May 2, 2006
Soul singer Isaac Hayes has been working for Comedy Central’s
South Park. He has been the voice of the chef in the animated cartoon. But no more. Once the show’s creators mocked Scientology, he took offense. That was his religion. And it mattered to him. He left the show.
But that’s just one case. One incident. In the ten years of episodes, the show has frequently ridiculed and lampooned religion. Christians and Jews, Mormons and Muslims. Any religion has been fair target.
Not too long ago this same series was about to run an image of Muhammad. The world was still recovering from the strong reaction to the offensive cartoons of Fleming Rose. Early October, this editor of a Danish weekly had published cartoons that ignited an explosion of anger in the Islam. Mobs of Muslims raised their voices around the world.
Compared to cartoons of political figures printed in American newspapers, the cartoons about Muhammad may seem somewhat less offensive. But Muhammad is a religious figure. And religion touches the deepest part of our heart. Muslims saw their prophet caricaturized. Their religion insulted. Some radicals called for the death of Rose and vented their anger on innocent people.
Despite the rage caused by the cartoons in the Muslim world, newspapers around the world reprinted them. Editors defended their right to do this on the basis of freedom of speech in a democratic society. Nonetheless, the worldwide protests and riots did have some effect. When it came to
South Park’s intention to publish an offensive image of Muhammad, Comedy Central network intervened. The image was not shown.
But the issue has not been settled.
South Park continues to offend religious sensitivities. It recently featured an image of Jesus defecating on President George W. Bush and the American flag. And it showed this during Holy Week. All in the name of freedom of speech. Besides this display of vulgarity,
South Park is gearing up for another offensive image. The show is planning to air a bleeding statue of the Blessed Mother in Australia on May 10. At first, it is taken as a miracle. Then it is labeled a menstruating Madonna. Church leaders are already protesting.
Not every nation has the same attitude as some in this country to freedom of speech. Immediately before September 11, 2001, Michel Houellebecq, a well known French author, gave an interview to a French magazine. He characterized the holy writings of Jews, Christians and Muslims as “texts of hate.” Muslims became infuriated and brought him to court. His remarks, they claimed, were defamatory and provoked racial hatred. There is a limit to what can be said.
Even in the secular world, the same question arises about the freedom of expression. In some European countries, it is considered a criminal offense to say that the Holocaust never happened. In Austria, David Irving, who is a leading proponent of this view, was sentenced for 3 years for denying the Holocaust in February, 2006.
Recently, a case was brought to the courts in California. A disgruntled employee sent out emails to thousands of fellow employees trashing Intel Corp. He accused the company of unfair business practices. The company accused him of trespassing on their computer system.
Today, with the use of the Internet, access to information seems without borders. Evil, too, can now be without limit. Posting stories about a company or product can sway some and bring harm to a business. The same of an individual.
How free can free speech be? What are the limits to tolerance? When do bigotry, prejudice and hatred negate the freedom to say whatever someone wants to say?
Free speech is not a value in and of itself. The moral law directs freedom of speech. It is ordered toward the common good. Society has a right to information so that the legitimate rights and dignity of the person should be upheld (
Inter Mirifica 5, 2). What builds up society, what guarantees respect for others: these are the guiding principles that help us speak openly and honestly.
Freedom of speech cannot be used as pretext to manipulate public opinion for an agenda that is against the common good. Freedom of speech cannot be invoked as the reason to publish information or stories that destroy the good name of another individual. Everyone enjoys a natural right to his reputation. In politics, in business, in the private sphere, detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. They are sins, at times serious, against justice and charity (
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2479).
The right to communicate one’s ideas and judgment, one’s view and opinions, is not an absolute right. Poking fun at someone’s religious beliefs or ridiculing someone’s faith seriously offends against the respect due to another. Harming another’s good name offends against the love we are called to have for everyone. Truthfulness, justice
and charity are basic principles that moderate our use of speech.
Well to remember the words of the
Epistle of James 3: 3-5; 9-10:
Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder…So also the tongue is a small part of the body
and yet it boasts of great things…With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.