Thursday, 27 November 2008

Freedom of Speech

This is an interesting yet difficult entry to write. I am amazed sometimes at the audacity of the claim that North Americans hold to regarding freedom of speech.

Last month James and I saw an interesting documentary called "Expelled", regarding the theory of Intelligent Design in the world of science. The basic idea is that the genesis of all life was begun by some sort of creator. The community does not necessarily saw "God", but simply that the very first spark of whatever needed some sort of designer to put it there. Even evolutionists cannot agree on how that very first spark of cell could have appeared. The documentary explores the suppression of this theory in the scientific community, and how professors and researchers are having their careers ruined by even considering the idea. It is not an argument about the theory of evolution, it is an exploration on freedom of speech and expression.

This past US election gave birth to a new controversy regarding freedom of speech. You likely have heard about Proposition 8, which asked Californian voters their thought on the definition of marriage. By a slim margin (about the same that Barack Obama won the Presidency), the Proposition was passed, defining traditional marriage as a union between a man and woman.

Many religious voters organized themselves to campaign for this proposition, expressing their personal beliefs in traditional marriage. Likewise, many people campaigned against the proposition also. Now, after it passed through the fair and long-standing way of voting, people are rioting against communities who voted for it. What I'm specifically referring to are the acts of defacement, destruction, and threatening against members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church has pulled out thousand of volunteer missionaries, fearing for their safety. Religious church buildings and temples have been seriously vandalized. People attending the churches have been warned: "Let this be a warning to the Mormon church: Dissolve completely or be destroyed."

I believe opponents of Proposition 8 have every right to express their feelings on the subject, but I am in awe that they feel these tactics are justified. I think this quote sums up exactly my feelings on the subject: "To place anyone in fear of threat to their houses of worship or their personal security because they have expressed deeply held religious views is contrary to everything this nation represents."

Sometimes I think Western countries sit on high horses, staring down their noses at countries who put others' lives in jeopardy for expressing their beliefs. Just last week there was another attack on girls in Afghanistan trying to go to school. The acts were condemned by the West, and I doubt you could find many people in North America who would agree with the perpetrator's actions. And yet....

This isn't a journal entry on whether or not Proposition 8 should have been passed or not. This is about the freedom to vote according to your conscious, and not to live in fear because of your beliefs.

It will be interesting to look back on history 100 years from now and see how "archaic" our lives today seem. I think back to the mid-1800s in the US when an extermination order was issued against people of the Church of Jesus Christ (the Mormons). An extermination order. I would hope and pray something like that wouldn't come about today, but it seems, according to some (small, marginal) groups, that the warning "dissolve completely or be destroyed" is not that far away.


Kevin H. said...

It's funny -- I was thinking about the vote on Proposition 8 (and the hard push from the Church of JCotLS to see it go through) just today, wondering how the conversation would run if I brought it up at our next friendly gathering.

You're right to be shocked and appalled by the kind of explicit acts of vandalism (even violent hatred) performed against Church members and their gathering places since the vote went through: there's simply no supporting this kind of response, no matter what the instigation might have been.

On the flip side of the coin, however, the Mormon Church was pretty instrumental in the passing of prop. 8 and campaigned hard in its favour. This kind of move can be (and obviously was) interpreted as a powerful display of ideological violence by the homosexual community: a revelation of hatred (born of fear?) that represents a similar kind of vandalism against a large American minority -- an American minority that should, under the constitution, be entitled to the same rights and freedoms as the rest of the country, the rest of its citizens. I don't mean to defend the violent acts of defacement carried out by -- what I would hope to be -- a very select few, but rather to illustrate how bigotry and prejudice can only beget more of the same.

I must admit, it shakes me a little to see you ever so delicately defend the democratically approved system of "voting" (i.e., "propping up 'slim' public consensus as letter-of-the-law policy") when it's a matter of personal prejudice, rather than "public representation" or "freedom" or what-have-you, that's being put to the vote. This isn't a matter of freedom of speech. Nor should it be. It's a matter of the moral majority suppressing the rights of a here-to-stay, ain't-goin'-away minority -- something America has a long, dark history of perpetuating throughout its violent and uneven rise to global ascendency.

