Friday, December 07, 2007

Some disturbing trends

I am a monkey. Sort of. As such, I have a brain specially evolved for pattern recognition.

My monkey-brain, like yours, is so good at seeing patterns that we often see patterns where none exist. This is a malfunction that leads to all sorts of difficulties, like belief in the supernatural. But it seems to help us more often than it harms us, so it's probably not too bad a deal.

Lately my monkey brain has been picking up some things that appear to be patterns. When I project those patterns to their logical conclusions, they worry me.

This will be the first in a sort of series of posts in which I examine these patterns, point out where I detected them, and discuss why they concern me.

The first such trend is particularly topical at the moment. It's probably too early to consider it a pattern at all, but if the next event turns out the way I predict it will, I will start to worry.

I first detected it a few weeks ago, when Deon Maas, a columnist for a local newspaper, was fired after writing a somewhat objective article about Satanism.

From what I understand, the sequence of events was as follows:
  1. A young goth got into a fight with her neighbors.
  2. The neighbours, apparently not familiar with goth culture, tipped off the police about suspicious activity in her flat.
  3. The police performed a search of the premises, found illicit substances and arrested the girl. The police also found a lot of goth paraphernalia (black clothes, candles, defaced Bibles and so on) in her home, indicating that she is probably a practising Satanist.
  4. The police are now investigating her, not only for possession of illegal substances, but also for "Satanism" as if Satanism itself is a crime.
  5. Maas wrote a column in defense of the girl, trying to make the point that Satanists are as entitled to practice their religion as anyone else is, provided they don't commit a crime in doing so (he got some fact wrong, claiming that Satanists are devil worshippers, as opposed to Atheists, but this was an ancillary point in his article)
  6. The newspaper, after having printed his column, received a plague of protests from their readership. They decided to let Maas go in favour of not losing their readership.

Now, this is a pretty complicated issue, with various sub-issues clustered together.

Firstly, why would the police charge this girl with "Satanism"? I have only Maas' word on this fact, but since he was fired rather than issuing a retraction, I take it he's pretty certain of his facts in this case. I'll provisionally assume that he got that part right. The SAPS has, supposedly, one of the most sophisticated and experienced occult units in the world. Surely they would know that real Satanists are almost always good, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who wouldn't hurt a fly.

It's only teenagers who practice the church's idea of what Satanism is in order to rebel against their religious upbringings that actually do illegal things... nasty things. This isn't real Satanism. Surely the SAPS would know that? If they did know that, then it seems unlikely that the story is accurate. Or somehow it is a crime to practice Satanism - a clear violation of her constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Assuming the story is accurate, and practising Satanism is a crime, that worries me big time. It means that the laws of the land are incompatible and contradictory. The enforcement of any given law would then rest on the personal ideology of the police officers, lawyers and judges involved in the case. That troubles me.

The next issue is that of personal responsibility. Maas wrote the article, but presumably it would have had to be approved by one of the newspaper's editors before being printed. Maas himself should have taken personal responsibility for the content of the article until he submitted it to the editor. The decision would have rested on the editor's shoulders whether or not to actually print it, not so? Therefore, if there was a negative response from the readership, it should have been the editor, not Maas, whose head should have rolled. But I digress.

I understand that a newspaper is a business, and they are entitled to take any steps within the law in order to ensure they they continue to make a profit. But why would their first step be to fire the guy? Should they not have stepped up and defended his journalistic integrity? Should they not have attempted to set the record straight, educated their audience and explained the fact that Maas has the right to say what he thinks, especially within the context of an editorial?

Another issue is the readers who complained to begin with. Of course they have the right to complain about something they find offensive, but does no-one see value in doing a little research before signing a petition? Are these people so blind to their own actions that they honestly can't see the inherent hypocrisy of their actions?

Those readers, almost exclusively Christians, no doubt, go to church every week and read out of the same book that issues directive after directive, ordering them to spill the blood of infidels, convert the heathens at the end of a sword, and slay those who will not believe. Satanists are worse than Christians how exactly?

It boils down to this: those Christians are so sensitive about their religious convictions that they will stop at nothing, ruin as many lives as necessary, to make sure that nobody offends their delicate sensibilities.

This pattern has repeated itself again this week. Gareth Cliff, 5fm presenter, made a flippant comment about Mohammed the Bear on his show which prompted a complaint from a listener. He then retorted to the listener, being dismissive of her religious faith and now faces possible censure by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

I don't pretend to defend Gareth Cliff. I don't like his show, I don't like his style of presentation, and I don't agree with the way he handled the situation. But, I recognise his right to say whatever he wants as long as it doesn't harm anyone. How did what he said harm anybody? Has he gone and ruined Islam for everyone now? Has his petty little tirade injured anyone in any tangible way? No.

Before I'm accused of being hypocritical, I also support the listener's right to complain about his statements. 5fm is owned by SABC, our state broadcaster. If Cliff, as a representative of our state, makes comments that someone finds offensive then of course they should complain. Whether anyone should take that complaint seriously or not is another matter altogether, and that is what I am waiting to see.

If the BCC decides that Cliff should indeed be censured for his statements, then it is clear that they are not in favour of our constitutional right to freedom of speech. What he said was silly, childish and rude, but it was not hate speech. It didn't incite anyone to violence, and it didn't cause anyone any lasting damage.

Maas is a victim, and I predict that Cliff will be a victim of our society's obsession with political correctness, and pandering to the religious as if religion is the only aspect of our culture that is beyond reproach and hard-hitting public discourse.

The pattern here that concerns me is that the religious, who should be gradually losing their stranglehold over our society after the fall of the Dutch Reformed Church's theocratic rule under Apartheid, seem to be gaining momentum. Somehow our allegedly secular state is trying harder and harder to pander to the religious instead of defending the rights of those legitimately entitled to them.

I can foresee a hypothetical situation in which I might be put in this position. I might do something to offend a religious person, and that person would be able to visit unjust retribution upon me, and be allowed to do so because they are religious and I am not. The constitution is supposed to protect us all equally, not to favour certain people over others as a result of their particular ideological beliefs.

This is why I am worried about this trend: the religious people are being treated as higher-class citizens. As soon as that sort of thing happens, oppression follows.