I Am Offended, How Can You?

Disclaimer:

I must admit I made the rookie mistake of choosing my second post to be about the conflict between freedom of speech and expression and freedom of religion. This conflict is updated and supplemented by instances and opinions daily, across the globe, contentiously and more importantly conscientiously, that I ended up spending more time reading than writing.

A rather crude yet apt analogy applies to this situation. Treat your thoughts on religion the way you would the male reproductive organ. Don’t whip it out in public and don’t shove it down my or children’s throats. I can only apologise if I offend you.

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The definition of ‘offence’ is;

  1. A breach of law or rule; a thing that constitutes a violation of what is judged to be right; (noun)
  2. Annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one’s principles; (noun)
  3. The action of attacking; (adjective)[i]

The truth is that we rarely know what variables and intentions are involved in such a thing as an “offence”. When can one man’s disregard for another’s principles (2) be considered a crime (1)? Who decides? How do they decide?

Recent times have seen a dedicated attack on these freedoms. The attack on Charlie Hebdo, the sweeping fear of Boko Haram in Africa and ISIS in the Middle East and the Hindutva wave in India, all examples of this conflict … all traipsing their way towards a confluence of intolerance and indifference.

In India, the sale and consumption of beef in one State was banned, with a penalty greater than that for manslaughter. Criminal cases were lodged against a group of comedians for conducting a ‘roast’ on the grounds of being proponents of vulgarity and obscenity. On the flip side, the Supreme Court struck down the law that restricted freedom of speech on the Internet, as unconstitutional.[ii] So the situation is that you can’t have a roast or beef or roast beef, but you certainly can talk about it on the Internet.

So the real question that we need to ask ourselves is, are we seeking freedom of speech and religion or from speech and religion?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates the principle of freedom of speech and religion.

Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.[iii]

Unfortunately, people can use this right to liberate from the tyranny of thought or oppress others into the tyranny.

It is well documented that Christian scripture was used to defend as well as to fight racism. In fact US Judge Leon M. Bazile said,

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”[iv]

Since the largest democratic election the world witnessed, has put Right-Wing Nationalist party BJP in power in India, the country has seen a wave of violence and intolerance. For the better part of their short reign, the country has seen a number of attacks against Churches and Christians. One BJP Member of Parliament (the legislative body) Sakshi Maharaj even went so far as to dictate to women the number of children they should produce in order to protect Hinduism. In addition to this, blatant mass conversion programmes are being orchestrated to get more people to convert to Hinduism. This act being referred to as a “reconversion” of sorts, a ghar wapsi, a homecoming.[v]

Islam has a tendency to be perceived as an intolerant set of beliefs, and the fact that the penalty for apostasy; the act of leaving a religion; is death, certainly does not help. Radical Islam has shown the world its opinion on free speech and religion. The attack on a school in Peshawar in December 2014 revealed the fear that fundamentalists have of education and empowerment.

Religion is a tool to bring people closer together and yet it also remains a tool used to divide and segregate society.

The godfather of economic theory, Adam Smith theorizes an economic need for these freedoms. In his book The Wealth of Nations[vi], Adam Smith states that in the long run it is in the best interests of society as a whole and the Government in particular to allow people to freely choose their own religion, as it helps prevent civil unrest and reduces intolerance. He expands in saying that as long as there is enough number of religions functioning freely in a society, they will be pressed to self-regulate and moderate their contentious and adversarial thoughts, so as to remain appealing and attractive to the people. Essentially, theorizing that free competition between religious groups for converts ensures stability and tranquility in the long run.

The legal standpoint is clear, always in black and white. Unfortunately, life is lived in shades of grey (sadly my life‘s spectrum of grey falls well short of 50). A clear demarcation on the subject of the freedom of religion and speech, but socially do we stand clear of the line? The law marks out lines so that we live in a unified society. But are we creating lines to come between us socially? Laws across the world, especially in secular nations strive towards executing this principle. Legally speaking (in secular States), the choice is left to the individual. However, practically is this so?

The concept really boils down to the choices made. Choices made by parents, peers and other authority figures. How can one say that they have the freedom to choose religion when the parents in fact make the choice? Is leaving religion a socially acceptable norm? Can we allow that “traitor” to roam around with the label of “convert” and espouse his new found principles? Its offending my fundamental rights, my freedom … but what of theirs?

Two ideals that we must strive towards are the universality of human rights and natural harmony of interests. Achieving these is no easy task and I have no arrogance in my ignorance to provide an answer as to how to do so. But we certainly must try!

Dr. Stephen Law, Philosopher at the Heythrop College of London, in a discussion on the need for religion in a moral society[vii], elucidates the example of a ‘good citizen’. He refers to research done on those individuals who helped Jews during the Holocaust. The study expounds that the key factor distinguishing rescuers and non-rescuers was that their motivations were not based on the religious beliefs of the individual. The distinguishing factor was that the rescuers had been raised to think, to question and look at things from another’s perspective. They were taught to discuss openly and not uncritically and passively accept what was fed to them. He explains that these values have to be taught, then whether or not they are taught in a religious setting is irrelevant.

These liberties form integral parts in the functioning of a democracy and therefore have a rightful place among the Constitutions and in Law in nations around the world. Having said that, these liberties cannot be used to destroy the same liberty entitled to others.

These are provisions for the right to be wrong. In one’s belief or perspective, the path or belief may be wrong to another, but it is a constitutional privilege that citizens are entitled to. I have the right to be wrong in your opinion and vice versa.

I leave you with these two thoughts …

“New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths”

– George Bernard Shaw

“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”

– Zechariah Chafee

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