A rather unusual figure turned up at Kadikoy district court in İstanbul earlier this week. Michael Dickinson is a 59 year old Englishman who, until recently, worked as a teacher in İstanbul. A rather eccentric, slightly hippy-ish figure, Mr Dickinson is also a writer and very vocal anti-war activist. So why was he in court?
Mr Dickinson was accused of insulting the ‘dignity and honour’ of the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr Erdogan. He did this by producing a collage in which he placed Mr Erdogan’s head on the body of a dog around whose neck ex-US President George W Bush was tying a bow. The piece, which was originally produced in 2006, was entitled ‘Best in Show’. Kadikoy district court found Mr Dickinson guilty of the offence he had been charged with and sentenced him to 425 days in prison. Luckily for Michael Dickinson this was then commuted to a fine of £3,000 provided he does not insult the PM again within the next 5 years. Although totally committed to a country he has called his home for the past 24 years, Mr Dickinson did allude to his native land, after sentencing, by saying, ‘At least in Britain I could make satirical pictures of Gordon Brown and not go to jail.’
At first I thought, yes, damn right you could! But then I wondered – not about whether anyone in the UK would go to prison for creating satirical pictures – they almost certainly wouldn’t, not yet. But would or could they be given a hard time by those they had offended? And the answer to that is probably, yes. In Britain today it is becoming increasingly difficult to say what you think for fear of being taken to litigation. I’m not talking about people banging on about ‘political correctness gone mad’ or all the so called ‘freedoms’ those of a right wing bent tell us we have lost. I’m talking about everyday, common or garden expressions of opinion and/or criticism. There are, and I have to be careful here, certain organisations in this country whose members take anyone who makes the slightest criticism of them straight to court. Vast amounts of money are involved and if you sling in the odd offended celebrity for good measure you are talking telephone numbers.
Mr Erdogan has attracted a huge amount of criticism over the Michael Dickinson affair and it is very easy to see why. But at the risk of letting Mr Erdogan off the hook, I can see why things took the turn that they did. We live in a world of jostling egos, many of which require some sort of validation for the pain they suffer or perceive that they suffer. One’s ‘rights’ are sacred and should be respected, but other people have their ‘rights’ too and so it isn’t easy. Once, not so long ago, I apparently made a colleagues life a misery because I was in the habit of swearing to myself when I became upset behind my closed office door. Just the thought of me doing that in there, although she couldn’t hear me, made her feel anxious and unwell. Now I happen to think that swearing, not at anyone but to blow off steam, is both big and clever and I do it in the privacy of my own home all the time. Back then I shut my office door in order that I wouldn’t cause offence. But I still bruised someone and I was disciplined for it. From then on I had to just shut up – completely. My personal way of dealing with stress was denied to me and it was then me who felt unwell. Rather than complain, I left. Demoralised that my rights had been trumped, I had to accept that conformity had won the day and that if I continued to be as obviously eccentric as I was, I could be putting myself in harms way.
As a species we are becoming less and less tolerant. Maybe it’s because most of us in the west, at least, do not live in crowded tenements any more? Perhaps we’re just too precious and delicate to put up with each others foibles? Compassion, give and take, understanding are completely bypassed in favour of a quick trip down to a solicitors office. Mr Erdogan cannot be blamed for what he did simply because that is just the way things are now and everyone does it. I am sorry his ‘dignity and honour’ were offended, just as I am sorry that my colleague was so upset by my swearing, but had he talked to Mr Dickinson about how that made him feel then maybe that court case would not have happened. Maybe if my colleague had spoken to me instead of going straight to my boss, I would not have left that organisation when I did. But then perhaps, in the 21st century, that is cloud cuckoo land. Litigation, it would seem, is here to stay.
I’m very sensitive, me, which is why I now do my swearing at night, underneath my pillow. There I offend no-one, but I get it out of my system. What is more important however is that I do still do it and I always will. Litigation does publicly muzzle, but it can’t, as yet, alter our feelings and our thoughts.