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Love and support in the face of homophobia April 16, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Society.
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This is how we stand up to homophobia. With love and support. Because ultimately, beneath the veil of hate and prejudice, homophobes have no moral high ground to stand on.

Long story short: Last week during the Superliga semifinal volleyball match between Sada Cruzeiro & Volei Futuro, fans erupted in chants of “faggot”, aimed at Vôlei Futuro’s Michael, eventually forcing him to come out to the media.

For the next semifinal match, in a show of solidarity, the whole Vôlei Futuro team wore pink warmup shirts, while the team libero donned a rainbow jersey.

Pink warmup shirts

Source: voleifuturo.com.br

Rainbow jersey

Source: globoesporte.com

In a tremendous outpour of support, fans displayed a huge banner proclaiming “Volei Futuro against prejudice” and struck bright pink thundersticks emblazoned with Michael’s name, drowning out whatever remaining hatred that any homophobe dared spew out.

Volei Futuro against prejudice

Source: globoesporte.com

The Crowd

Source: voleifuturo.com.br

Just looking at those pictures make me all warm and fuzzy.  As boys and men all over the world are indoctrinated by society to harbor negativity towards homosexuals and enforce strict notions of “manliness”, it is heartening to know that friendship and empathy sometimes triumph over socially-endorsed homophobia. In a world where we are trained to swallow homophobic slurs as acceptable insults, it’s stories like these that help me regain my faith in humanity again.

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The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism April 15, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Religion, Society.
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If you are a Singaporean, chances are that all your life you have been told about the wonders of multiculturalism. After all, multiculturalism is that marvelous notion that allows people of all religions and races to live together peacefully while still being able to practice their own cultures and beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways I think multiculturalism is great. Diversity should not only be tolerated, but also celebrated.

But multiculturalism – with its insistence that all cultures have the right to flourish in a multi-religious multi-racial society – is far from perfect. When there is no pressure to compromise one’s culture or one’s comfort zone in favor of assimilation, “sticking to your own kind” becomes the norm. It becomes easy to develop a laissez faire attitude towards the segmentation of society according to racial or religious lines, leaving room for not only social segregation, but also economic segregation along these lines as a result of the ghettoisation of certain social groups.

You’d think that as a liberal, it is rather odd of me to talk about the negative aspects of multiculturalism. Surely the alternative – assimilation – impinges on an individual’s right to live life as he sees fit? But ironically, multiculturalism does not necessarily mean greater freedom for the individual either. Culture itself is a form of social pressure, and when a culture endorses illiberal teachings such as misogyny or homophobia onto its members, a society’s multicultural, politically correct stance prevents us from intervening, and as a result indirectly supports such unfair teachings as well.

In countries like the UK where multiculturalism is the state policy, tolerance for ethnic communities doing their own thing has resulted in the segregation of society, the loss of a national or local identity, and could even contribute to the increased radicalization of Muslims. Tolerance and political correctness have resulted in the reluctance to intervene when cultural teachings and practices have gone out of hand, because “multiculturalism” has made it difficult to draw that line between what is respect for a culture and what is simply unacceptable to society as a whole. Similarly, in the case of the burka, even though the notion of requiring women to be shrouded in black cloth is unthinkable to most of us, someone brought up to believe that critiquing any aspect of culture is racist, anti-religion or politically incorrect would never dare to cause offense by speaking up.

A key contradiction between multiculturalism and social cohesion is the fact that while multiculturalism encourages us to embrace the fact that there are different cultures, religions and beliefs, in order for society to function, we need to be able to ignore these very differences and see each other as individuals. If every ethnic community decided to promote the anti-social values of exclusivity and culture-specific values, the multicultural “society” would be less of a society, and more like several cultural groups leading parallel but separate existences. How does this relate to the French burka ban? France does not practice multiculturalism. Instead, it exalts the secular values of liberty, equality and fraternity. By recognizing a set of universal principles that are over and above cultural and religious identities, it seeks to recognize citizens as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen first and foremost, devoid of racial and religious particularities.
The burka. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

