31 January 2015

Is NZ becoming like Russia?

The highly acclaimed (in the west) movie Leviathan depicts life in a Russian village as immoral, brutal, corrupt and despairing. It is nonetheless a beautifully realised movie. I highly recommend it.
The negative and bullying reaction to the movie from prominent figures in Russia is unfortunate, of course, but it does ironically reinforce the very issue that the movie successfully depicts. Because it drags in both the Orthodox Church and the State, Leviathan has been described by one critic as a "filthy libel against the Russian church and the Russian state." It has been described as "evil" and as having no aesthetic merit. Because of Russian law, the swearing in it now has to be censored for Russian audiences (who I'm sure never use such words, ever.)
According to the Guardian, the Russian culture ministry was 'considering a ban on any films that “defame the national culture,” threaten the country’s unity or “undermine the foundations of constitutional order”.'
The movie did receive some state funding, moreover. That fact, along with the negative responses from authorities, reminds me of the way in which state apparatchiks and National sycophants in NZ were so swift and so nasty in reacting against comments made recently by Eleanor Catton about NZ being led by profit-hungry, anti-intellectual neoliberals etc. Even the Taxpayers' Union had to get in on the act. The resemblance with Russia is too close for comfort.
The only problem I have with Eleanor's comments is that she should have used the term "neo-authoritarian" rather than "neo-liberal".

13 January 2015

Reasons not to publish images of Prophet Muhammad

While in my last post I upheld the freedom of expression, I also alluded to the responsibility we all bear to exercise restraint when it comes to publications that might offend or humiliate others based on religion, cultural practice, gender, etc.
So, for example, I won't be reading Little Black Sambo to any child. I won't use the N-word. I will challenge anyone who denies the Holocaust or who tries to minimise the effects of rape. And I don't need a law to force me to make these choices. Nor should it take the barrel of a gun.
In a civilized society, we temper our freedom of speech with respect for the harm that has been done through discrimination, violence or genocide. As a university teacher, I do not regard it as a restriction on my academic freedom to abide by such norms, nor is it 'political correctness'. Offending people or giving voice to harmful opinions has no educational value. The examination and critique of such of offences to humanity may, on the other hand, have value for making us better human beings.
To get to this point requires that we pay attention to others. If moderate Muslims can persuade us not to publish images of the Prophet because of the offence it causes to their faith, then is it really a problem to desist from doing so? For me, it's not.
Defending the right to publish such images is not necessarily doing anything much to uphold freedom of expression, given that we do abide by some restrictions already – mostly voluntarily, but sometimes by law. I note that French law has banned Holocaust-denial, and that may be appropriate given the magnitude of that mass-murder and the history of anti-semitism in France. (And they also initially banned Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth (1961) because it advocated violent opposition to colonisation, e.g. by the French in Algeria.)
The trouble is, some people say that if we now concede to 'pressure' not to publish images of the Prophet, then we are being cowardly and letting terrorism win. So, should such images be published just to make the point about liberty and to defy terrorists? And never mind the effects on those Muslims who prefer to use words and not guns?
A voluntary restriction on such images can be made out of respect, rather than fear. And there is nothing wrong with doing so.
Pity, though, the city of Bologna where the Basilica of San Petronio's 15th-century frescoes include an image of the Prophet being tortured in Hell. This in turn is an illustration of Canto 28 of Dante's Inferno. The Basilica has been threatened by terrorists more than once. What would you do about that?

Update: I note that the survivors' issue of Charlie Hebdo features an image of the Prophet in conciliatory mood. Quoting from the Guardian: "Newspapers around Europe, including Libération, Le Figaro and Frankfurter Allgemeine have used the image online. The BBC showed it briefly during a newspaper review on Newsnight. In the US, USA Today and the LA Times ran the cover but the New York Times did not. The Guardian – which has not published other Charlie Hebdo covers with images representing the prophet – is running this cover as its news value warrants publication."

Given that my point above was about the voluntary avoidance of using such images, I am not in disagreement with the principled choices that these newspapers have made.

