Sat | Dec 10, 2016

Freedom of expression and freedom of sense

Published:Sunday | January 11, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Dr Orville Taylor, Columnist

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.

Exacerbation

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.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior
lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email
feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and
tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.