The burka flies directly in the face of these principles. Symbolically, it is about as anti-liberty as an article of clothing can get – women are symbolically dehumanized to the public eye, reduced to a mere shapeless faceless blob devoid of physical indications of personhood. Moreover, such clothing not only is a clear and defiant statement of cultural difference, it also poses a real barrier to interpersonal communication – something which is essential for an integrative and cohesive society. Seemingly insignificant human gestures of friendliness and social bonding: an exchange of a meaningful glance or the sharing of a spontaneous smile or the simple mirroring of expressions in response to a shared experience, are now rendered impossible due to the physical barrier of the face veil. If that is not the literal embodiment of “anti-social” then I don’t know what is. (Take a look at the image and honestly say that such a garment has no influence over your desire to be “neighborly” with the woman underneath) What’s left is the sense of uneasiness and alienation that can only lead to a chasm between cultures. France may not have my full support for its burka ban, but its principles behind it certainly aren’t wrong.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism April 14, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Liberalism v Conservativism, Politics, Religion, Society.
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Yesterday, I alluded to arguments made on the basis of cultural relativism: the idea that culture is sacred and that criticisms of cultural practices coming from outsiders are not valid as those judgments are unfairly made based on an outsiders’ skewed perspectives. From a cultural relativist’s point of view, we cannot describe the burka as oppressive or sexist, because we are using our own biased standards of sexism to judge the practice of another culture. Whilst there is some value to cultural relativism – the notion that no culture is really superior or inferior to others comes to mind – it is also extremely problematic because from this viewpoint, religions and cultures can never be blamed for any of their practices, no matter how racist, misogynistic or homophobic; they are simply immune.

Why should they be granted such immunity? Because these practices have been conserved for decades or centuries? Well, forced marriages, bride snatching, honor killings, female genital mutilation and the practice of sati have been around for centuries too, and I have yet to come across any civilized person who would dare to suggest that these practices should be preserved for cultural value.

The key flaw in the cultural relativist’s argument is the assumption that the preservation of a culture’s status quo is desirable in itself. Perhaps based on the argument that since the practice has been around for so long, or is practiced by so many people, there must be some inherent value in it. But the problem is that no culture is perfect. In fact, all cultures are extremely imperfect, and all societies can be changed for the better.

Take for example the issue of slavery. Today, most societies recognize slavery as a crime against humanity; an atrocious practice that dehumanizes people, where people are not recognized as individuals but as property; denied of choice and freedom simply because they were born into an unfortunate circumstance with an unfortunate skin tone. Back in the 1800s, slavery was the norm and it never even crossed anyone’s mind to consider the personhood of the slave. In fact, slavery was in a way “functional” for society. I would hate to imagine what would have happened if no one questioned the status quo, on the basis that “slavery has been working fine for the past century, why change it?”

Given this (literally) conservative mindset, it is thus no wonder that some women are themselves proponents of the burka, or even practices like female genital mutilation and forced marriages. That is the desired outcome of indoctrination: to be brought up to believe only one version of the truth and to never question the status quo, to assume that your culture as it is right now is perfect.

I would ask a cultural relativist: do you not think we are not more morally enlightened today compared to the past? Is it not possible for one culture to be more morally enlightened than another, given that some cultures have unquestioningly stuck to the practices of the past whilst others have critically examined them and made room for individual rights and freedoms? Then why oppose cultural change, if it can be for the better?

The enemy isn’t Islam, neither is it westernization. The enemy is and always has been social inequality. Throughout the centuries, one thing that almost all cultures have in common is the desire for social progress, defined by the breaking down of barriers to equality. From the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws, to the civil rights movement, to the ending of apartheid, to the feminist movement – it is clear that there is a human desire to be respected as an individual and not to be denied choices and opportunities based on one’s class, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. In this way, addressing the burka problem, even if you may not agree with the means of implementation, is a necessary and welcome form of social progress.

