Wed | Oct 17, 2018

Freedom of expression and freedom of sense

Published:Sunday | January 11, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Candles lay on signs that read in French "I am Charlie" during a vigil in solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, outside France's embassy in Mexico City, last Thursday.

My friend was wearing an orange shirt with bright red pants in 1980. In those days, we were poor and simple and wore what we had. Red gabardine was cheaper than terylene and wool. He was pounced upon by a truckload of hooligans shouting, Yap Yap!! The reference was to the late Jamaica Labour Party stalwart, Ferdie Yap. Just hours later, my friend Felix was shot dead, because he was wearing green and someone said he looked like a Labourite.

Those were dark days in our social and political history and it is understandable that a retired politician from that era might have hallucinated or simply was mistaken, when she reportedly overheard a senior adversary mutter, "All Labourite fi dead!"

While he might not have said it, there was more than tacit acceptance that such intolerance and accompanying hostility were normative. Still, while sensible Jamaicans, such as my fellow fine artists, lamented the ludicrousness of this stupid sort of tribalism based on colour prejudice, we were pragmatists and understood that stoking the fire against irrational people, who commanded deadly force, was just plain stupid.

Had Jamaica gone on a different path politically in the 1990s, we probably would have been facing the same kind of issues that journalists and other citizens face in other countries. Last Wednesday, armed gunmen, whether you wish to call them terrorists or any other name, stormed into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper. Spraying bullets wantonly, they did not stop until 12 individuals were killed, including four of their leading cartoonists who were shot because they allegedly "drew first".

It is not the first time. In 1989, Islamic zealots pronounced a 'fatwa' on British writer Salman Rushdie for writing a very unflattering and provocative

critique of Islam, titled The Satanic Verses. In essence, it meant that any Muslim fundamentalist was given authority to execute this individual because he had blasphemed. More recently, a Danish cartoonist found himself in hot coffee because of satirising the Prophet Muhammad. Right now, I have to be careful that I spell-check properly because any attempt to joke about Islam might just blow up on me.

At this point in Western history, the idea of killing someone for disrespecting the religion of another seems barbaric, and it indeed is. Nonetheless, the Prophet Muhammad was born some 540 years after Jesus, although Muslims believe that Islam is the original religion, as the Jews do about theirs. Moreover, they hold that the Old Testament prophets and Jesus Christ are all Islamic figures. Interestingly, the Qur'an has more accounts of Mother Mary than the Bible. Indeed, for Muslims, one does not 'convert' to Islam; one 'reverts'. Still, if one goes back to the 1400s to 1500s, the equivalent timeline for the growth of Christendom, there will be more horrific tales.

One need not forget that the crusades were about the forcible 'civilising' and conversion of the infidels and heathens. Carrying the cross in one hand and torches or swords in the other, hundreds of thousands of non-Christians, including Islamic people, were slaughtered like animals and their cities,

villages and countries razed, all in the name of Jesus. Within Western Europe, there are myriad accounts of English and other citizens being burnt at the stake, stretched on the rack, hanged and quartered and being put in the Iron Maiden, a vertical coffin lined with spikes, which was methodically closed with the heretic inside.

America is not exempt, hundreds of 'witches' have been burnt at the stake for their evil doings, and up to the 1700s, blasphemy was punishable by death.

While I celebrate the fact that I live in a robust democracy with one of the freest presses in the world, it is not something that I take for granted. Freedom of speech and expression also come at a price. One cannot wantonly disrespect others and rub jerk sauce and salt in the wounds, and demand that they be tolerant. Jamaica has one of the best records regarding religious freedom and tolerance in the world. This is the only country in which controversial Islamic leader, Louis Farrakhan, could have gone and visited and worshipped in a synagogue, the sacred gathering place of Judaism, the historical antithesis of Islam.


Despite the false label of our being homophobic, there are parliamentarians who we have elected since independence, who we 'know' are gay. However, intolerance is often exacerbated by forceful provocation, especially by elements who feel that the bigotry of those who have contending opinions must be shoved back down their throats. Thus, when men, dressed like women, drive around and aggressively touch unsuspecting men, invite attention by shouting expletives at persons who don't provoke them and force past women to go into female bathrooms, they are not gaining ground. They are building up strife and will not strive.

Freedom of the press has a limit and tasteful irreverence is not the same as unadulterated disrespect. Some of the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo pushed the envelope just too far. In Jamaica, many of the cartoons by the best 'draughtsman' in our cartoonist history cross the line and 'violate' and are simply offensive. When there is a declared war going on, there is no need to fan fire; one can 'bun out' the negative behaviour without exacerbating relations. Imagine our cartoonists drawing our acting public defender, getting the 'L' kissed out of him by the former holder of the office. Visualise a Rastafarian student being depicted as being shorn or his turban removed and him wearing it in the cartoon as a sort of donkey tail, inserted in his anal cavity. Conceive of Jamaicans for Justice's (JFJ) main spokesperson being portrayed by a gay caricature of Jesus Christ and being beheaded by the archbishop.

While I do not endorse the killing of anyone except in self-defence, there is a cartoon of a monkey who measures a mango seed with his anus to determine if he can swallow it.

n Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to and