Monday, April 28, 2008

Who Determines What "Objectionable" Literature Is?

Late last week, I received an email concerning one of our stories in the Persecution and Prayer Alert.  The sender stated that he was unsure how to understand the prayer request following the report of charges laid in Singapore under the Undesirable Publications Act against a couple who was alleged to have been distributing an evangelistic tract entitled "The Little Bride."  We asked people to pray that the charges be dropped. The sender asked if we were saying that they were not, in fact, distributing the tract and that the charges are false.

I can understand the confusion.  As we understand it, the couple had, indeed, distributed the tract.  Nor do we dispute that the tract may be perceived by some as having violated both Singapore's Undesirable Publications Act and Sedition Act.  That does not, however, make their activity criminal, in our opinion.  The problem lies with the nature of these kinds of laws which seek to punish someone who might offend someone else.  Ong Kian Cheong (49) and Dorothy Chan Hien Leng (44) are charged under the Sedition Act for "promot[ing] feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore" (to view the full text of this Act, click here). The two were also charged under the Undesirable Publications Act, which defines "objectionable" material as an item which depicts "race or religion in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups" (to read this Act, click here).

As I mentioned in a blog back in December, the trend toward defending an individual's or group's "right" to NOT be offended (in particular, it seems, for Muslims and homosexuals) and thus limiting the rights for others to express differing opinions, represents a significant threat not only to freedom of expression and religious liberty but to democracy and undermines two basic premises of the Rule of Law principle itself.  The first is the shift from the objective (what was expressed) to the subjective (how was it received and/or perceived). This represents (as Mats Tunehag well stated) "a shift from freedom of speech to "freedom from hearing'; from the speaker to the hearer; from what was said to how it was perceived; from instigating violence to ‘I was offended'; from objective to subjective criteria and laws."

The second Rule of Law principle that is being undermined by this trend is the loss of predictability. Laws and the consequences of breaking them should be predictable. But how can one know if what one says is going to offend someone, somewhere, for some reason? The law, therefore, becomes entirely subjective and liable to abuse, just as we see the Blasphemy Laws of Pakistan being abused today.

We need to recognize that in a free society (such as Singapore purports to be), the right to free expression includes the right to offend. But freedom of expression also includes the right to defend. Everyone, including the offended, have the right and obligation to counter perceived false or misleading accusations and correct perceived prejudicial comments. But we do not demand that such things been banned and that the authors be punished for expressing their beliefs; we stand against what has been said. This is the nature of apologetics, to expose the truth that has been hidden behind what we perceive to be lies, misunderstandings or misinformation expressed by our accusers.  If we don't feel like doing the hard work of defending our faith, we can get over it and act like adults who are secure enough if our beliefs to withstand a few hurt feelings. But we don't go running to the government and expect them to protect us from offended feelings!

I do believe that it is appropriate that we ask that the charges be dropped against this couple for the reasons given above.  These are simply bad laws that need to be challenged.  Being legally guilty does not mean that one is morally guilty. 

Having said that, however, those who would violate them do need to be prepared to suffer the consequences for their civil disobedience. We do not call for lawlessness. 

Finally, we need to address whether the actual publication was "objectionable."  You can click here to view an English version of this material.  The problem is, as noted above, determining whether something is objectionable is completely subjective.  Legally, this should be completely irrelevant in a society truly subject to the Rule of Law.  I'll leave it to you to determine whether you believe this tract is objectionable or not.  Whether it was wise for this couple to distribute it is another matter.  But a lack of wisdom is not a criminal offence. 

So, I stand behind our decision to urge prayer for this couple; that the charges against Ong and Dorothy would be dropped and that the Holy Spirit will direct them as they respond to their accusers (Luke 2:11).

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