It is time that we stop hiding behind cultural relativism and political correctness and start recognizing what the burka and the culture behind it means: a tool to limit the self actualization of women and a climate of threats and punishment if a woman decides not to comply with prescribed gender roles.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression? April 13, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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Many have argued that the burka ban reflects an intolerance of Islam and is a form of restricting religious freedom. But these claims make the presumption that religions should be exempt from scrutiny when it comes to compliance with basic human rights, or even social integration policies. The truth is that the French constitution protects the individual’s rights to religious freedom, but also the sanctity of secular, liberal values. In other words, the law seeks to protect an individual’s right to practice his religion, as long as those practices do not conflict with the liberal values of equality.

Firstly, what we all must realize is that there is a limit to religious tolerance. This is true for France, the USA, Singapore or any other country in the world that claims to support freedom of religion. One cannot hide under the shield of “religious freedom” to defend practices that cause harm to an individual or to society. In countries like Singapore and the UK, it is illegal to cause religious offence or incite violence, even if such actions are condoned or even encouraged by a particular religion. So it should come as no surprise that a believer’s right to wear the burka must be balanced with the offense that it causes to a society that believes in equality between the sexes. France has simply decided that French secular values trumps this right. (On a related note, why don’t I have the right to walk around naked in Singapore? Because the government has decided that my right to wear nothing is trumped by society being offended by public nakedness due to its conservative sensibilities. Fair enough.)

Secondly, wearing the burka is not a religious requirement, but a cultural one. There are millions of Muslim women all over the world that do not wear the burka. Even in France, there are only about 2,000 Muslim women that do wear it. A ban on the burka does not compromise one’s ability to practice Islam in a peaceful and moderate manner; but it only affects those who interpret Islam in a radical way that involves the indoctrination of girls in an environment that is anti-choice and devoid of personal freedom.

Cultural freedoms have limits too: the cultural practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honor killings are outlawed in the civilized countries that recognize an individual’s basic rights to safety and to choice over the supposed value of preserving cultural norms. It is fallacious to suggest that all culture is sacred simply because many people have been practicing it for a long time. Such an argument can be used to defend all sorts of atrocities that are otherwise traditional and cultural: bride snatching, slavery, the list goes on.

Ultimately, whilst there must be tolerance and respect for different religious and cultural practices, a line must be drawn somewhere. France has decided to draw the line at inculcating young boys and girls with misogynistic notions of a woman’s worth being related to how she dresses. And frankly, I see little problem with them choosing to draw the line there – I too would like to live in a society where girls and women are not continuously faced with threats of shame and dishonor, and boys and men are not taught to use excuses like a woman’s dressing to defend rape and disrespect. Cultural and religious tolerance does not automatically mean tolerance of oppressive cultural and religious practices.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning April 12, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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The burka is more than a piece of clothing. As much as libertarians prefer to over-simplify the issue into “the government trying to control the attire of its citizens”, it isn’t as simplistic as that. The burka is a symbol of female oppression. The mere fact that the women of some religious sects are compelled to don it is telling enough: Why do women have to wear it and not men too? Why are they compelled to, and not given a choice? What kind of selective “truths” are they brought up to believe – that all men are potential rapists or that an uncovered woman deserves to be raped? Who enforces this rule to wear a burka – mullahs, religious police, the men who own her? What happens if she chooses not to wear it – killed, stoned, loss of her father’s “honor”? What kind of cultures force their women to wear burkas – those that impose a multitude of other rules to control the behavior of women, or those that let women have individual freedoms? Like it or not, the burka is so inextricably linked to all these connotations of sexism, misogyny and oppression that one can’t put it on without suggesting that one is either a victim of, or a proponent of these illiberal values.

Why do symbols matter? Ideally they shouldn’t, but in reality they do. Symbolism is the reason why there is a difference between burning a Koran and burning a dictionary, between stepping onto a national flag and a piece of cloth. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably be arrested if you walk down the streets of Israel in your Hitler halloween costume complete with swastika and fake moustache. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably get lynched if you walked the streets of New York wearing a KKK hood. People attach meanings to books, flags and articles of clothing. The burka symbolizes female oppression because of the reasoning behind it, the lies used to compel women to “choose” it, the threats and punishments used to enforce it, and the meanings of female ownership and honor that come with it.

