Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why Catholics should stand up for freedom of expression

All in all, a good couple of weeks with the Philippine online community offering their views on art and freedom, topics that very few people cared about in their day-to-day existence before, let along understood. This was of course triggered by the Kulo exhibit which included Mideo Cruz's Poleteismo piece at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CPP). It all turned ugly when someone tried to destroy the piece. Eventually, the exhibit was shut down due to, in the words of the CCP, "numerous emails, text messages and other letters sent to various offficers of the CCP, and to the artists themselves, with an increasing number of threats to persons and property". And if that wasnt enough, cases were filed against Cruz and the CCP citing Article 201 of the Revised Penal Code with its provision against offending any race or religion. Artists are of course upset about this whole development crying 'censorship' and 'repression'.

Let's get one thing out of the way first. Although artists have freedom of expression, they do not -- do not -- have the right to be exhibited at the CCP, or any other gallery for that matter. It is absolutely abhorrent of course that the CCP had to shut down the Kulo exhibit because of threats, but let's get rid of the notion that getting kicked out of the CCP constitutes censorship and repression. (In fact, if one national artist had his way, Mideo Cruz's work wouldnt have made it to the CCP at all.) Censorship and repression are charges more properly leveled at the actions of the State, and in this case, although the head of state and therefore CCP's boss President Aquino expressed disapproval at the Cruz's piece, he didnt order the exhibit shut down. But even if he did, that doesnt constitute censorship nor repression. It's just saying, 'Exhibit somewhere else'. Poleteismo continues to be free to be exhibited elsewhere, complete with ashtray dick on the Jesus icon's forehead. This is not of course to excuse the vandals who tried to destroy the piece and issued threats against the person of the artist.

Now then... As with Carlos Celdran's Damaso stunt, Catholics have every reason to be outraged by the desecration of a revered icon. In fact I question the Catholicism of any Catholic who wasnt outraged by Poleteismo's execution of whatever it is it intended to say. But to use the power of the State on one man, to actually wish the artist jailed, is over the top and inimical to Catholic teaching on the gift of freedom and all God-given rights for that matter. The CBCP for instance, maintains that 'that freedom of expression is not absolute, especially if his method of expression offends other people.' This betrays a grave misunderstanding of the right to free expression because the right to free expression is absolute. To say that it is not absolute is to say that all other God-given natural rights are not absolute as well, and subject to State control, as they want the freedom of expression to be. This includes the right to life. Is the right to life not absolute? The theologians of the Salamanca school for instance, in asserting that freedom is a gift from God, recognize that one of the consequences of this gift is that it is not assured that man will freely choose good over evil. What the CBCP wants perhaps is for the State to step in and ensure that man will only choose the good on pain of being subjected to a lengthy jail sentence. It is the powerful that has a vested interest in controlling the right to free expression, and the Catholic Church in the Philippines does exercise a lot of power. The State welcomes this freedom-of-expression-is-not-absolute interpretation and will run with it, use it as justification for its various anti-sedition laws, and national security restrictions on people's access to information. In fact in his statement regarding the CCP exhibit, President Aquino said, 'There is no freedom that is absolute' implicitly admitting that all God-given freedoms are subject to State control, and if need be, suppression. The Church itself had a taste of this when President Aquino threatened anti-RH citizens with sedition charges for calling for a civil disobedience campaign if the RH Bill passes. So by their stand in limiting freedom of expression, the Church is shooting itself in the foot.

If that weren't enough reason for the Philippine Church to stand up for Mideo Cruz's rights, consider these cases in the UK:
A Christian woman working for British Airways who wears a cross round her neck is asked to remove it for fear of offending other people. A nurse who prays with a patient in hospital is committing an almost criminal act. Catholic adoption agencies which disapprove of gay adoptive parents on religious grounds have their licences taken away.
Filipino Catholics have it easy. They constitute a powerful majority here. What if one day they find themselves in the minority? What would they think of their own bishops' statement that 'the freedom of expression is not absolute' hurled right back in their faces? One could imagine the glee they felt when Aquino issued his statement on the CCP exhibit that probably put the nail in the coffin of its expulsion: "You have rights but when you already trample on the rights of others, there’s already something wrong." They probably didnt question exactly what those rights are that were being trampled upon. The fact is the CCP exhibit was trampling on some people's sensibilities but it wasnt trampling on any rights. By agreeing with Aquino's statement, they implicitly agree that the State can invent all sorts of rights like what the RH Bill does in their elevation of reproductive health as a basic human right (which it isnt -- it's an entitlement) which implies that any health professional who refuses to dispense artificial birth control methods said health professional doesnt approve of because of the dictates of conscience is a human rights violator and could lose the license to practice. Catholics have to realize that by fighting for Mideo Cruz's rights to free expression, they are fighting for the rights of all, including Catholics everywhere in the world. They can do this by asking those lay organizations who want to see Cruz jailed to stand down and offer to pray for him instead. The use of State power to harass one man who could not do any harm to them is just distasteful.

The case will probably not prosper anyway. In its ruling on Ang Ladlad's petition against COMELEC's disqualification, the Supreme Court said:
Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, and this freedom applies not only to those that are favorably received but also to those that offend, shock, or disturb. Any restriction imposed in this sphere must be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. Absent any compelling state interest, it is not for the COMELEC or this Court to impose its views on the populace. Otherwise stated, the COMELEC is certainly not free to interfere with speech for no better reason than promoting an approved message or discouraging a disfavored one.
If for no other reason than to spare itself of the embarrassment when the courts throw its petition out, the Catholic hierarchy should tell its most zealous adherents to withdraw the case and end this bullying, but I'd rather they withdraw it for the right reasons: that the freedom of expression is God's gift to us.

No comments: