A constant in the unfolding controversy regarding Mideo Cruz is the debate on the right to free speech. The Palayain ang Sining movement has insisted that this isn’t just about Cruz’s work but about the right to free expression. And, ultimately, it is. It doesn’t matter whether you do not find the work aesthetically appealing or even worthy of attention. What is at stake is the right of artists, of human beings, to speak out.
Every conservative with one or two inches of column space has jumped on their rallying cry of “free speech is not absolute.” The claim that Cruz’s piece, which involved a penis on the image of a Caucasian Jesus Christ, was offensive to Catholics (they insist on “Christian” just to bump their numbers up) is being used by the personnel of the CBCP, such as Atty. Jo Imbong, in filing a suit against the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
What is hard to imagine is that something as essential to human rights as free speech even needs defending. It is as if the Catholics have forgotten that, once upon a time, their religion too was in the minority and was persecuted for heresies. The right to free speech is not absolute, yes, but it is abridged only by the risk of actual harm. Offense does not constitute real harm, according to our current understanding of the word. It is quite easy to pretend to be offended and even easier to organize an entire religion around the notion of offense.
This real harm is brought to bear by provable nonsense such as faith healing Masses that are regularly advertised on street banners. This real harm is caused by ex-gay clinics run by fundamentalist Christians. It seems clear that freedom of speech is only limited in the view of conservatives whenever it is convenient for them to curtail it. I wouldn’t be surprised if religious leaders cry persecution should the FDA start regulating these leaders’ therapeutic claims.
It is therefore encouraging that more enlightened bodies such as the Human Rights Council of the United Nations has released General Comment No. 34, which affirms the superiority of the right to free speech over the so-called right against blasphemy. Sorry, Atty. Imbong. General Comment No. 34 was put out by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which the Philippines is a member. As a signatory and ratifier, the Philippines is legally bound by international law to follow GC34. In the comment, it says that, “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant….”
Members of the ICCPR are required “to guarantee the right to freedom of expression… This right includes… political discourse, commentary on one’s own and on public affairs, canvassing, discussion of human rights, journalism, cultural and artistic expression, teaching, and religious discourse. It may also include commercial advertising.” The comment instructs members to embrace “even expression that may be regarded as deeply offensive….” However, GC34 allows for laws against speech that could incite violence, discrimination, or hostility against a race, nation, or religion.
Certainly, there was no incitement of violence in Cruz’s piece against any person. If only the conservative Catholics offended by his work would extend the same courtesy. With death threats against Cruz and members of the CCP board, and threats against the security of the CCP, fundamentalists are keen on using their Constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech to the point of breaking. The fierceness with which they try to defend their sensibilities betrays insecurity, I think. It reveals a sliver of unsureness, that their beliefs aren’t capable of surviving criticism or a bit of reassessment.
With General Comment No. 34, the Philippine government may be compelled to repeal all the repressive and retrograde blasphemy laws we have in our books that the clerico-fascists keep dusting off and pulling out whenever society dares to go against their medieval aspirations.
The right to free speech protects not the pleasing ideas that we can all agree on, but the ones that we find most outrageous and unappealing. GC34 affirms that “Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person. They are essential for any society. They constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society.” But the conservative extremists in the Philippines seem hellbent on eschewing democracy and liberty in favor of their own mangled notion of freedom.
It is not just the rights of Cruz and the CCP that the Church aims to restrict. It is the right of each and every one of us to hear what Cruz and what every other artist, every other person, has to say. And if what we hear is offensive, then we get to decide that, not the Church and certainly not someone who needs to preface every statement with “I’m a Thomasian.”
Image from new.exchristian.net