The burka ban is full of symbolism too: it symbolizes that the French have zero tolerance for female oppression. I highly doubt that the small fine is going to convince conservative radical believers to change their mind about the burka, and arguably, there are many other better ways to encourage women to escape from this form of oppression such as providing an avenue for asylum and education. Instead, the value of the burka ban is in its message: that oppression and its symbols have no place in secular France, and if that one were to be insistent on keeping women enrobed in a shroud of subjugation, one is welcome to do so elsewhere.

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban is now enforced April 12, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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France has become the first country in the world to ban face veils in public. I have written about this controversial issue before, and I have expressed how my inner libertarian finds it difficult to accept governmental control over a person’s clothing, while my inner feminist admires the French government’s commitment to preserving equal rights and liberal values. Now that the law is actually being enforced, I am brought to face this issue yet again, and I now realize that there is so much more to discuss – more than I would like to fit into a single post.

Over the next few days, in 4 separate, hopefully less wordy segments, I will talk about the various deeper issues of the French burka ban, and how this controversy goes far beyond feminism and libertarianism.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

Reclaiming the word “slut” April 6, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International.
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If you are a woman, chances are, some culture somewhere will define you as a slut. Maybe you’ve had sex before marriage. Maybe you’ve had more than one boyfriend. Maybe you’ve held hands with an unrelated man. Maybe you have male friends. Maybe you go out in public exposing your bare arms. Even as I sit here in front of my computer in a t-shirt and skinny jeans, some cultures will define that as slutty attire – attire that suggests that I am asking to be disrespected by men, attire that means I deserve to get sexually harassed.

And that, I feel, is the crux of the matter: what society deems as appropriate attire and appropriate behaviour for women is purely subjective, and more often than not, defined by men. If a woman doesn’t comply with these arbitrary standards, she is defined as a slut – someone less than human, someone deserving to be victimised, and someone less deserving of empathy. The concept of a slut is socially constructed, designed to punish women who choose to express varying degrees of their individuality and sexuality, and to excuse perpetrators who might commit acts of assault and harassment against them.

Women in Toronto have grown sick of this form of oppression. In response to a police officer who claimed that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”, these women decided to reclaim the word “slut” by organizing a Slutwalk. 3,000 women of all ages – wearing anything they wanted to wear – marched down the streets of Toronto with pride and defiance, to reinforce the point that what a woman wears is not an invitation to be harassed and that they had enough of victim blaming/shaming. Most importantly, they wanted society to change from a culture that tells women not to get raped to a culture that demands that men do not rape.

Even now, I can anticipate the response from anti-feminist male chauvinist pigs (or anti-feminist females, who, though a rarer breed, tend to be more scathing and self righteous than their male counterparts). “If you don’t want to get groped, then why tempt us (men) to grope you?” To that, I have a few responses.

i) You are not an animal. You are a human being in control of your actions. Your hormones may tell you to touch or hump an attractive female walking by, but you have the ability and the responsibility to restrain yourself and respect the woman’s sovereignty over her own body. How she is dressed is no excuse for uncivilized behaviour, nor does it rationalize disrespecting her personhood.

ii) More often than not, it is the observer that is doing the sexualizing, not the “slut”. If you claim that a woman is dressed like a sex object, chances are, it is because you have defined her as one first. Let’s put it this way, if you saw a topless woman in Singapore, you would sexualize her, but you wouldn’t sexualize the topless tribal women on the National Geographic Channel, and you most probably wouldn’t sexualize a topless obese/ugly woman. Why? Because the role of a “sex object” has been projected onto her by the observer, and is not an inherent property of a woman’s attire.

iii) Believe it or not, most women do not make their clothing choices based on whether they will be able to tempt men. Looking nice makes us feel good about ourselves, and most of us enjoy it when others – both male and female – recognize that we look nice. The world doesn’t revolve around men and sex; it is not our intention to tempt you or invite you, and even if you make the mistake of interpreting it as such, please be a man and respect it when we say no. (And yes, I acknowledge that some women dress in certain ways solely to get male attention. But it’s just that – attention. Attention is not consent to groping or sex.)

iv) Rape has more to do with how the perpetrator views women than about sex. If it were simply an issue of sexual attraction, a man would take “no” for an answer. But to ignore a victim’s sovereignty over her own body suggests that the perpetrator has issues of power and control and is probably unable to respect women as equal human beings with a right to choose their attire and a right to not be touched without consent. What a woman wears is merely a convenient excuse to disguise the desire to dehumanize and possess a victim and to violate her bodily integrity against her will.

