Should there be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression?

Last week, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion hosted by the Victoria University Religious Studies Department on the topic of whether there should be limits to absolute media freedom of expression.

Prof Paul Morris provided an opening statement. Joining me on the panel were Tayyaba Khan, Jenny Chalmers, Tom Scott, Selva Ramasami, and John Shaver.

Here’s what I had to say.

You can download the audio, or play it below.

I would like to begin my talk with a quote from Leviticus 19:18, containing what is one of the simplest yet most important commandments in the Torah: Love your neighbour as yourself.

The question posed tonight is: “Should there be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression?”

My short answer is “no”, other than the limits associated with existing legislation pertaining to defamation, incitement, and the like.

Why not?

We live in an increasingly diverse society. Religion is only one aspect of diversity. If you impose religious limits, you would have to consider imposing limits on other aspects, such as gender, nationality, ethnicity, disability, political philosophy, and so on.

We can’t expect the rest of society to embrace, or sometimes even understand the same standards as we do. Example: The Third Commandment forbids us for taking the name of The Lord in vain. As Jews, uttering the name of God is very offensive. And yet, there is a significant quasi-Christian religious group whose very name incorporates this ineffable name of God. How can we manage this conflict? We can’t – It wouldn’t be right for me to demand that they change their name to God’s Witnesses or something else – it’s an integral part of their identity.

Freedom of expression is essential for the function of democracy. Allowing any authority (other than Parliament as interpreted by the courts) to determine the limits of freedom of expression would potentially be chilling, and the temptation for the authority to cross the line into political suppression could be irresistible. On balance, limiting freedom of expression would likely do more harm than good.

We are free to ignore offensive material, and when we can’t ignore it, we can brush it off. We’re adults. Sometimes we need to endure this pain for the greater good of society, and pray that the offenders might become more aware of the consequences of their actions.

So my short answer is, no, there should not be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression.

But.

There is a longer answer. And that answer is that we’re asking the wrong questions.

The questions we should be asking are:

What self-restraint should the media exhibit when discussing religion and other personal beliefs?

and

As a society, how do we educate and encourage people to empathise with each other, so that they feel no desire to offend or hurt each other?

When I say “the media”, that’s just about everyone nowadays. Blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, and other social media provide a virtual megaphone to anyone who can gather an audience.

It is emphatically wrong to deliberately seek to offend or hurt others.

It is emphatically wrong to ridicule people’s strongly held beliefs or practices.

It is emphatically wrong to drive a wedge between different religions and ethnic groups by saying or implying that they are unfit to live among the rest of society.

It is emphatically wrong to blame an entire religion or culture for the actions of a tiny minority of their members.

All of these things are terribly wrong, and completely unnecessary.

These things are wrong and unnecessary, but legislating against them would create more problems than it would solve for the reasons I discussed earlier.

Unfortunately, as a society, we have not evolved very far beyond the 17th Century European proclivity for burning cats for entertainment. Pain and humiliation gets people’s attention, and sells newspapers in an increasingly competitive market. Shocking people is a lot easier then providing intelligent analysis, easier to understand, and sells more.

I would like to close with two quotes from the Talmud:

From Baba Mezi’a 59a, R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: “Better had a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”

From Shabbat 31, quoting Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”

Thank you.

Getting the most from your mentor in an accelerator

I’m planning on being very involved in the Lightning Lab Christchurch accelerator programme that starts next week, mainly as a mentor.  As I look back on both Lightning Lab Wellington accelerators where I mentored in 2013 and 2014, I felt that most of the teams could have used their mentors more effectively.

With that in mind, here’s a brief guide to how to get the most out of your mentors in an accelerator.

