Swift

Kara Swift
VP Academic Affairs

Here's the pusillanimous and unprincipled attitude of the RUSU and its sad ilk, offered in their own words: modern university students should not do anything to give offense, and if anyone claims offense, they should stop whatever they are doing immediately.

Kara Swift, Kath Davey, Richard Silcock, and Ceri Jones are heir to great ideas forged in mighty minds. They are heirs to Shaw: "all great truths begin as blasphemies." They are heirs to Burke: "The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts." They are heirs to Orwell: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” But they reject that inheritance, choosing instead a life of petty bureaucratism and insipid, infantilizing "civility." Offered an opportunity to treat both speakers and listeners as adults, they treat them as children instead — children whose words must be curtailed until they do not offend even the most intolerant and overly sensitive child in the class.

A nation run by the Swifts, Daveys, Silcocks,and Joneses of the world will be weak and dull-witted and crabbed and pointless. Such people exist in every place; it's up to us whether we will put up with them or call them out. I prefer calling them out. So write about things like this. Help shine a light on the Swifts and Daveys and Silcocks and Joneses and their censorious twatwafflery. Write them and express yourself — in a civil and non-harassing manner, please.

Don't let idiocy like this go without comment, until it becomes the norm. Don't let your home become a place where the petty and the wicked use "blasphemy" and "offense" as an excuse to silence dissent. Fight back.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    "Behaviour should be appropriate, RUSU member’s behaviour should be lawful and not cause offence to the local community or other RUSU members nor bring the reputation of the Union or University into disrepute".

    That doesn't read "… should be lawful OR not cause offence…" Perhaps they caused offence, but were they unlawful? By the language, don't they have to be both unlawful AND cause offense? Clearly they overstep.

    Or, to take another route and assume an OR in that clause, what of all those who are offended and set to being pitiful ill-at-ease by the behavior of the lofty and always above-board Department of Academic Affairs. The DAA are (is?), as far as I can tell, behaving lawfully, but they're also behaving highly offensively. Can those of the student body who find themselves as offended as I am begin their own investigation and invite the DAA to a disciplinary panel, or are they above the very policy they cite?

    I sure hope that investigation is clean, because somebody might get offended by the investigation into the offense commited by those charging offense. That could start to get messy.

    By the Gods, people! Think of the fruit!

  2. Trebuchet says

    @David Veatch: The phrasing "should be lawful AND not cause offence" is correct, your interpretation is wrong. It says the behavior (behaviour) must be both lawful and not cause offence, and NOT be unlawful OR cause offence. It's still a lousy policy, of course. Nobody has a rutabaga-given right not to be offended.

    Every time I see this subject, however, I wonder what would happen if a similar atheist group in the USA was to display a pineapple labeled Mohammed — or one named Jesus, for that matter. I suspect you'd get a fuss in many cases, not necessarily from the same people.

  3. James C says

    They quote the behavioral policy: "should … [not] … bring the reputation of the Union or University into disrepute”. In my opinion, this decision does precisely that (in addition to this part of the statement being rather redundant, but I digress).

  4. jonnosan says

    Does this mean that if the members of the Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society are offended by attempts at censorship, they can ask the RSU to stop the censoring behaviour?

  5. nlp says

    For some reason all I can think of is this exchange from Inherit the Wind:

    Drummond: Do you think a sponge thinks?
    Brady: If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks.
    Drummond: Does a man have the same privileges a sponge does?
    Brady: Of course.
    Drummond: This man wishes to be accorded the same privilege as a sponge! He wishes to think!

    Almost sixty years since the play opened on Broadway, and we're still fighting the same battle.

  6. says

    If I were to plug this into a programmatic conditional (php in this case):

    // Their behavior is lawful
    $behavior = "lawful";
    // Offense caused by their behavior is greater than zero
    $offense = 1;
    // Test to see if they're acting both lawfully and inoffensively
    // per the literal quoted language of the policy
    if ( ($behavior == "lawful") && ($offense == 0) ) {
    // They pass the test
    echo "Lawful and Inoffensive";
    } else {
    // Fail.
    echo "Either unlawful or offensive";

    … it comes up "Either unlawful or offensive", which was my point. What am I missing? I don't see the logical error, so help me see it (understanding that oft times policy != logical).

    And I still think others should take offense and put them in front of a disciplinary panel.

  7. Colin says

    With any luck, twenty years from now, there will be a tradition at the university involving the naming of a pineapple after one prophet or another. No one will know the exact reason behind this activity, except that one time Mrs. Grundy tried unsuccessfully to stop them from doing it.

  8. David Schwartz says

    Members of the society, also students, clearly were offended by the suggestion that the pineapple be removed merely for giving offense. Removing the pineapple would have caused offense, keeping the pineapple would have caused offense. If "you cannot cause offense" is a rule, it is one that is impossible to comply with.

  9. Alex Ponebshek says

    "bring the reputation of the Union or University into disrepute"
    Good thing censorship and squelching dialogue can't bring an educational institution into disrepute.

  10. Jess says

    Maybe we could mail them our rutabagas and other fruits and vegetables after they’ve been sitting in the back of the pantry for a month in detention for daring to masquerade as a dead prophet. Seriously, have you smelled a rutabaga after it’s been moldering in the dark for a month? Now THAT is truly offensive.

    Or maybe that's a bit much?