Back to the topic at hand: should we reclaim the word “slut”? It depends on how you define the word. If “slut” simply means a woman who dresses scantily, then I say by all means reclaim it. We all should have the right to dress however we want without having to be a victim of assault or harassment. But sometimes the word is more loaded than that – it has been used to justify rape, harassment and general assholery against women by making assumptions about their worth as human beings. We may hate it or embrace it, as long as we never let it be used as an excuse for the dehumanization and violation of women.

This is what freedom of speech looks like March 27, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Life in London, Politics, Singapore, Society.
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I woke up to the sounds of helicopters and whistles and drums in the distance. I had an inkling of what was going on – there were university union members handing out flyers to university staff and students to strike against the pension cuts earlier in the week. I checked the BBC website, and sure enough, there was going to be a protest in London – a huge one. One that would involve more than 200,000 participants angry with the government’s spending cuts to the public sector, causing a loss in jobs. Sure enough, I looked out the window and saw legions of people carrying flags and signs, walking from the tube station towards the embankment, and tour buses upon tour buses dropping off protesters arriving from all over the UK.

I had plans to do grocery shopping, but given the bus delays and road blocks due to the protests, that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, my boyfriend and I decided to follow the crowds.

Whilst we walked alongside the protesters, I was struck with a sense of pride and warmth. Sure, many of the policies that they were protesting against had little to do with me, and I’m not even British. But I was just so happy to be living in a country where the average Joe had such strong opinions about not only his own livelihood, but that of his friends, his family, and of fellow Britons, and was not afraid to speak up about it. Even more unbelievable (at least to someone who comes from a country where it is illegal to gather in a group of more than 5 people) was the wondrous fact that the city had blocked off its main roads and redirected its bus services, just so that these protesters could carry out their route along the river Thames to hold a rally in Hyde Park.

 

 

Waterloo bridge was closed to traffic to allow protesters to march

We walked across Waterloo Bridge (which was free of traffic because of this event), taking in the almost surreal sights: men, women, teenagers and seniors, holding signs and flyers and cameras, marching across the bridge, amid a backdrop of London’s iconic buildings. On the other side of the river Thames, protesters spanned the entire stretch of the embankment as far as I could see; their colourful flags and balloons making it appear as though they were taking part in a carnival.

 

Protesters spanned the embankment as far as I could see

 

I thought the crowds looked beautiful

There was music. And laughter. And painted faces, and costumes, and children sitting on their parents’ shoulders and many other sights I never expected of a political protest. These people weren’t bitter or volatile, neither were they hooligans trying to stir up violence. They are everyday citizens – teachers, nurses, professors, doctors, firemen and students – unhappy with the fact that their government has decided to cut their jobs. These are average people, concerned about what will happen to their schools and universities and hospitals and emergency services after all the job cuts. They just want their voices to be heard and changes to be made.

 

They were old, young, male, female, parents, grandparents, students. Not the type of extremist troublemakers that the Singapore government tries to train us to associate with politcal demonstrations.

Why is Singapore so afraid of all this? Why are our demonstrations (subject to approval) constrained to a tiny grassy patch at Hong Lim? Why is it illegal to air our unhappiness in public? Why does the government paint all protesters as troublemakers and radicals, when in reality many of these issues are the concerns of the average citizen? How can we be told to be satisfied with the approved routes of feedback – sitting at your computer and typing an angry letter to your MP – when issues like jobs, healthcare, civil liberty and economic injustice are real issues to be passionate about and whose scale can only accurately be expressed visually in the form of a demonstration?

Is Singapore afraid that protests may cause inconveniences or scare away tourists? Well I was definitely inconvenienced today, but that inconvenience is tiny compared to what hundreds or thousands of public sector workers would have to go through if their jobs were cut. And if one Saturday’s disruption is what it takes to show the ministers and MPs just how many lives are going to be adversely affected by their policies, then it’s well worth the disruption.  “Maintaining order” and “minimizing inconveniences” are shabby excuses for trying to restrict free speech.