Would we really all be comfortable with this scenario if the Mormon Church were replaced by, say, southern state radicals, and gay marriage by interracial marriage? Would we be surprised at the resultant race riots? Were we surprised by just such outcries in the '60s and '70? Should we have been then? Should we be now?

You're right to be concerned about the kinds of prejudice shown towards your church (both past and present -- and wow, what a shocking revelation about the mid-1800s -- that's disturbing!) and to express your hopes and fears about the future. I can't argue with the validity of your comments in that regard: they're a genuine expression of something real and emotionally honest from your own point of view.

It might be pointed out, however, that Mormons and the Church of JCotLDS don't have a monopoly on suffering discrimination and oppression (past or present, violent or otherwise) at the hands of bigots and fear-mongers. Jews, African Americans, other racial minorities, and most assuredly homosexuals have all experienced similar erradication efforts against "their kind" -- efforts to force them out of their country, their cities, their homes, to silence them or ignore them, to diminish them and cheapen them, to make of them second-class citizens and figures of ridicule so as to reduce their perceived threat to the ruling order. (Frankly, I'm surprised there isn't more brotherly understanding between such oppressed groups.) This is just the kind of oppression that Proposition 8 represents to the non-heterosexual community (a community that's had to fight tooth and nail for damn-near everything the rest of us get with no questions asked), and it's the Mormon Church that's standing at the visible forefront of the oppressive movement.

So is it entirely accurate or fair to paint the Church of the LDS and its followers as the uncomplicated "victims" in this case? It seems more complex than that.

A powerful, propagandistic push was enacted against "gays" (some of whom have responded with violent action, but none of whom felt flattered or "treated with respect" by their fellow citizens) in order to suppress their right to, of all things, love one another. It seems a little disingenuous to turn around and play the victim when homosexuals rise up in anger.

Shouldn't we try to deal with the perceived "crime" first, before assigning blame or judging resultant actions or anything else of that flavour?

Why is this happening?

(Side note: This is an absolutely massive problem on a global playing field, where one violent action is used as an excuse to beget another and another and another, with no one taking responsibility for the acts themselves -- for the offense to human rights and dignity that they represent in the first place. Oftentimes, it seems, there can be no "first place", and warring groups simply excuse their own hateful actions by those of their opponents in perpetuity, the conflict spiralling ever onwards with no end in sight. If only one group would stand up and take responsibility for its inhumane behaviour... But I'm running a little off topic.)

I was going to discuss the perceived "threat" that homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular represents to the moral majority, but I'll leave you instead with this clip of Keith Olbermann from a "Special Comment" made shortly after Nov. 4, 2008. It can seem a little overwrought at times (since this is a public television announcement, after all, and therefore a performance by definition), but the sentiments are very real, and the argument is a good one.

And as a comic denouement, following that impassioned plea, I leave you with this:

Thanks for sharing, Terri-Ann. What a heck of a can of worms, though, eh? :)

heather80 said...

Kevin: Very well said. Instead of leaving my own long comment, while trying to chase a mobile baby, I'm gonna say, "What he said." :).

Terri-Ann said...


In fact, I agree with everything you said. In a country like the US or Canada, we believe in freedom of rights for all. Although I may not personally support homosexuality, that doesn't mean that other people should not have the same rights. Personally, I don't think this should have even been a free vote. If marriage is deemed a basic right, it should simply be granted, despite what the majority believes.

I tried hard in my entry to make it clear it wasn't about the rights of gays and lesbians, but simply about the backlash against a free vote, but often thoughts are clearer in the head than on paper. I'm glad you posted, just so people realize now that the issue of rights of marriage is another issue I'm not addressing here. The Californian government asked for the opinion of the people on the issue of marriage, and people should not have to fear voting.

