Francis, Charlie and the right to offend
Pope Francis, asked his opinion on the killing of the staffers of Charlie Hebdo, says that it is wrong to kill someone who expresses an opinion against religion but that there are limits to freedom of expression in the sense that, “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith.” He goes on to say that even if a beloved aide were to insult his mother, he might punch the aide.
Columnists at Rappler, myself included, who have published critical articles of the Pope's visit or of the local Catholic clergy before, during, and after the Pope's visit, inevitably receive bullying comments from the faithful. The level of threats, put-downs and curses varies depending on whether the criticism is muted or not.
Should the writer dare to take a sharp critical stand, dare to condemn what he or she believes was wrong with the papal visit and the Church, then a flood of bad comments is to be expected. I don't refer here to legitimate counter arguments that can be as sharp as the columnist's critique. I mean those comments that are essentially about the sexuality of our mothers, the morality of our family and friends or our lack of worth as human beings.
There is also the recent brouhaha over a picture of police officers walking around in shirts and adult diapers. This was a gag on the MMDA's idea that it might be helpful to issue adult diapers to these personnel who would be unable to leave their posts securing the roads and other venues during the Pope's visit. Due to the outcry Paul Agabin, the blogger behind the pictures, issued an apology. Not content with the apology, I heard the authorities are considering the filing of charges against him.
Similarly, Carlos Celdran had asked in one of his social media sites, why, if the Pope’s message was one of mercy and compassion, the Church had not forgiven him for his stunt at the Manila Cathedral during the struggle for the passage of the RH Law. There is apparently a section under our ancient Revised Penal Code that punishes “offenses against religious feelings.” The reactions to this were so bad, he had to close down his social media account.
No to Pope's stand
These events outline the debate about the right to freedom of self expression. Is this freedom unlimited? Or are there limits?
All rights do indeed have limits because, in human rights discourse, rights are indivisible. In other words, we cannot say a particular right is unlimited because to argue for this might very well be arguing for the limitation of another right.
As a member of the community of human rights defenders, I have always argued for the broadest latitude for the exercise of any right. I have also stressed that where the gray areas arise, the best way to resolve this is to do an analysis of the concrete situation in which the conflict arises.
Therefore, I do not agree with the Pope’s critical stance of Charlie Hebdo’s offense. Carlos Celdran should not be punished and the specific section of our penal code should be challenged as unconstitutional. I do not think the person who staged the gag on policemen in diapers should be charged. I do think that those who write abusive comments against the columns of agnostics, atheists and other critics of the Pope and the Church should be allowed to do so.
Before I continue, I must say that this is not a blanket endorsement of cyberbullying nor is it a blanket endorsement of the sexist and racist content that some have said is typical of the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. It certainly is not an endorsement of bullying, even of the verbal sort, which I condemn as a violation of human rights.
Nonetheless, I hope for the sake of social peace and our freedoms, that citizens and our government give the right to free expression the broadest possible latitude.
Often, when the expression is agreeable to many or all people, this is not an issue. The right however, becomes problematic when that form of expression is offensive.
The ideas of all of those who opposed the Marcos regime were offensive to Marcos such that he and his cohorts thought nothing of arresting, incarcerating and killing many whose only crime was peaceful and law-abiding opposition.
Christians who professed their faith in the early years of the religion were persecuted. The persecution of Christians still occurs in some countries today. But one religion does not have a franchise on being victimized. Everywhere in the world people are being persecuted for expressing some religious belief. This is so because, in some part of the world or the other, the profession of faith that is different from that of the majority is considered immoral.
Yet in all these instances, I am certain that offense is not the point of these expressions but a genuine desire to speak of one’s own truths.
Still, even if the intent was to offend, there can be some other motive behind that offense. I doubt that Carlos Celdran wanted to offend all Catholics with his stunt. But even if I were to grant this for the sake of argument, his motive was also to protest the Church’s offensive (to me and to many) opposition to the RH bill.
