Freedom of expression and censorship: when regarding marriage and abortion “dissenting is forbidden”

Freedom of expression and censorship: when regarding marriage and abortion “dissenting is forbidden”

Rome, 6 April 2018. A pro-life billboard showing the anatomical characteristics of a fetus at 11 weeks is removed from the façade of a building. Eleven weeks is the age of gestation in which it is possible to legally have an abortion.

Pavia, March 7, 2018. Bishop Corrado Sanguineti is accused of homophobia by some newspapers, groups and social media for having restated the Christian view on sexuality, suggesting to homosexual people a life of chastity.

These are just two examples of "censorship", specific to Italy, on very complex moral issues and debates such as abortion, sexuality, and marriage.

The international realm, however, offers other cases that show how, on these subjects, it is not "allowed" to think differently from the majority.

Think of YouTube blocking pro-life videos, stating that they can be offensive, or to Facebook that censures Christian conceptions about the family or marriage, listing them as extremist.

In the USA even an advertisement for potato chips was contested, because it would have been guilty of "humanizing" fetuses (and therefore of indirectly condemning abortion), showing a baby that, already in the mother's belly, wants to taste the product.

Then there’s the particular case in France, where they are thinking of introducing penalties for those who try to change the mind of a woman who wants to have an abortion.

Similar incidents bring up a question, which precedes the ethical discussion on the aforementioned subjects: do these "new forms of censorship" not contradict the respect for freedom of expression, a law so highly exalted in the West?

We are faced with a paradox: sometimes, in the name of freedom of thought, even offenses and insults are justified. At the same time, pro-life posters are removed, billboards which offend no one and simply state scientifically proven truth, namely that at 11 weeks the child in the womb already has a beating heart...

The case of Charlie Hebdo: when in the name of freedom everything is allowed

"I'm Charlie" had become the motto of thousands of people all over the world, after the terrorist attack against the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, which took place in January 2015. Many of us remember how public opinion had not only sided against the violence of the bombers, but had expressed itself strongly in favor of freedom of expression, defending without any “ifs, ands, or buts,” the work of the satirical weekly, although it regularly used to mock and belittle targeted people or groups, in particular religious communities, with disrespectful cartoons that went beyond the right to express ideas.

Some were puzzled by the weekly's coarseness, for some, the disrespect that it showed was excessive, yet, beyond personal taste and sensitivity, many argued that the magazine should be defended, to safeguard freedom of expression. It was a question of a freedom "taken to the extreme", which, although trespassing due respect, it was, however, necessary to prevent the denial of em from "freedom of expressing themselves", such a fundamental value of democracy.

A freedom without limitations

De facto, in the cultural environment that has been created in the West, one has the impression that it does not matter what the ideas are: in a society that defines itself as free and tolerant, what matters is that everyone can have his own say in any matter. This implies that we must all relinquish a little of our "touchiness".

Let us note, then, how blasphemy is evermore accepted and seen as one of the many ways of expression (the complaints directed at those who ridicule the sacred are almost evaporated). Let us also note how groups or individuals are allowed to carry out campaigns in defense of almost everyone or everything: see political propaganda or actions aimed at safeguarding certain categories of people (women, the disabled, workers), animals, or nature...

Let's think about the billboards displayed in some West cities around Easter, to stop the killing of lambs and animals in general. What would happen if a butcher worked to get those posters removed, because they compromise his job and income? The protection of freedom of expression requires him to accept that some people try to convince others not to eat meat, just as he can continue to send out flyers with discounts and promotions that can be used for buying meat in his shop.

It would seem that we live in a cultural context where freedom of expression is guaranteed to all...But instead it is not like that.

The rules of the game do not always apply...

In this climate, it is certainly amazing that there are arguments on which a single thought is imposed.

If there is not only one point of view on marriage and abortion, why not give others the possibility to express themselves?

Why then, if in the name of freedom of expression, you accept that Charlie Hebdo ridicules the victims of earthquakes and natural disasters or offends unscrupulously imams and priests, you cannot speak - without meeting the scorn of the media, being marginalized or labeled as a homophobe - of marriage as a link between a husband and a wife?

Why can’t it be said that abortion actually eliminates human beings who have already started living, without disrespecting women who suffer from having an abortion?

Freedom of expression at the center of the XI Professional Seminar on Church communication offices

The XI Professional Seminar on Church communication offices, held in Rome from the 17th to 19th of April, at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, precisely addressed the theme of freedom of expression. In his introductory speech, presenting the opening lecture Rediscovering the Value of Freedom of Expression: Lessons from History by Richard R. John, Professor of History and Communications at the Columbia Journalism School, Jordi Pujol affirmed that: "We live in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, there is an escalation of intolerance that leads to censoring "dangerous" ideas or speakers in the name of a new orthodoxy. And on the other hand, the most uncivilized offenses against symbols and religious people are tolerated."

Regarding the topic of our article, or the difficulty of expressing ideas on abortion and marriage, Pujol also manifested his perplexity: "It is undeniable that a person cannot be discriminated against being gay or bisexual. The central point of the debate, however, is not the oppression of a group, but the freedom of thought on the vision of the man, and of the woman of the world. Is there freedom to disagree on these topics in public? Or not? The risks of a career ending or even going to jail are not signs of healthy pluralism."

The dictatorship of single thought

It happens that in a cultural context where moral absolutes have been eliminated, a new “moral absolute” is imposed: "Everyone can do whatever he wants... except what is not allowed by the majority and no one can judge the choices of others... provided they are not contrary to the majority."

When we discuss abortion, we can be "in favor of life," but we must agree that every woman can freely choose what to do with herself and the creature she carries in her womb. One can "prefer" the "traditional marriage" for oneself, but one must accept that with the term "marriage" today, other types of union are also defined.

It therefore seems that freedom is guaranteed only as long as one speaks for oneself. When someone allows himself to express a moral judgment on an action, a way of life, an ethical position not considered correct by the majority, this is where the conflict lies and the return to complaint sets in…

This, however, is not at all a democracy.

Still borrowing the words of Jordi Pujol, "in the end it happens that the exercise of freedom of expression is limited not only by dictatorial regimes, but also by certain ‘elites’ of one-way-thought."

What to do, then?

The keyword is "prudence.", not in the sense of silent complicity, but meaning intelligent communication. Communicatively speaking, the way one says something counts as much as what one says. Often, however, even the precision in the choice of words is not enough. It is not enough to know the context in which we speak.

I then propose the suggestion given by Pujol in the concluding part of his speech: "Faced with the current situation, it will probably be necessary to design a communication strategy that incorporates ‘legal equipment’ (we have seen the magnitude of the challenge posed by secularism and from the gender ideology), and that does not neglect familiarity with technology. To address these debates, (Church) communication directors must be aware of their identity, have convincing arguments and be trained in the rules of public dialogue."