Today I saw what real freedom of speech looks like, and it was beautiful.

N.B. During the protests, a small group broke off the main route and attempted to cause trouble at Picadilly and Oxford Circus. It is unfortunate that there are always a distinct bunch of youths whose only intent is to be a menace, but fortunately these were only about a couple hundred people out of the 250,000 peaceful protesters. Moreover, the police also exercised much restraint, without using unnecessary force and showing discretion when arresting these troublemakers.

Secular compassion in a time of tragedy March 24, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Religion, Unbelief.
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4 comments

I came across this quote by Sam Harris where he talked about the disasters happening in Japan, and I just wanted to share it:

Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.

The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion.

Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.

It’s only human to try and rationalize why things like these happen to good, innocent people, but we should resist the urge to do so. We may not go as far as to claim that the tsunami was a punishment from god, but even claiming that god had a purpose behind this disaster is bad enough. If I had lost my loved ones, my home, my livelihood, my possessions and my dignity in a catastrophe like this, the last thing I would want to hear is that this is all part of “god’s plan” to make me stronger. How comforting. Thousands of lives lost, all god’s disposable pawns, just to teach some people a lesson in inner strength.

Some people say that they can’t live with the idea that we are ultimately at the mercy of Nature; a force that lacks intent, purpose, or the ability to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving. But I say that it’s a better worldview to live with than one that involves giving a reason to the loss of thousands of lives and attributing it to a “benevolent” god – and in doing so, making light of the sheer extent of suffering inflicted onto other human beings.

The freedom to hate March 3, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Religion.
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As someone who firmly believes in the freedom of speech, I am sometimes forced to take sides with very unpleasant views. Take for example, Pastor Rony Tan’s insensitive comments about Buddhists and Taoists last year. As much as I disagreed with his views, I could never condone censorship of such opinions. Whatever “peace” or “harmony” that is achieved from the censorship of hate speech or insensitivity is not worth the violation of an individual’s rights to express his opinions in a peaceful manner, nor does it do anything to prevent the undercurrents of unexpressed intolerance.

Likewise, today I find myself grudgingly agreeing with the Supreme Court’s ruling to protect the rights of protesters from Westboro Baptist church to assemble at military funerals and hold up hateful picket signs.

In case you are not familiar with the antics of Westboro Baptist church, its followers are (in)famous for picketing at the funerals of soldiers who died in combat, holding up signs saying that those solders deserved their death as god’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.  Any decent human being, regardless of his views towards homosexuality, would agree that such actions are appalling. The utter lack of sensitivity and hatefulness behind those actions simply cannot be condoned.

And yet, despite the awfulness of such behaviour, assholes still have every right to be assholes, as long as they remain peaceful. If we try to curb their protests in an attempt to stop “hate speech”, then are we not as bad as religious theocracies that implement anti-blasphemy laws? After all, in essence what they are simply doing is censoring views that they don’t agree with. Whether or not we agree with the opinions of others is not what matters. What matters is what comes out of it: condemnation, dialogue, understanding, maturity.

And perhaps what is more powerful than the law is the support (or lack of support) by the community. When a group expresses an extreme, hateful, morally reprehensible view such as anti-Semitism, or homophobia, or sexism, or racism, censorship or punishment is not going to change their minds; they may even see themselves as martyrs for their hateful cause. This is where public condemnation comes in. If we trust ourselves to react with maturity and reason, we will ultimately have the upper hand.

When neo-nazis attempted to stage a far-right march in Dresden only a couple of weeks ago, they weren’t stopped by guns or the police or by the law. They were stopped by a chain of 10,000 peaceful anti-neo-nazi protesters.

When anti-gay stickers started appearing in east London (together with a quote from the Koran), it was the condemnation by the angry residents, the Muslim Council of Britain and the East London Mosque that would bear more weight than any action by the police.

Call me a hopeless optimist, but I still believe that when it comes to dealing with hate speech, the power of peaceful, rational, mature human beings is more potent than any attempts to censor it.

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