Jan 21, 2015
Oxford University Press has a long and distinguished history. From its humble birth in 1480 when it began to publish the Bible, it has grown to be the largest publishing house in the world. Since it publishes educational materials for use in more than 150 countries, its overseers are very much aware of the broad range of religious, social and cultural differences of those whom they service. In an effort to be sensitive to the belief and practice of Muslims, Oxford University Press has now banned the mention of pigs and pork in their educational books for children.
Oxford University Press’s directive to avoid any possible offense to Muslims comes as a response to the January 7, 2015 attack on the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. This publication is stridently anti-religious. It satirizes Judaism and Catholicism as well as Islam. It mocks politics and culture as well.
Catholics have rightly taken offense at Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent cartoons about the pope, the bishops and even the Most Holy Trinity. But Catholics have not resorted to violence to deal with the offensive material. However, when Charlie Hebdo published offensive cartoons about Mohammed, some Muslims did resort to violence, killing 10 employees, 2 French National Police officers and injuring 11 others.
In an interview on the flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, Pope Francis unequivocally condemned the Paris violence. “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God.” Religion can never condone or incite individuals to terrorism. The Pope said, “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.”
But the Holy Father did not stop there. To the consternation of some, he raised one of the controversial issues underlying the Paris attack. The limits on freedom of speech. Should every kind of speech be sanctioned in the name of freedom? This is not a simple question to answer.
Some responded to the question of freedom of speech by demanding no limitation. This seems to be the attitude of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. After the violent attack on their offices, they published another controversial cartoon of Mohammed. This time, the founder of Islam appeared under the words “All Is Forgiven.” He was holding a sign that read “I am Charlie,” the very slogan used by those who responded to the January 7th bloody attack by affirming total freedom of speech. It was as if to say, we have the right to say what we want, when we want, no matter what! In response, more violence erupted in Jordan, India, Pakistan and Africa. More lives lost. More people hurt.
Others responded to the question of freedom of speech by adopting an overabundance of caution. But, this position, taken by Oxford University Press, has come under stinging criticism. In England, Muslim Labor MP Khalid Mahmood called the caution of Oxford University Press “ludicrous.” Expunging material from educational works that could be potentially offensive to certain groups, if carried out with rigor, would ultimately sound the death knell for academic freedom.
The Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut and the Islamic dietary laws of Halal forbid eating pork. Certain Christian churches, e.g., the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and parts of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, also abstain from pork. Nonetheless, pork remains a basic food in the diet of millions of people. If we accept that Oxford University is right in not mentioning pigs or pork in its educational material for fear of offending some people, where do we stop? There are many other issues much more controversial. Must these never be mentioned?
Ever more basic than beliefs on the uncleanness of pigs are the claims of different faiths to be the true faith. Must these claims be passed over in silence for fear of offending? “How on earth are [we] supposed to tackle the larger questions of race, religion, love, poverty, sex, war, and politics? What chance do [we] have investigating belief systems and ideas? How might [we] go about debating subjects that really matter?” (Charles C. W. Cooke, “Oxford University Press: Authors Shouldn’t Talk about Pork In Case They Offend Others,” January14, 2015).
Pope Francis provided a common sense answer to the question of freedom of speech. He affirmed that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. But, he wisely added that freedom of speech does not mean total liberty to say whatever I want to say. “There is a limit,” he said, “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.”
The Pope’s words have been criticized by pundits and politicians as imposing an undue restriction on freedom of speech. On the ears of those who dwell in the enlightened realms of rationalism, his words fell like the dictate of a medieval monarch. The modern secularists are totally wedded to the campaign for individual rights. Their obsession with tolerance of all views, all beliefs and all behaviors has clouded their vision to the wider reality of the common good and has desensitized their moral compass.
Freedom is not license. Freedom is ordered to the common good. The right to freedom of speech guarantees us the ability to discuss ideas in dialogue with each other in the pursuit of truth. It does not give blanket moral approbation to all speech. Just because we can say or do something does not confer the right to say or do it. We are not free to harm others. Even with the freedom of speech, we are not allowed to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater to cause a stampede. We are not allowed to incite others to imminent violent action.
Both justice and charity are the ultimate judges of what actions and words are moral. Not all religious satire is wrong. A healthy sense of humor can be very enlightening. Nonetheless, the satirical anti-religious cartoons of the French weekly Charlie Hebdo fail by both standards of justice and charity. Even more tragically do the actions of those who resort to violence and bloodshed to express their offense!