Yet, even if all that was meant was pure offense, such as when someone calls a Rappler columnist a whore, I would argue that no legal penalties should accrue to that person. In fact, I used to endorse unmoderated comments and discussion boards online. However, I have come to accept moderation mainly because it is women’s expression that is so often met with sexual slurs and threats. Furthermore, I do not think anything is added to the public discourse if threats and slurs crowd out other forms of disagreements that express ideas.
Curses, slurs and threats are merely reflective of the kind of mentality that would limit the freedom of expression of someone who is expressing contrary beliefs. Indeed, the frightening thing about these defenders of their faith is not that they disagree, but that they find disagreement with them, offensive. Often, the anger at that offense leads to violence. Thus, those who killed the journalists at Charlie Hebdo were avenging what they perceived were offensive statements against their religion.
The reason I would argue for allowing low and stupid comments is that to suppress them would be to suppress the very freedom of expression I advocate. Also in the case of the Rappler trolls, the free expression of, sentiments like “you’re a spawn of Satan who wants to promote promiscuity,” is not going to lead to any physical harm nor will it preclude my enjoyment of other freedoms.
For those who argue that the right of free expression of Charlie Hebdo and Carlos Celdran impinged on their freedom of religious belief, I would point out that this is an overstatement of the effect of these ideas.
I doubt anyone was truly stopped from being a Catholic or a Muslim by those ideas. I would argue however that the killing of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and the possible imprisonment of Celdran argue for the limitation of the freedom of religious beliefs. If the jailing of Celdran and the killing of the journalists are to be justified under the freedom of religion, this is where I would argue that the freedom of religion, like all freedoms, needs to be limited.
Human rights are inviolable and indivisible. The curtailment of any right must rise to the highest test of rationality and achievement of a greater good. I will add that the measures used to limit a right must be to the minimal level necessary to prevent the violation of another right.
This is why I disagree with the Pope that he can punch his aide. That is a violation of his aide’s right to be free from violence and a curtailment of his aide’s free expression, which is not commensurate to the evil of the Pope’s mother being insulted. I would suggest that to protect his mother from insult, the Pope curtail his aide’s freedom of expression by threatening commensurate retaliation. The Pope must make sure that the aide knows that for every verbal insult received, a verbal insult will be given. As that aide seems to be a devout Catholic, I think this should be sufficient to prevent any further offense.
As for the policemen in diapers, I think it sufficient that netizens, exercising their freedom of expression, got the man to apologize. I must say I did not find that picture of great interest. It seemed both mildly amusing and mildly offensive. I did not think an apology was necessary. But it is within the rights of people to criticize and within the right of the man who undertook that stunt to apologize. No one’s rights have so far been violated and everyone’s freedom has been upheld. Should charges be filed against Agabin however, I think this would be a violation of his right to free expression. What right did Agabin violate anyway? The right not to be offended?
Because we are a very diverse society with many of us holding very passionate beliefs, someone is likely to be offended at some point by an idea, a novel, a picture, a movie, a form of speech. If offense is to be taken as a justification for violating anybody’s rights to free expression, we would be at each other constantly.
It is also true that all great social changes start with someone in the minority questioning a widely held majority belief. Whether it was the idea that the earth was the center of the universe, that people are equal regardless of the color of their skin, that people have a right not to have a religion – all these were offensive to powerful institutions and were backed by majorities at one time.
It is a given that even the most widely accepted and passionate beliefs can be wrong. Error is a human thing. As such, the need for tolerance of those we believe to to be wrong, is the inevitable consequence of our humanity. There is also a special protection in democratic ideologies and human rights documents for the minority because it is the lone voice or the small minority who cause offense. It is the minority who are in all likelihood bound to suffer discrimination from the more powerful majority.
By its very nature religion is an organized group of many people. In many societies and communities there are religious majorities whose power is not just in their numbers but in the institutionalized churches who have tremendous economic and social resources.
Therefore, the idea that the religious have a right not to be offended is an invitation for the many to oppress the few.
Anyone in this world looking to be free from being offended had better retire to a cave. There is however a very special right to offend – to offend unwittingly or even wittingly.
And because of this, I suggest that no one, even if he is the Pope, be allowed to punch anyone because of a verbal insult to something he holds dear, whether it be his religion or his mother. I doubt the Pope’s mother would disagree with me. – Rappler.com