The common definition of blasphemy is simple: an affront to faith or belief, an offense to god or what you believe to be spiritually sacred.
This definition has widened, however, to encompass truly anything you hold sacred.
No longer just a religious term, people apply blasphemy to language about gender, social issues, climate, pets, their heroes, their countries, even their health practices, favorite bands or teams.
Mind you, this is different from the faux outrage I wrote an entire book about (see the delightful The Joy of Hate), in which people trump up phony anger based on assorted violations of modern politically correct thought. That kind of outrage is more a hobby for the lonely or aimless – something to do to bide time until the crushing weight of one’s own existence forces them to do something else.
No, I am now referring to a sincere anger, a real madness over real and perceived slights. It’s the next level of outrage, and it’s starting to creep the hell out of me.
How did this new blasphemy first present itself to me?
I noticed it first when a person said to me, “I used to like your work, until you said X.”
The “X” could have been a joke or comment about pets or musicians — but for the offended, it was enough for them to disown their previous opinions of me forever.
(I have been getting lots of these emails lately).
My usual response has been: “If that’s all it took to get you to hate me, then you never liked me to begin with.” That doesn’t rectify the situation.
This personally blasphemous reaction – when something one hears forces you to write off that person forever – is just one aspect of this phenomenon. Perhaps as religion has waned for many, people have shifted their sensitivity to other areas – creating new places where it’s now off limits to speak freely.
Some recent examples:
A few weeks ago I said I liked a GoDaddy ad that parodied the sentimentality of the Budweiser Super Bowl commercials. In the ad, a puppy falls out of a truck, finds its way home – and then is sold online. The ad was pulled after great hue and cry from pet lovers.
I said the ad should not have been pulled. After all, it’s actually NOT real. It was a parody, a joke on something else.
For pet lovers this is blasphemy. How dare I approve of something so awful? I received a dozen or so letters from sincerely outraged people – all who never wrote to me before over any of my far more outrageous comments (about people, of course). But to them, I was now guilty of blasphemy.
Recently, my criticisms of the anti-vaccine mentality has upset people who write to me that they “previously thought you were a good guy, until now.”
They question why I would so blindly accept the benefits of vaccinations – but answers didn’t matter. I could cite the millions of lives saved, or the debunked and disgraced anti-vaccine research, or the shadowy groups pushing the hysteria for monetary gain – it’s all a waste of time. With blasphemy, reason has no place. Facts have no space. You’re facing off with raw anger – and it prefers that you agree, or leave.
The original non-religious blasphemy used to be anything insulting that might be said about your mom or your wife – the first real “fighting words.” The Pope used that kind of insult as a silly example when defending the deaths of the Paris editors.
Idiotically, after these grisly murders — he suggested that one should expect payback for a personal insult. To risk being blasphemous, the Pope pooped the bed.
Nowadays, fighting words can be anything that upsets you or me. Thankfully few actually fight, but the intensity of emotion now gets expressed over targets beyond family or religion or state – including insults directed at people totally unrelated to you (like, say, members of your favorite sports team).
I see this in the Chris Kyle kerfuffle. People who never met him love him — and hate him.
As someone who saw the unsettling, nuanced movie, and remain bemused at the way in which turned into an ideological football — I also saw how any criticism of the film became blasphemous.
But it was worse among tone-deaf leftists: to them any film that portrayed an American soldier humanely was equally blasphemous. It was the left who started this game of political ping pong – but both sides transformed criticism into monotonous outrage.
If you’re slightly critical of say, fabulist Lena Dunham, or quirky Sarah Palin – or any woman with a fervent following, you will come face to face with hordes of angry people. A commentary on such role models is an attack on their supporters. It’s far worse coming from young angry libs with lots of free campus time – but the right are guilty of this too.
I wish we’d stop, but we won’t.
Blasphemy’s spread might be a natural consequence of an increasingly nonviolent society. Rather than kill over certain things, you just get mad about everything. Or it could be a byproduct of a growing secular mentality. No longer pissed about an affront to God, you get riled over opinions on vaccines.
Even supporting a simple intervention that has saved the lives of millions can put you on the wrong side of people who, previously, thought you were the bee’s knees. And vice versa.
Religious blasphemy still exists, however, and it’s often hypocritical in nature. A person might write to me, ridiculing Islam for its insistence that they forbid the depiction of Mohammed – yet will write again to scold me for saying “Jesus” on TV, in a fit of exasperation. (Granted, the upset Christians don’t kill me over it. They just demand I stop, which I don’t).
Religious blasphemy is a construct that can only apply to its believers. Sadly, it doesn’t. But why should I – other than out of politeness – have to refrain from offending any faith?
Especially if it’s… faith?
I agree that, in the effort to be pleasant, it’s nice to refrain from insulting god in front of your devout grandmother. But that restraint is just making the best of an awkward situation. It’s not mandated.
Everyone wants some form of blasphemy to shout about. People like reacting against the blasphemy they have picked for themselves, and they cling to it. Comedians see this a lot.
They’ll do a set; and notice a particular person will be laughing throughout. Then one joke hits too close, and that person now hates that comedian forever. Blasphemy erases any previous good will or behavior.
Have you ever tried blasphemy in a sports bar?
Walk into a diehard Steelers bar in Pittsburgh and say the Steelers of the 1970s were the most overrated team in history. I’d bet there will be at least one or two chaps in there who will punch you before you finish the sentence. This blasphemy is not unusual, and perhaps expected, as the Pope might say. Or Marilyn Manson.
Yep, if you want to experience this phenomenon at its purest, make fun of someone’s music.
When I took Marilyn Manson to task for the hypocrisy of making daring attacks on Christians, while saying the Charlie Hebdo editors had their deaths coming for their own risk taking against radical Islam – his fans came out in force.
What I had done – never mind the factual point I was making – was insulting to their idol. I had, in their world, committed a blasphemy. The Hebdo editors were killed for committing blasphemy, as deemed by radical Muslims. So it was funny to me that the few Manson fans threatening me with violence could not see the irony in their own vows. (Note, there weren’t that many threats – most of his fans simply called me names and seemed genuinely upset to a point of emotional upheaval. On the whole, I felt kind of bad that they took this so personally, but what can you do).
Perhaps Manson was being honest – it is safer to mock Christians than Muslims. Hell, he made his entire living proving that!
He never ripped up a Koran, sticking only to Bibles – which is why his commentary about Charlie Hebdo was so insidiously weak. He knew what he could get away with, for — like the Pope — he knew better than to offend those who might really hurt him.
This modern blasphemy is more than simply an emotional release. It’s the product of something else, a shift in our abilities to communicate. As this country moves away from fact-based reasoning, and more toward a murky world of feeling and understanding, many can no longer debate issues. In fact, the subject becomes off limits – not up for debate at all.
With climate change, simply questioning the flaws in computer models is considered by some to be so blasphemous that they suggest criminal charges be brought up when such questions arise. Dismantle the vaccine-autism link and people will condemn you. Trash creationism and beware. Never argue with anyone who is a truther, either. It’s pointless. People, emoting from home, have lost the skills of persuasive debate.
Because we’ve stopped using the muscles necessary to argue and reason, we now rely on anger as our first and last impulse – a reaction that makes one wonder how easy it can transform to violence.
I only hope that whomever I piss off is a slow runner.