Are you offended by the jolly little object you see reproduced on this page? Do you think it's sacrilegious? Or do you just wonder what it is? FYI, it's a sculpture of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha, as interpreted by Edmonton artist Ryan McCourt. Ganesha, patron of artists and writers, is among the most beloved of the Hindu deities. You can recognize him by his elephant head and the pot belly, which signifies prosperity.
Mr. McCourt has spent years studying traditional Indian art. Last November, four of his Ganesha sculptures were installed in front of the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton after he won a public competition. The figures are about the size of a baby. Some people - including Hindus - like them. But some more conservative Hindus think they're improper. For example, Ganesha is shown nude. One sculpture shows him with a trident (too warlike) and also depicts an abstract female breast and vagina.
Soon after the pieces were installed, says Mr. McCourt, "I started getting phone calls." Over coffee at Tim Hortons - "very Canadian neutral ground" - he met with a four-man delegation from the Hindu Society of Alberta. He pointed out that the history of Hindu iconography is extraordinarily rich and various, and that Ganesha is sometimes shown nude or with a trident, and that other Hindus, including a priest he knew, were not offended. Besides, the installation was temporary, and would soon be gone.
His critics weren't appeased. Earlier this month they got 700 people to sign a petition demanding that the exhibit be shut down. Edmonton's mayor, Stephen Mandel, caved without a whimper. "We're quite disappointed that the event happened and it insulted the Hindu community," he said. He ordered the offending objects removed immediately.
The mayor, of course, was quite wrong. Mr. McCourt's sculptures did not insult the Hindu community. They insulted a small but vocal conservative religious group that is about as representative of Hindus as Hassidic Jews are of Jews.
"I sense a slight whiff of racism when I read these headlines saying, Alberta Hindus Are Offended," says Mr. McCourt. "It's a kind of politically correct racism." He also wonders what would happen if 700 Christian fundamentalists petitioned the mayor to shut down the Gay Pride parade.
The answer is that people would be outraged - at the fundamentalists. But when the sensibilities of religious and ethnic minorities are involved, you can't be too careful. You may recall how everyone deplored the callous insensitivity of those cartoonists who made fun of Mohammed. So God forbid we should permit irreverence (even if it's unintended) toward a god with the head of an elephant.
In other circumstances, we're rightly proud of our secular society. We've spent the past 300 years, sometimes bloodily, separating church and state. Most of us don't think twice about mocking the more absurd extremes of Christianity. We are delighted to pour contempt and scorn all over the deluded idiots who think that dinosaurs strode the Earth with Man. Most of us roll our eyes at people who believe that every word in the Bible is the literal truth as revealed by God. But we're horrified of treading on the delicate sensibilities of people who worship elephant gods, to say nothing of people who believe the Koran was dictated by Allah to a seventh-century Arabian merchant.
Forgive me if I've been reading too much Christopher Hitchens. But there's a big difference between accommodating ethnic diversity and allowing the clamorous demands of conservative faith groups back into the public square. There's a big difference between respecting different cultures and caving in to illiberalism and superstition.
Yet that's usually our first impulse. Is a small group of Hassidic Jews offended by the sight of spandexed females sweating at the Y? Then put in frosted windows! Are some Muslims offended by images of pigs? Then ban storybooks about pigs from classrooms! (Don't laugh. It happened in Britain.) Do some Muslim students demand prayer rooms in universities? Then provide them!
This deference to the tender feelings of minorities (and minorities of minorities, at that) strikes me as a double standard of the most astonishing kind. And the idea that they have a right not to be offended strikes me as both dangerous and condescending. We treat them as if they're too fragile to endure the give and take of a robust democracy. The result is that, in the name of liberalism and tolerance, we give in to the forces of intolerance.
Then again, who wants to be called a racist? That's what happened to Bruce Allen, the Vancouver radio commentator who notoriously said, "If you choose to come to a place like Canada, then shut up and fit in." (He also said much else, which was widely misinterpreted because he said it badly.) How dare he threaten the sacred texts of diversity! The Sikhs (well, some of them, anyway) were outraged. So was somebody who claimed to represent the Jews, and somebody else who claimed to represent the Chinese. Several politicians demanded that Mr. Allen be fired from the Olympics committee he sits on, because he was a disgrace to Canada, and hundreds of people complained to the CRTC. They didn't like his opinion, so they thought he should lose his job.
Indo-Canadians Are Offended, said the headlines, more or less. But that was no more true than it was in the case of the sacrilegious elephant god. As it turns out, plenty of Indo-Canadians weren't at all offended. "We agree with not only the right to say it, but even with the substance of what he said," says Ron Bannerjee of the Hindu Conference of Canada. "I'm afraid I've inflamed many of the so-called members of the Indo-Canadian community by saying that."
All I can say is that if that's the case, then good for him. Maybe what we need right now is not less speech that might offend someone, but more of it.