31 March, 2009

Two recent items on the UN Human Rights Commission

From GetReligion:

Last week, the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution that calls on nation states to limit criticism of religions in general and Islam in particular. …According to Freedom House, many of the sponsors and supporters of the measure have some of the poorest records of respecting freedom of speech and religion in the world.
From the Washington Post:
The Obama administration decided Tuesday to seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, reversing a decision by the Bush administration to shun the United Nations' premier rights body to protest the influence of repressive states.
One area where I disagree strongly with Vatican policy is in the freedom to offend others' feelings. The Vatican frequently implies, when it does not state outright, that certain opinions ought not be spoken, or even speakable. The example that grates on me the hardest is the episode three years ago of the Danish cartoons.

On this topic the Vatican seems to follow a general European attitude: for instance, Germany and Russia both forbid the expression of certain political opinions; France forbids the expression of certain misconceptions about history; etc. These laws have been successful only superfically from what I've read. For example, there is a large neo-Nazi community in Germany, despite Germany's laws designed to stamp out Nazi opinion.

The problem with this point of view is that, often enough, the Vatican's own point of view is highly offensive. The current pope has been quite good at this, in fact, and I don't mind at all: the Regensburg talk; the recent remarks on how to control AIDS in Africa; and so forth. I happen to agree with the Vatican that these statements were perfectly legitimate and even true. However, not everyone does, and quite a few people have called them dangerous and fatal.

We live in a hypersensitive age. It dismayed me that the president felt compelled to apologize for his remarks on the Jay Leno program as regards his bowling. Think about it: he's on the Jay Leno program, where it is routine to say things that someone, somewhere, might consider offensive. It may not be as routine and/or offensive as Howard Stern's show, but I'll wager that even a half-hearted search of the show's transcripts will turn up a number of jokes at the expense of Special Olympics athletes. Shouldn't it then offend us that the president appeared on the Jay Leno show? Should it also offend that the Jay Leno show broadcasts such offensive jokes routinely? Should we be offended that we laugh at offensive jokes?

Then the president sent his apologies where: to any Special Olympians? No, to Tim Shriver, the non-"special" head of the Special Olympics. This is the same Tim Shriver who once expressed his joy at Obama's election because the president had become the country's first Pastor-in-Chief. It looks as if I was prescient to take offense at that opinion.

Pope Pius IX declared, in the infamous Syllabus of Errors,
[T]he civil liberty of every form of worship, and the full power, given to all, of overtly and publicly manifesting any opinions whatsoever and thoughts, conduce more easily to corrupt the morals and minds of the people, and to propagate the pest of indifferentism.
Pius IX gets a lot of grief for this (as well as other assertions in the Syllabus of Errors) but the plain fact is that he's correct. If he weren't right, why do people act so outraged every time someone says something offensive? Why do Germany, France, Russia, and other countries have laws against expressing certain opinions?

Where Pius IX went wrong was in trying to use this fact to suppress the expression of certain opinions, which has likely always been futile, but was certainly futile by his time, and even more so today. That the Vatican continues to endorse at least tacitly some policy along these lines today is not, in my opinion, a sign of progress. I understand that there are political considerations regarding Christians who suffer oppression, but there has to be a better way to approach that problem. If nothing else, the fact that these countries often persecute Christians for expressing offensive opinions should give the Vatican pause.

Getting back to the original point, I am likewise not confident that the President is willing to say things that certain foreign nations don't want to hear. He wants to "engage" the world by sitting on the Human Rights Council. If it really works, God bless him. I'll take him seriously when he starts offending some of the malefactors who sit on that selfsame council, and whose notion of human rights does not appear to include the freedom to speak offensive opinions.

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