The Vatican has hit back against Benetton’s insult to the pope ‘in uncharacteristically swift fashion’. Good for them, I say

A Benetton shop features the Unhate poster campaign (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

So what on earth does Benetton think it’s doing in its so-called “Unhate campaign”, in which it shows faked digital images of various world leaders – most offensively one of the Pope and of Mohamed Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo (who has broken off relations with the Vatican) – kissing each other on the mouth?

Well this is what it claims are its intentions (don’t go to this link if you don’t want to see a picture of President Obama snogging the president of China):

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This profound and humane concept of tolerance sums up the principles inspiring the UNHATE CAMPAIGN, which Benetton has created with the aim of contrasting the culture of hatred and promoting closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures, and the peaceful understanding of each other’s motivations, using a global call to action and the latest communication tools…

“While global love is still a utopia, albeit a worthy one, the invitation ‘not to hate’, to combat the ‘culture of hatred’, is an ambitious but realistic objective,” explains Alessandro Benetton. “At this moment in history, so full of major upheavals and equally large hopes, we have decided, through this campaign, to give widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance and invite the citizens of every country to reflect on how hatred arises particularly from fear of ‘the other’ and of what is unfamiliar to us…”

And blah-de-blah-de-blah, at some considerable length. There’s no point in attempting to unravel some kind of sense from this drivel: it exemplifies what the logical positivists meant by the expression “pseudo-statement”, that is, a statement “entirely lacking cognitive meaning”. But what are they after? Benetton, I find, sells clothing. If you’re interested, for winter, it features “a women’s collection designed for those who love a combination of balance and innovation”, and envisages a male customer “who shuns excesses, but has an innate sense of style”. What a mastery of language these people have, to be sure. The accompanying illustrations show a man and a woman, also a “kid” all wearing the kind of scruffy crumpled clothing people wear on the underground. So why is it going in for all this pretentious drivel about universal understanding? And how is “unhate” going to be promoted by faking up a picture of two religious leaders, both of whom it knows have religious principles which lead them unavoidably to declare the inadmissibility of any physical expression of homosexuality, linked together in a passionate and clearly homoerotic snog?

Well, it certainly doesn’t encourage my own unhate for Benetton: it might, I suppose, temporarily bring about a certain common mind between Muslims and Catholics over this foul image (sorry, I’m not going to give a link for it, you can find it yourself easily enough if you really want to) on the general principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. And it is absolutely clear that it was meant to be deeply offensive to both Muslims and Catholics. This is the image they meant to be noticed: all the other ones, of other world leaders snogging, are there to pad the project out. (One of the others, incidentally, is hardly offensive at all: the Telegraph’s website shows Frau Merkel and President Sarkozy indulging in a rather charmingly puckered-up kiss, which I thought at first – until I reflected on Frau Merkel’s famously non feely-touchy nature – was a real photo).

Benetton have now “withdrawn” the image of the Pope and Dr el-Tayeb. But it’s out there now. It’s too late to undo the profound offence they have caused and meant to cause. Will it sell more clothing? I don’t know, though it’s clear enough that this is all about Benetton’s self-promotion rather than about creating mutual understanding. As one Cairo cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Abdallah, put it, the aim of the campaign “is to create controversy. I was in advertising before finding God and I understand what they were doing with the attempt, but they should have known better than to use religious figures in such a way” (I like “I was in advertising before I found God”). As the website More about Advertising put it: “Benetton, from time to time a rather contentious jumper manufacturer, has struck another winner (in publicity terms at least) with its new ‘Unhate’ campaign.”

The real question now is, what is to be done about this? I suppose one could say “don’t buy their scruffy clothes”, but I don’t know anyone who would. The Vatican came in hot and strong and immediately dived into taking legal action (with uncharacteristic swiftness, said the Guardian). Reaction from Cairo, however, seems to be more guarded. “Now”, AFP reports the affair thus:

Al-Azhar, whose grand imam was pictured kissing the pope in a photo montage by Italian clothes company Benetton, on Thursday slammed the advertisement as “irresponsible and absurd.”

So absurd was the concept that [Al-Azhar] – Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning – “is still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response,” Mahmud Azab, adviser to Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayyeb, told AFP.

Azab said he wondered if this type of campaign was “in fact dangerous for universal values and freedom of expression as understood in Europe.”

Well, certainly, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, immediately initiated legal action, in Italy and elsewhere, to prevent the circulation, via the mass media and in other ways, of the offending image: so there’s one way in which “freedom of expression as understood in Europe” has been decisively challenged. But was the Vatican’s instinct to act so swiftly, with its high profile protests and legal action actually justified? Well, yes, surely it was. This isn’t a matter about whether or not to turn the other cheek. The Pope himself, a man of deep humility, might well do so, if it were simply left to him. But those around him have a duty to hit back hard in his defence, and they have done so, in the Guardian’s words “in uncharacteristically swift fashion”.

Good for them, I say; but now the pope’s bureaucracy has discovered how to do it, what about extending that “uncharacteristic swiftness” to one or two other matters I could think of, if I really put my mind to it…