Holy murder of freedom of expression

When Manny Pacquiao, reversing his apology, approvingly cited the Old Testament’s sanction for the killing of gay people, there followed considerable condemnation. But nowhere did I see anyone calling for him to be prosecuted or censored by the state, either for hate speech or for inciting murder.

When the Catholic Church voiced its discomfort with a performance by Madonna, the organisers quickly removed a song segment from the programme, no doubt with state censors leaning on them.

pic_201602_13Pacquiao (at right) is a well-known boxer who is also a member of Philippines’ House of Representatives. He is currently running for one of twelve seats in the country’s senate. In remarks in a TV interview a week ago, he said, “It’s common sense. Do you see animals mating with the same sex? Animals are better because they can distinguish male from female.” He added, “If men mate with men and women mate with women they are worse than animals.”

Not long after, faced with an outcry, he apologised via Twitter, saying “I’m sorry for hurting people by comparing homosexuals to animals. Please forgive me for those I’ve hurt. God Bless!”. Around the same time, Nike withdrew its sponsorship. The apology, which struck me as false, since Pacquiao has a history of making homophobic comments, was overturned (within hours of Nike’s announcement) with a citation of the Old Testament:  “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Pacquiao posted it on Instagram, but it has since been deleted.

Manny Pacquiao is Pentecostal, one of the fastest growing forms of Christianity in the Philippines.

Although the LGBT movement in the country has organised a campaign to deny him the vote, it is likely that he will win a Senate seat. Filipinos have a history of being enamoured with celebrities at election time.

What Pacquiao has said is nothing new to us in Singapore. We know that the same biblical verse is repeatedly held aloft in churches here. Equally homophobic remarks have been made by members of parliament belonging to the People’s Action Party, though they’ve been careful to avoid linking their ideas with any religion. However, a check on their background will quickly tell you where they’re coming from. On a parallel track, Muslims have also begun organising (notably through the Wear White campaign) and some of their leaders and sympathisers can be found in the Singapore Democratic Party and the Workers’ Party. They might not cite the Bible, but there is plenty of material in the Koran they can interpret to their advantage and deploy.

The common denominator is the quick duck behind religion for impunity.

Rebel Heart Tour

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A report on Channel NewsAsia gives us a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes censorship regarding Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour. The Singapore concert is scheduled for 28 February. Notice how the second paragraph contradicts the first. No prizes for guessing where the pressure for the pullback came from.

Madonna will not be performing her controversial song Holy Water during the Singapore leg of her Rebel Heart Tour later this month, clarified organiser Live Nation Lushington on Friday (Feb 19).

In an article published by the Straits Times on Feb 16, it cited an investor in the show, Chief Executive of Kinglun International Holdings James Lee who said Holy Water would be performed in an amended version at the Singapore show.

Live Nation Lushington also stated that it had a cleared song list and performance that would meet the Media Development Authority (MDA) guidelines and requirements of show licensing in Singapore. The company holds the licence for the show.

MDA stated previously that Madonna would not be allowed to perform the segment because it contained “religiously-sensitive content which breach our guidelines”.

— Channel NewsAsia, 19 Feb 2016, Madonna will not perform sensitive segment in Singapore, organiser clarifies. Link.

A notice on the Catholic Church website, dated 20 Feb 2016, confirms that the state was acceding to the church’s call for censorship.

As Shepherd of his flock, His Grace Archbishop William Goh has made representations to various Ministries and Statutory Boards to communicate the Catholic Church’s grave concerns. Noting that whilst the Catholic community appreciates that “the task of the government in balancing freedom of the arts and public sensitivities is a challenging one”, the Archbishop nevertheless highlighted that “in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore, we cannot afford to be overly permissive in favour of artistic expression at the expense of respect for one’s religion, especially in these times of heightened religious sensitivities, particularly among active practitioners of religions”.

In response, the authorities have given their assurance in various communiques with the Archbishop, both in writing and orally, that restrictions have been placed to ensure that religiously-offensive content that breaches local guidelines will not be allowed on stage in Singapore and they have undertaken to exercise vigilance in seeing that the guidelines are not breached.

—  www.Catholic.org.sg, 20 Feb 2016, Madonna’s concert: What about it? Link.

I highlight one point from the above: balancing freedom of the arts and public sensitivities. This notion does not get the kind of critical enquiry it badly needs in Singapore. Already, from the way homophobic remarks never get penalised while “sensitivities” of the religious are given veto power, it will tell you it’s a very unbalanced kind of “balancing”.

Further down the Catholic church’s message is an even more chilling statement.

