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.
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.
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?
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.”