What is interesting is that the Mormons made up only a few percent of the vote, and yet because they were so public about it, became the prime targets. In fact, the Church takes no political stance, and does not get involved in politics at all. The campaign was a result of individual efforts.

Of course the Mormons are not alone in their persecution - but I don't have much personal experience with other forms of discrimintation. Oh wait - I have felt and written about awful experiences in the film industry as a woman.

There are some interesting comments at (click on Proposition 8) from people on both sides of the debate. The basic agreement is that no one should be allowed to persucute anyone because of the way in which they vote. The "fight" does not have to end, but it should not include violence.

I think it is misrepresenting the Christian faith to say that the vote was because of a "threat" to traditional marriage. Marriage is between two people, and no one else, so I don't really see any threat to my marriage. Most Christian faiths do not support the idea of homosexuality, and therefore, if asked to vote according to their belief on the definition of marriage, would not vote in favor of gay marriage. There is no feeling of a threat.

Mostly my sentiments in writing this article were about perceived forward thinking of Americans, their condemnation of other nations who use fear in government, and then the hypocrisy of it all in this situation. I mean, the last vote we saw where people feared to vote was in Zimbabwe. If you asked many of these vandals if they saw the connection, they would probably say no. Of course it wasn't on the same scale, but fear and voting appear in the same sentence in both cases.

Can't wait for the next get-together - although since we agree on all your comments...I'm not sure there would be much to say!

Kevin H. said...

A few further comments...

"Personally, I don't think this should have even been a free vote."

Exactly right. I realized after re-reading your post that I was really driving the conversation in a direction you hadn't initially intended, but it seemed strange to bracket the issue of gay marriage and Proposition 8 in a discussion of its fallout and the effects on Mormon voters. I suppose I just couldn't let the subject go unremarked upon. Forgive my twinging conscience. :)

But you've uncovered the real issue here, which is that human rights should never be a matter of public vote. That's foolishness, and in some respects gives the lie to the presumed effectiveness and morality of the democratic process.

"The Californian government asked for the opinion of the people on the issue of marriage, and people should not have to fear voting."

Right again, of course, and an interesting companion to the point above: People shouldn't need to fear, or be ashamed of their sexual identity either, and putting them in this position via public vote (i.e., subjection to public judgment) is wrong. So is the violent behaviour of certain misguided protesters after the fact, but the initial display of poor judgment on the part of the American / Californian government (whoever was responsible for Prop. 8 in the first place) is accountable for creating the conditions in which that response became possible.

"Mormons made up only a few percent of the vote, and yet...became the prime targets."

Everybody needs a scapegoat, right? Someone to suffer the outpouring of bitterness and resentment in the wake of such a public shaming. Unfortunately, Church of LDS supporters both raised the most money and awareness for their campaign, and were the most vocal and public supporters of Proposition 8. That makes them an easy target.

"Most Christian faiths do not support the idea of homosexuality, and therefore, if asked to vote according to their belief on the definition of marriage, would not vote in favor of gay marriage. There is no feeling of a threat."

It's unfortunate that an outdated and dogmatic religious belief continues to cast such a long shadow over our culture. If gay marriage isn't a threat, then what is it? Just "not right" under God's word? I'm dangerously close to stepping over the line into a messy religious debate (perhaps I'm already there), but I think this needs to be more fully thought through. The irrational assumption that homosexuals have any less right to function as equal individuals in a free society (like the mentally challenged? the physically handicapped? the emotionally damaged? the racially "other"?) is absurd and needs to be confronted.

Also of note: this is the second time today I've heard homosexuality referred to as an idea (I was chatting with Melissa about this blog entry earlier), which I must firmly assert it is not. It is a very real and demonstrable fact. As real as your own love (and, one assumes, lust) for your husband is to you (if you'll pardon the highly personal comparison). Referring to homosexuality as an idea is a fallacious and descriminatory description of what a sizable minority of the world live with and experience on a daily basis.

