In blog

This is not a post about abortion or another life issue; but it makes us think about the manner in which we approach an argument, and is particularly applicable to those arguments about intense topics like abortion.

Cross posted from Brendan Malone’s Leading Edge blog.

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At the time of writing this blog post, more than 8500 people (and growing) have signed the Change.org petition that I started on Friday morning in response to the decision by Canterbury Museum to display the graphic t-shirt featuring a naked masturbating nun, and the phrase “Jesus is a c*nt” on it.

The museum and its supporters want you to think that these 8500 plus people are little more than unintelligent prudes, or tyrannical religious zealots who want to suppress freedom of expression in NZ.

Instead, I would suggest to you that these people actually represent a large and growing number of New Zealanders who are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way in which the amazing right to freedom of expression (that we are blessed to enjoy in the West) is now regularly being abused for hateful, divisive and self-serving acts that simply cause controversy for the sake of controversy.

(In reality, many of the people who have signed the petition are not even religious, and a great number of us are intelligent individuals who have no problem with legitimate artistic displays of the human form, or acts of self-expression and public displays of cultural artefacts that might provoke unintended controversy).

For those who may not be unaware, Canterbury Museum went out of its way to stir up this incident, by (of their own volition) actively petitioning NZ’s Chief Censor for a special exemption so they could display this vile and hateful t-shirt in public on their premises, even though it is normally illegal to do so under NZ law.

Let’s also remember that this is not art we are talking about here, instead it’s nothing more than a piece of band merchandise that was deliberately designed to be as obscene and offensive as possible to one section of the community.

If private organisations or individuals want to spend their own money deliberately offending people, that’s one thing, but when organisations that are directly funded by their local community (via our annual rates) choose to use our money to do such unnecessary and divisive things, then the local community has every right to demand answers and expect accountability for this.

Canterbury Museum might not like having the community demand better of them, but this is exactly how things are supposed to work in open and democratic societies like ours.

You don’t need to be a religious person to see what the problem is here: far too often we are now using the right to freedom of speech as a guise for negative and purile acts that target groups within our communities with hateful and divisive ridicule.

When we do this, we aren’t using the right to freedom of expression as it is meant to be used – as a foundation upon which dialogue, tolerance, enlightenment and understanding can begin to grow, but instead as an ignorant bully pulpit from which we spew venom at those within our communities we do not understand or are fearful of.

For freedom of expression to be a fruitful exercise in bringing us together, and advancing understanding and enlightenment between persons, it needs to begin with basic respect for the dignity of those people we are engaging with.

For me it’s pretty simple; I would be just as saddened and disappointed in the conduct of my ratepayer funded museum whether this t-shirt said “Jesus is a c*nt”, “Maoris are c*nts”, “Homosexuals are c*nts”, or “Jews are c*nts”.

Without basic respect for the other people in our community, and a willingness to enter into dialogue with them, even about contentious issues, in a way that is founded on that basic respect, then we cannot claim to be acting in a way that is civilised or intelligent.

Instead we are little more than mindless barbarians, wrecking havoc by continuing to perpetuate cycles of division, prejudice and hatred within our communities.

I can’t help but sense that more and more of us are starting to come to the conclusion that acting like immature adolescents incapable of mature debate, by abusively dumping all over other groups in our community from a great height, and then claiming that this is a legitimate exercise in freedom of expression that people have no right to complain about, is simply not good enough for any society that claims to be civilised, tolerant, and enlightened.

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