A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
13th February 2006
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Censorship is a very difficult issue.
It is impossible to know that we have the truth if information is being kept from us. However the spread of lies and misinformation slows down any pursuit of truth. Furthermore unnecessarily offensive communication reduces people’s willingness to discuss issues rationally.
Christians have an ambivalent attitude to censorship and blasphemy laws. We do not like our Lord Jesus Christ being attacked, pilloried or ridiculed. We have protested, usually unsuccessfully, about the public presentation of materials that we find offensive. We therefore should sympathetically understand the deep hurt of the Islamic world when cartoons of Mohammed are published in Denmark and across Europe.
On the other hand we profess that Christianity is true. Therefore we should allow any scrutiny to take place. Part of the cost of our certainty in Christ is having Christianity regularly attacked. At this point it is harder to feel sympathy for our Muslim neighbours when they try to censor public criticism and questioning of Mohammed or the Koran.
Communication happens within community. If we wish to hold our community together we need to avoid offending its members. The differing standards of speech within a community, especially a multi-cultural community makes discussions of some matters very difficult. To the highly sensitive anything can offend. Others are so insensitive that they cannot smell the stench of garbage even when it is right under their nose.
The NSW Chief Justice, Jim Spigelman, has recently complained of the lack of civility in our community. The foul mouthed, rude and offensive behaviour frequently displayed and modelled in our media by leaders in politics, sports, and the arts has finally been called into question by somebody other than “the churches”. So this time the media agreed and then illustrated the point by showing us again some of the more offensive examples!
Our leaders’ response to Mr Spigelman has been yet another call for self-regulation. This is the liberal democratic alternative to censorship. Watching free to air TV is the quickest way to disabuse yourself of the theory. The great shibboleth of “community standards” is also proven to be ineffectual. Who determines what are, or should be, community standards?
Decisions are often made without actually researching what present community standards are. Furthermore the media aims to alter community standards and arguably not always for their improvement. Those in the community who complain about offensive media only give free advertising to the object of their complaint.
The recent Danish cartoons of Mohammed have created a worldwide reaction resulting in formal diplomatic complaints against Denmark, flag burning demonstrations and rejection of Danish trade. This is a clash of cultures in the global community.
It appears that the cartoons were commissioned because artists, out of fear of Islamic backlash, were not willing to illustrate a children’s book on Mohammed. They have been published to break the wall of silence and the tyranny of censorship that surrounds Islam in the West. This may be necessary but offensiveness is a dangerous weapon to use.
Liberal secularists do not understand that religions are significantly different. Islamic and Christian sensitivities are quite dissimilar. Christian acceptance of persecution is not the same as Islamic retaliation. Jesus was the crucified messiah, Mohammed the prophet who led an army. The differences are stark.
Some years ago at the University of New South Wales a proposed “Bible Frisbee Throwing” competition was stopped by the question of whether the Bible could be replaced by the Koran. The organisers did not fear Christians or mind insulting Christian sensitivities but were unwilling and/or afraid to offend Muslims.
The world does need open free discussion and information about Mohammed and Islam. The politically correct representations of Islam will not help us understand the truth, any more than intentionally offending Islamic sensitivities will help them listen to us. We need both civility and truth in communication not the vulgarity, offensiveness, sensationalism and conflict that the media so regularly produces. We need the liberal secularist media to stop the hypocrisy of arguing for free speech in order to offend people while censoring genuine religious opinion and debate.