Otherwise we're clearly in agreement on the issue of public vandalism, violence and threats. Just no place for it in a free society.

But then again, how else do you get people to listen to you? To regard you as a genuine presence and a valuable human being? Ever the plight of the oppressed...

Reading your post the first time, I got the strange feeling that it was an expression of puzzlement and distress that homosexuals would choose not to respond with quiet acquiescence when assured by "the public" that they were in fact less significant, less valuable, and even less human than the rest of us. That's not at all what you meant to suggest, I know, but perhaps it explains why I felt compelled to respond the way I did.

Apologies again for the friction. Whatcha gonna do, right?

I'm also looking forward to the next get-together, but I imagine we'll have plenty to discuss -- on this subject or otherwise. :)

Heather: glad I could save you the effort. :)

Teaser for another future post: On the Separation of Church and State. Bloody god idea, and should have gotten to it here, but I've got to run (previous engagement, for which I'm now late) so maybe next time. Adieu!

Kevin H. said...

Leaving Proposition 8 aside this time...

Roger Ebert has just posted a review/blog entry about Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which you describe above as a documentary that shines a light on anti-creationist persecution in the sciences. Now Ebert's often considered a big softy -- even giving a positive review to Bill Maher's parody of religious belief, Religulous (a film that I find ugly, innappropriate and wildly off target, but that's another discussion), despite the fact that he's a believer himself (he was raised Catholic and remains a practicing Christian, I believe) and politically liberal (and so a believer in free speech, etc.) -- but he tears Ben Stein a new one for what he describes as its manipulative, exploitative and dishonest approach to its subject.


Let's break this down:

Ebert is a religious believer (though admittedly not a creationist supporter), politically liberal (so a supporter of free speech, as well as modern scientific practices post-enlightenment, and a frowner on religious fundamentalism, particularly in the U.S.) and personally conservative (so a supporter of family values, by no means a radical of any description, and an all around nice guy who thinks people could generally be nicer to each other). And he thinks this movie is a crock.

Beware some of the especially anti-creationist fervour in the comments section, but -- in general -- if you read with a critical eye and ignore the over-arching bias against creationism, the film still sounds like a paltry piece of heavily cooked propaganda. Not unlike Bill Maher's Religulous. Or anything by Michael Moore. Or to a lesser degree An Inconvenient Truth (which shot itself in the foot by artificially enhancing its statistics when there was no earthly reason to do so except to inspire more fear; guess how its opponents shot it down...?). Etc.

It may be all well and good to tout free speech, but what about factually manipulative and emotionally exploitative tactics designed to force the receptive viewer into unreasoning agreement?

Always engage with the world around you critically, am I right?


Terri-Ann said...

We found out the film was horribly reviewed after seeing it (less than 10% on Rotten Tomatoes). But not knowing anything going into it, we enjoyed it. Yes, it's one sided, but that's what some documentary-style is. In school, we actually learned about 4 different types of documentary, only one of which is the "fair, critical explanation of facts" that most people assume ALL documentary should be. In fact, much like an essay, documentary is really about taking a side of the issue and presenting all info you have on it, trying to persuade your audience to your opinion (much like a debate). Even if Ben Stein was taking a very small minority of people affected by this issue, they STILL felt affected by this issue. And he wanted to tell that story. He got some crazy far-out sound bites by those against I.D. and why wouldn't he include those? He doesn't say that everyone feels this way, just that the sentiments exist.

The documentary inspired a good conversation about the issues after the film, which I think is the mark of a good documentary. The most important point made (I think) was that scientists readily admit they don't know what started that first molecule, they seem to know FOR SURE that it couldn't possibly have been I.D. But it could have been some alien life-form. But not I.D.

So to sum up - yes, it's one sided and shows the extremes, but I believe it's totally within the realm of documentary. And by inspiring discussion among viewers and critics and scientists, to me that is the greatest sign of success.