Obedience to God and His commandments must come before the arts. As the people of God, we should subscribe to authentic Arts that lead us to God through the appreciation of beauty, harmony, goodness, truth and love, respect, unity and the transcendent; and not support the ‘pseudo arts’ that promote sensuality, rebellion, disrespect, pornography, contamination of the mind of the young, abusive freedom, individualism at the expense of the common good, vulgarity, lies and half-truths.”

— ibid. Emphasis mine.

This is what I mean by religions demanding a veto on freedom of expression. If a state accedes to this line of thought, it opens the door to terrible abuses. Given that there are so many religions, and the highly subjective and constantly changing nature of religious interpretation, there can be no security in the human right of freedom.

The line between religion and freedom

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One of the reasons why we avoid critical interrogation of the line between religion and freedom — other than fear of the Singapore government, well-known for its punitive responses to criticism — is because religion has a power that assertions of abstract rights seldom have. Religions have repeatedly deployed violence for their ends. The regular reiteration in government statements of the need to avoid conflict is an echo of this underlying fear.

Even short of violence, the use of shamanistic ritual, manipulation of guilt, identity and group solidarity, make religions highly effective mobilisers. This is why many governments and political parties align themselves with religions, as seen from the Saudi monarchy and Wahhabism to Narendra Modi and militant Hinduism, to any number of candidates in US presidential elections, and of course, Manny Pacquiao. The politician relies on the appeal of religion to mobilise for him; religious leaders benefit in turn from politicians acceding to their wishes when they get into power. There are few more unholy things that religions do than make such alliances.

Another Madonna, this one by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Another Madonna, this one by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

In attending to the needed critical enquiry, one simple point must be borne in mind. All religions with deities ultimately rely on an irrationality. The invocation of the deity and its purported commandments is a guillotine to any further rational discussion. When coupled with excessive placating of feelings and symbols (as seen in this Madonna example too), the irrationality is hulked up.

Yet public policy should primarily be rational and fact-based. Not only because it impacts on people of different faiths and priorities — not forgetting atheists too — but because it is through grounding policy on rationality that it gains wide legitimacy. Now, there are facts and there are “facts”. Saying that it’s a fact that some people are prejudiced against gays (or darker-skinned people, or women), or some people feel offended — these aren’t valid, because ultimately, they’re traceable to irrational, subjective demands.

Another virtue of rationally-based policy — though we often forget how important this is — is also that it carries with it an orderly avenue for change when circumstances change. New facts can make new policy. Irrationally-grounded policies do not have these access points for change, because they were never grounded on facts in the first place.

Example: Environmental policy, if fact-based, can be modified as new facts about climate change emerge. But if such policy is based on denial of climate change, where plain obstreperous denial is given weight, how does one change policy?

Symbols

Let me take a short detour to discuss symbols, which Madonna used extensively in the Holy Water act. Placating subjective feelings about symbols is another shortcut to confused public policy and irrational censorship and, as I will argue here, injustice. This is because symbols are manufactured by sectarian groups out of thin air, though many were manufactured so long ago they have acquired the aura of tradition — but manufactured they still were. How can we allow a sectarian group to fence off certain kinds of expression just by their say-so?

Look at this picture. It is someone burning a Malaysian flag.

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What if someone else starts saying the crescent moon is a symbol of Islam and that by burning the flag the demonstrator is also causing offence to Muslims? Will we then pee in our pants and quickly arrest and prosecute this man?

Fortunately, the above incident didn’t take place in Singapore. It was a demonstration in the Philippines — something to do with the Sultanate of Sulu protesting Malaysian control of Sabah and the treatment of Filipino migrants.

If the above incident had occurred in Singapore, he didn’t need to burn the flag to be guilty of an offence. The mere public display of the Malaysian flag is an offence by itself, under the National Emblems (Control of display) Act. That’s how silly our censorious state has become. So beware the next time you paint a red disk on a white background or a yellow cross on a blue background. You could be arrested for displaying the Japanese or Swedish flag! Ikea — watch out.

But the point to consider is this:  If it happened in Singapore and some Muslims then accused the demonstrator of “hurting their feelings” and “desecrating a symbol of Islam”, would we, in addition to prosecuting this man for displaying a flag, rush to throw additional charges at him, perhaps under the Sedition Act?

What sort of justice system would we have when its implementation depends hugely on subjective feelings of some members of the public once they claim being religiously offended?

(See also an earlier Yawning Bread article The right to burn the flag.)

This woolly-headed nonsense about “balancing” should be junked. We should adhere more closely to a simple principle of freedom of expression. And be more vigilant about the state accommodating religious demands. Religion seeks to bind. We should seek to be free.

1 Response to “Holy murder of freedom of expression”


  1. 1 independent 6 March 2016 at 11:26

    If the misbehavior of Madonna the superstar is by a local artist, it sure get a ban from the MDA. This is surely the double standards of the Singapore Authorities.


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