On offending and being offended

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated August 14, 2011

We live in contentious times. Issues, big and small, divide our society. Some topics that have sparked heated debates in recent months and years are Charter change, Erap, Garci, Willy Revillame, the RH Bill, the Marcos burial, and lately, the artwork of Mideo M. Cruz entitled “Poleteismo” which was on exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines until it was closed by the CCP a few days ago after the artist and the Center’s board members were threatened with violence.

There are always at least two sides to any issue and it is not my intention to take any side on this one, but to observe the debate from a dispassionate distance.

Life has become very complex. Many things that were once true have ceased to be so. Old ways are being threatened by new paradigms. Old forms are dying and new forms are arising, and people are caught in between.

Add to this the accessibility of pulpits with worldwide reach that are now available to anyone who wants to preach. I am, of course, talking about social media like Twitter, Facebook, Google, text, chats, etc.

It’s a whole new world we live in. Anyone can now be heard. Anyone is free to give his two cents’ worth on practically every issue or event under the sun. By the same token, everyone has access to more ideas, beliefs and points of view than ever before. And we may or may not necessarily subscribe to these views. Many times, we may find these ideas repulsive, being contrary to our own beliefs.

The web is full of brilliant, inane, practical, useful and stupid ideas. The soapbox is there for anyone to use. The end result of this is that everyone can have, not only their 15 minutes of fame as Andy Warhol predicted the new world order would provide, but also their 15 minutes of shame, condemnation or ridicule.

(Okay, it’s now maybe more like five minutes, or at least until the next engaging or provocative news or tweet reaches our screens). This can only mean that chances are, most everyone will, at some point, be offended by someone or be offensive to somebody.

The Catholic right is calling for the head of Mideo Cruz because they find his artwork with its red phalluses juxtaposed on the image of Jesus Christ offensive. The seculars are offended that the church is calling for censorship of the arts. Others argue that the exhibit is trash and that CCP should have shown better taste. There is also the school of thought that art is not just supposed to be pleasing and pretty like an Ikebana flower arrangement, but must, at times, disturb, provoke and challenge.

And, as if there is not already enough noise, some senators threaten to deprive the CCP of its budget unless its entire board resigns. Even the President has weighed in on what art is supposed to be.

I do not question anyone’s right to comment, react, praise, curse, vilify, demonize, Godify, or even ignore this issue. That is freedom of expression. Artists and their audiences are free to express their sentiments. But I am disturbed by the threats of violence against the artist and the CCP board, and the vandalism against the exhibit itself, and it bothers me that some people do not see anything wrong with these. In their view, the victims had it coming for “insulting God.” In fact, they see the act of defacing the exhibit as their right to self-expression, since they feel that their rights have also been violated.

I am averse to censorship of ideas, art, books and all forms of expression that do not purvey child pornography, racism, violence, murder, hate crimes, and the eradication of sects, tribes and the like. The world has seen too many self-righteous people like the Nazis who began by burning books written by Jews and their other perceived enemies, and eventually killed six million Jews in concentration camps. Then, there was the Ayatollah Khomeini who not only banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses for being offensive to Islam but also issued a Fatwa (death sentence) against the author.

I understand the depth of the anger of those who feel offended by what they regard as a desecration and an insult directed to God. And by all means, they are within their rights to raise a howl of protest. But my friend, Nines Terol Zialcita, may have been on the mark when she proposed the separation of church and art — a not-so-crazy idea since art and religion have had a stormy relationship through the ages.

But I hope that the Catholic and Christian protesters remember that even the Pope Benedict XVI managed to ruffle the feathers of Jews, Christian denominations, Muslims and Buddhists with his insensitive remarks within his first 18 months in office. As expected, there were demonstrations, effigy burning, harsh words, even violence, by those who were incensed. Which makes me wonder if there should also be a separation of church and other churches. But there is much to learn from the reaction of the Buddhists who largely ignored the brouhaha.

It is not unusual to discover that one may have inadvertently offended some people or have felt offended by others, considering the ease with which people coming from diverse lifestyles, paradigms and belief systems can now express their views. More than ever, religious, political and social diversity, as well as cultural contexts are rubbing on each other, creating new forms of human experience that often produce friction. The world is so small, we are literally bumping into each other all the time. And so, more than ever, the call for tolerance should be heard and heeded.

Therefore, let he/she who has not offended anyone be the first to call for banning and censorship.

If justice is, as philosophers have said, the minimum of love, tolerance is the minimum of respect and civility that we can practice in the absence of conviviality and agreement, or even in the presence of complete misunderstanding, disagreement, or even dislike.

While I would rather err on the side of liberalism, I call on artists, politicians, church leaders and all who engage the world with their ideas, to show greater respect, kindness and civility toward others who may think differently. To church leaders, to label pro-RH people as “terrorists,” “pagans,” “anti-life” and “sinners,” promotes acrimony and is offensive to those who have searched their souls and grappled with their consciences to arrive at their position. To artists, it does not limit self-expression to practice greater sensitivity by showing a modicum of respect, especially in the use of religious and social symbols that are sacred to other people.

Respect for the rights of others, tolerance of divergent points of view and compassion are useful virtues that should guide societies such as ours that are becoming more and more fragmented and contentious. While instant communication has given us the capacity to quickly respond to issues, perhaps we can use the same speed to get over these issues and move on. Our ready access to more nuanced thinking from enlightened people that is available online can also help us rise above our present mindsets, and think on higher levels.

I look at this current debate as another teachable moment. We are given the opportunity to think, dissect and understand things in the wider context, which includes the opinions of diverse people expressing themselves in this Babel of our marketplace of ideas.

We must learn to understand everything in its context and learn from everyone and everything. For we do affect one another, for better or worse. Instead of using a mental software that shuts out parts of the world and encourages monolithic thinking, we need a better, more encompassing one that will accommodate and make sense of it all.

We all have to learn to live together in peace.

* * *

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9 years ago

couldn’t agree with you more on this sir!

Van Kristine
Van Kristine
9 years ago

“But there is much to learn from the reaction of the Buddhists who largely ignored the brouhaha.”

I wonder how the Buddhists would feel if the images of Buddha were desecrated, too.

9 years ago

Suddenly, I wish I could take on that same Buddhist mindset, sir. 🙁 It seems to be a wise way of going about things.

It’s always been difficult, I think, to accept that there will always be others who will disagree with our points of view, and it’s even worse when the disagreements are of a large scale such as the never-ending conflict between art and religion. I think it’s horrible how far some people will go in order to prove their “side” right when in fact things could have been settled more simply with a little tolerance, some acceptance, and a whole lot of respect. I feel bad for how our country’s leaders are handling this, especially since I am viewing the news from so far away (I live in the US now, and the prevailing issues here are just so different).

Roosevelt Pipilas
9 years ago

That’s one smart cookie