  11. efemmeral says

    @ Jess: Your very suggestion causes offense. Your evil use of imagery to portray a parcel full of rotting, moldy Mohammad masqueraders assaults my olfactory imagination. I depend upon my imagination to generate income and so, essentially, you have assaulted by means of earning a wage. I am reporting this to Human Resources.

  12. says

    I just started reading your blog, altho Kevin (lowering the bar) has referenced you many times. At the risk of being sycophantic, I wanted to comment and say I love your style. Mainly because you used the word "fee-fees", which is literally my favorite new word.

  13. David A says

    Sadly, I find it very easy to see how well-meaning and otherwise freedom-upholding people can twist themselves into a knot over an issue like this one. I think SheriffFatman's comments on your previous article sums up the situation nicely – and highlight the cultural differences between the US and Europe that can lead to this situation arising.

    A little over a decade ago, I was Student Union chairperson at a university not far from Reading. We were constantly tripping up over issues like this one. The overriding policy of the SU was too be as inclusive as possible; which was interpreted to mean as welcoming as possible; which was, indeed, interpreted to mean as inoffensive as possible. The policy led, on several occasions even within my short tenure, to paradoxes whereby narrowly-defined political or religious societies found themselves "outlawed" from the SU because they would not accept members whose views differed from their own. In instances where societies did play by the rules (however inept those rules were) and accept members whose views differed, there were occasional instances where they found themselves ousted from their own special-interest society. It was entirely possible, for example, for the large membership of the Rugby Club to turn up en-masse to a meeting of the much smaller Jewish Society; vote themselves onto the committee; further vote that the entire social budget be handed over to the Rugby Club; and then go out and get very drunk. That was Student Union-style democracy in action.

    My job in all of this was to keep the peace, and attempt to interpret the rules. I do not claim to have been very effective in this role.

    In that environment, few people stood up for their principles but many more stood up for rules and regulations, even when faced with outrageous examples like the above. In this respect, I suspect that the University of Reading is very similar: framing the Secularist Society's behaviour in terms of a breach of established, if flawed, rules would be completely expected and normal in that environment. I cannot disagree that this is "censorious twatwafflery" of the worst kind, but equally I suspect that I would have done the same, back in the day. With the benefit of hindsight I can also agree that it would have been immature, petty and infantalizing, but then again we were merely playing at politics, so perhaps that's not surprising.

    There are a couple of minor flaws to your position, however – which I think you alluded to in your previous post, but less so in this one. First, in the UK and Europe, there actually is a legal right not to be offended or intimidated, particularly in a religious or racial context. I don't think that a vegetable named after a prophet would generally be categorised as intimidating in the UK, but it certainly might be in France and elsewhere. However, the SU may have been taking a cautious approach to compliance with the law.

    Second, I think that the over-the-top reaction of the "establishment" in this case seems a lot more reasonable – or at least, less unreasonable – when framed by its motivations. Their intention was to keep the peace at an event that was specifically designed to be welcoming for new students. There is no suggestion – or is there? – that if the Secularists wanted to discuss or denounce organised religion at one of their own meetings, even under the auspices of the SU, then the SU wouldn't have upheld their right to do so. They would likely have upheld the rights of the Islamic Society to denounce the Secularists, similarly. To put it another way, by their own admission, the Secularists were intending to highlight differences with other belief systems; they wanted to pick a fight. This was simply not the correct forum for this and the reaction of the SU reflects this.

    TL;DR version: It seems to me arguable that this episode is much more about SU officials' ham-fisted attempts to create and police a peaceful environment for one particular event, rather than a meaningful freedom of speech issue.

  14. Jim in Houston says

    The actions of the Reading University Student Union are offensive, deeply offensive, and must stop or be referred to a disciplinary panel.

  15. Derpus says

    Does seem that RUSU scrambled to get them to redact much of the information contained in the original posting of the email. Good job nabbing it before it got truncated, Ken!

  16. David Schwartz says

    How can anyone even try to justify a rule wherein whether your conduct violates the rule is solely determined by the reactions of other people to that conduct with absolutely no requirement that those reactions be foreseeable or intended?

  17. WysiWyg says

    @David A; surely you can see the difference between wanting to spark a debate and "pick a fight"? It's not like they were trying to get people to beat up anyone (I assume).

  18. Tim says

    We name hurricanes. Can a hurricane ever be named Mohammed?

    It's the most common name in the world. It seems silly to not be able to use it.

  19. Kevin Alexander says

    Twatwafflery? Now I'm offended or I will be or something if I can figure out what that means.
    Thanks for the laugh.

  20. David A says

    @WysiWyg: Yes, I can see the difference, but I'm not certain that the law can, on this side of the pond. There is strong protection against intimidation, particularly with religious or racial overtones. It's not entirely unreasonable that a private members' club might enhance that protection beyond the legal threshold. (Students' Unions are generally private members' clubs, even though they are part-funded by public universities.)

    I don't think that the Secularists went into that environment to "start a debate", any more than I think they went in to start an actual fist-fight. They wanted, and got, a reaction out of the establishment, by breaking rules that they had already signed-up to upholding. Now the whole student community needs to decide whether the reaction was too strong (I think it was), and whether the rules need changing (I think they do). It only becomes a meaningful freedom of speech issue if the student body isn't allowed to debate these points.