‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’ Mini-Review

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (AP)

I watched HBO's Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer last night. It's a pretty solid documentary, combining new interviews with footage taken from the punk collective's various performances and rehearsals.

The documentary is centered around the trial of Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a trio of punk rock activists who engaged in a blasphemous performance at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They were protesting not only the patriarchal aspects of the church but also the confluence of church and state. Resurrected after being dismantled and repressed by the communists, the church has found an ally in Putin, and that alliance is manifesting itself in problematic ways, according to the lady-rockers.

I found the most intriguing aspect of the documentary to be not the tension between Pussy Riot and the state or Pussy Riot and the church, but between Pussy Riot and the people. As you watch, it becomes clear that their prosecution is supported by a segment of the Russian people not because they were disrupting the state or because of their "hooliganism." The people supported their prosecution because they felt insulted and humiliated at the disrespect aimed at their religion. Indeed, the aggrieved thought they were being reasonable by leaving it up to the courts instead of going Full Jihadi and cutting off the heads of the blasphemers.

In other words, Pussy Riot was persecuted for hurting peoples' feelings.*

Before we start tut-tutting too hard, we should acknowledge that such persecution is gaining a foothold in the West. The Brits in 2010 found an atheist "guilty of causing religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress in March. He was also given a five-year Anti-social Behaviour Order (Asbo) at Liverpool Crown Court." A pair of hoteliers in London were hit with the "unusual charge of committing a religiously aggravated public order offence, which carries a maximum fine of £5,000" after they caused a hijab-wearing guest discomfort.

Canada's infamous human rights commission targeted Maclean's for "Islamaphobic" content because it dared print Mark Steyn, noted hatemonger. Though Maclean's was eventually—after years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in legal fees—cleared, their experience had a noted chilling effect on free speech. "It means that when you're making an editorial decision, you have to look over your shoulder at this grey, fuzzy monster of the human rights commission," a lawyer for Maclean's told the National Post. "Suddenly, we're in a position where an immense group can, in effect, bring a libel action without the libel defences [of truth or fair comment]."

America's slipping down the same slope. A D.C. Human Rights Commission threatened a bar owner that mocked Marion Barry for his inveterate racism with a $10,000 fine. And the mayor of Philadelphia asked that city's human relations commission to investigate a newspaper that dared publish an essay some claimed to find offensive.

Hurting peoples' feelings shouldn't be a crime. As the Pussy Riot case shows, the oversensitivity of the aggrieved gives the government a tool to stifle speech. The aggrieved need to suck it up, lest their whinging kill free speech altogether.

*To be fair, they were also prosecuted because Putin is a KGB thug who hates dissent. I'm just saying, he was allowed to get away with this persecution because peoples' feelings were hurt.