  1. Choosing a mentor is one of the most important decisions you’ll make during the accelerator.  Choose wisely.
  2. Be clear about what you want from a mentor up front, even though expectations may change during the course of the accelerator, as you and your mentor learn more about unknown unknowns. What are the gaps you’re looking to fill?
    1. Industry experience
    2. Specific skills, eg sales
    3. Contacts (NZ / Overseas)
    4. Potential investment, especially someone you can turn into a lead
  3. Be clear about what your mentor wants up front.  Why are they doing this?
  4. Make sure your mentors have read and understand David Cohen’s Mentor Manifesto.
  5. Don’t accept any mentor that comes along – even if you’re desperate.  A bad fit is a lot worse than rejecting them.
  6. Do “due diligence” on potential mentors.  Check their LinkedIn profiles.  Ask for references.
  7. Don’t take on too many mentors. Ideally, have one “lead” (or maybe two) that you spend at least an hour a week with, and possibly some others that you use for specific advice
  8. It’s like dating.  Do what you can to attract The Right One (or three).  And like dating, you could end up being “stuck” (or thoroughly enjoying) a long-term relationship with them.
  9. Look after them, and hopefully they’ll look after you.
  10. Be honest at all times.  One porkie can really wreck trust, even if it’s only a minor one.
  11. Keep track of action points for each side from mentor meetings.  Ideally, send out an email after each mentor meeting identifying who is going to be doing what between now and the next meeting.
  12. Hold your mentor to account, and expect them to hold you to account.  If one or both sides is blowing the other off, it’s not working and you should terminate the relationship and invest your time more productively.
  13. Your mentors are probably extremely busy people.  Try to plan meetings and activities well in advance, and establish a regular rhythm if possible.  Here’s a typical week in my calendar:
    dave-calendar
  14. REMEMBER – IT’S YOUR COMPANY, NOT YOUR MENTOR’S.  Don’t hold back on pushing back. Be reasonable, and listen to reason, but your mentor is generally all-care-no-responsibility, and you’re the Founder left holding the baby company.
  15. Timing is everything.  Use your founder spidey-sense to know when to cut your losses and fire your mentor, and when to double-down on their advice.

Is there anything I missed?  Please let me know in the comments.

The Internet in NZ – not half bad

I’ve just returned from a 3-1/2 month trip, mostly holiday with my wife Kate and 11 year old son Dan, in which we visited Hong Kong, Vietnam, Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain, and the USA, generally avoiding big cities.  Naturally, it was important to stay well-connected every place we went, so we employed a combination of mobile broadband through local telco and wifi in the accommodation we stayed at, mostly AirBNB.

In Hong Kong, CSL provided excellent mobile broadband, but the various accommodations I used had pretty terrible wifi.

Vietnam’s Viettel also provided generally great mobile broadband, and accommodations actually provided wifi that was surprisingly good.

In Europe, we used Orange Spain as they had a deal where for they charged EUR 1 per 100MB of data.  Problem was, for some reason, in parts of northern Italy they seemed to charge a lot more than that – without any real reporting.  Access and speeds in France and Spain were OK but not great, and wifi in private residences was uniformly terrible.

The USA was particularly disappointing.  I travel to the USA a lot, and use a T-Mobile sim card.  They recently prohibited tethering which made things difficult, and at USD 3 per day (a plan which has been discontinued), it isn’t exactly cheap.  Furthermore, T-Mobile’s coverage is patchy and even in urban areas when you can get coverage, I couldn’t ever get download speeds greater than 1Mb/s as measured by Speedtest.  Wifi was also pretty average at best, with the odd exception of an AirBNB we stayed at in Idyllwild, California, in the mountains, a long way from anywhere.

Back in New Zealand, using either Spark or Vodafone, tethering is allowed, speeds are regularly above 50Mb/s using 4G networks that are widely available, and it’s relatively inexpensive.  Wifi in peoples’ homes is generally good, and I really missed my cable broadband where again download speeds are reliably 50Mb/s.

Who would have picked Vietnam as a star performer, and Europe and the USA as letdowns?

OK, these measurements provide an anecdotal picture at best.  I know that:

  • Speedtest is not a reliable measure of speed
  • We were staying mainly in rural areas
  • NZ’s domestic network is super fast for cached and local content, but we’re still 150+ ms from anywhere in the world other than Australia

But still… I regularly hear Kiwi individuals and institutions whinge about how our Internet is both slow and expensive.  That may have been true a few years ago, but things have really improved a lot recently.  Anecdotally, that’s great for Kiwi individuals, businesses, and the economy.