09 January 2015

My right to make you look ridiculous

Regular readers of this blog (both of you!) will know that it is definitely not my habit to ridicule or satirise others. I’m just not that witty. But the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris causes me to consider our dearly-held freedom of expression (and of the press), a freedom that permits publications that may cause offence to, say, a religious or ethnic minority group.
Mainstream western media channels are of course universally condemning the attack in Paris, and people are protesting in order to defy the terrorists’ intentions.
We’re kind of lucky, in a weird way, to have at least one New Zealander who is prepared to stick his head above the parapets and fire off a differing point of view. Derek Fox, former broadcaster and local-body politician, has made good use of his liberty and public profile to express this opinion: “The editor of the French magazine has paid the price for his assumption of cultural superiority and arrogance, he was the bully believing he could insult other people’s culture and with impunity and he believed he would be protected in his racism and bigotry by the French state. Well he was wrong, unfortunately in paying the price for his arrogance he took another 11 people with him.” (From NZ Herald).
That makes it sound like the editor of Charlie Hebdo deserved what he got, and was to blame for the deaths of the others.
Does one deserve to be killed for insulting someone else’s religion? Certainly not, although this would not be the first time that it’s happened. Some extremists use ‘blasphemy’ as their excuse for this kind of brutality.
Perhaps Mr Fox is just exasperated with racist attacks on Maori, and hence he has no sympathy for those who ridicule Islam either. Racism and bigotry are certainly not what we should be sticking up for. Killing people for it is quite another matter, of course.
So, Mr Fox has freedom of expression, and has published his opinion online, and the Herald has given it a further airing. Regardless of his colour or creed, a liberal-democratic country like NZ or like France defends Mr Fox’s right to express those views. Religious and ethnic minority groups benefit from this in particular, as it means that the majority are not allowed to suppress their cultural practices, religious doctrines, languages, etc. Indeed, minority groups can and often do savagely criticize the dominant culture. Victims of oppression are free to express their grievances, as they should be, and that may include ridiculing or satirizing ‘western’ or ‘capitalist’ values.
What the Mr Foxes of the world need to learn, though, is that their liberty cuts both ways. If you want to be protected from oppression and to express your culture and your resistance freely and openly, then you just have to take the odd occasion of satire and ridicule on the chin, because others enjoy the same freedom.
If you feel offended by someone’s cartoon or statement, then you are also at liberty to say so. And may the best argument win.
Now, it is only playing fair if society’s elite or members of the majority culture refrain from ridiculing minorities. The powerful or privileged should be confident and secure enough to brush any off any that comes their way, what’s more. John Key, for example, gets a lot of, often quite savage, criticism and satire. He’s sensible enough not to comment on it if he can avoid it. Muldoon was different, as witnessed by his attitude to the cartoonist Tom Scott.
Perhaps Mr Fox is still upset over the notorious cartoon by Al Nisbett that caused such an outcry in 2013, for being perceived as racist. But, after the murders in Paris, those who drove that outcry might want to think carefully next time about what they may be encouraging.
Yes, let’s continue to condemn racism and religious prejudice. But invoking force (of law or otherwise) to close down that which we believe to be racism and bigotry is ultimately hypocritical and is bound to fail in the long run.

02 January 2015

Gun-mad in Idaho

This is not a 'western'. Due to law passed by the State of Idaho in 2014, the University of Idaho has published a policy on carrying concealed firearms on its campus. A person who holds a valid Idaho "enhanced concealed carry license" can carry weapons on campus. The weapon(s) must "remain concealed at all times [except] in necessary self-defense".
Further to this policy, a university teacher is not permitted to exclude from the classroom any student who may be carrying a concealed weapon. No office supervisor is permitted to ban concealed weapons from the workplace, provided that the persons carrying them have a licence.
University staff are not permitted to require students with "concealed carry" licenses to disclose the fact that they hold such a license. So no-one would know who might be carrying concealed weapons anyway!
This barbaric policy means that the classroom and the workplace cannot be guaranteed to be free of firearms. And yet the University of Idaho maintains the hypocritical claim that it is "committed to maintaining a safe work, living and learning environment on campus". A safe (non-military) learning environment is surely one that bans firearms. My advice to anyone contemplating visiting or studying at a US university is to check the State law and the university policy on weapons before going. Campuses such as the University of Idaho should be avoided.