The Charlie Hebdo murders

Yesterday, twelve people died for blasphemy.

Be clear about at least one thing: regardless of your views on religion, or on the role that Islam (or monotheism more generally) might play in generating intolerance and violence, nothing justifies murdering people for expressing offensive views.

Be clear on a second thing also: the fact that one is able and allowed to express offensive views is a necessary element of any society that wishes to be considered free, and we should all stand in support of the right to express such views.

James Walmesley -
James Walmesley –

I’ve said before that satire and blasphemy can be “a reminder to members of an identifiable social or religious group to get your house in order, so that there is no longer any need to mock or ridicule.” It serves a valuable role, and a role we should cherish. Joe Randazzo, previously editor of The Onion, is right to say that:

Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.

Other issues are perhaps not as easy or unambiguous as we might prefer. For starters, the right to express a view doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea to do so. Take this Tweet from the President of American Atheists as an example:

He’s making a point, yes. I get that. He’s exercising his freedom to blaspheme, and he’s allowed to do so. But the blasphemy in that Tweet adopts a shotgun approach – it will offend all sorts of Muslims, from the ones who are inclined to kill people for blasphemy, all the way through to your next-door neighbour whose birthday party you might have attended a few days ago.

But as I’ve said many a time, these are strategic choices rather than issues of rights – he has the right, should have the right, and we should all defend the right to be as obnoxious as you like, even as we might not like what you say.

A final point, before handing over to a press statement I sent out yesterday in the name of the Free Society Institute. My first Tweet on the murders was to say this:

A predictable flurry of trolling resulted, with some even thinking that I was being an apologist for religious extremism. Apologies (not really) for complicating biases with these nuances, but my sentiment in no way denies that religion, and Islam, can play a causal role in generating violence such as this.

My point was that it’s a glib, and oftentimes lazy, inference to draw that it’s “religion” that causes these things. I would think it rare that religion per se makes you homicidal, but that instead, folk who are capable of such things will find religious inspiration for doing them.

If your religion allows you to be led to such barbarism, there’s barbarism in you to be exploited. That doesn’t mean that religion X (or ideology X) cannot be a causal factor in barbarism more often than religion or ideology Y.

To be clear: Islam should certainly bear some of the blame, in that if your religious texts or traditions are capable of inspiring people to do these barbaric things, they are in that respect toxic, and antithetical to liberty, flourishing and security.

The simple truth is that the gods could have been far clearer. Even if you’re religious, and want to assert that terrorists are misinterpreting the scriptures, you should be struck by the absurdity of your god not having chosen the simple path of saying: “hey there! While you’re having your arguments about what I want you to do and not do, remember that I don’t want you to kill, ever”.

Because she didn’t say that – or because she says things in a way that allows people to read her as saying the opposite, this is religion’s problem and religion’s fault, and people of faith can’t wash their hands of it.

And to a significant extent, they don’t. Which is why, as I said in the Tweet, the most important feature of yesterday’s killers is that they are killers, and not that they are Muslim.

The Free Society Institute stands with Charlie Hebdo and all defenders of free speech and civil liberty in condemning the murder of two police officers, three cartoonists, and eight journalists in Paris on January 7.

As offended as those of the Muslim faith might find blasphemy to be, that offence pales into insignificance compared to the brutality of Islamo-fascist terrorism such as this. Being offended does not grant one warrant for ending the lives of others.

The right to free speech does not, however, say anything about when it is wise to exercise that freedom or not.Neither does the fact that these terrorists were recorded as shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” during their attack tell us anything incontrovertible about Islam in general.

Tragedies such as these, that shock and confuse, can make easy answers attractive to us, in that they can lend themselves to stereotype and simplistic analysis. This is not the time for either of these.

Instead, this is the time for two simple things: to express our sympathy to all who are affected, and second, to recognise that we are all affected, in that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of civilised society, and is slightly more under threat to us all in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attack.

Jacques Rousseau
Chairperson – Free Society Institute

Modern challenges with regard to free speech

Below, some notes on three concepts/arguments related to free speech – concepts that I think have become either more relevant (thus important to understand) or more complicated in the last 10 or so years (thanks in large part to the rapid uptake of social media like Twitter).

“Censorship” and the right to free speech

xkcd say pretty much what I’d want to, so let’s start with them (remember to read the mouseover text).
I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.

Private citizens and companies are perfectly entitled to refuse to broadcast your opinions. It’s no violation of your rights that a comment section gets closed, or that your comment is deleted from a blog.

If someone were to refuse you permission to comment, or delete a comment, this might reveal various unpleasant things about their judgement or character. It might be capricious, it might be rude, it might be cowardly.

But they have a right to publish what they like, whether they make the right choices (in your estimation) or not. You don’t have a right to be published on other people’s platforms.

(On a related note, I suspect I’ll soon be shutting comments down here on Synapses simply because, besides a few reliable folk, there’s little of value that gets added there. If you have anything to say on that topic, this might be your chance to do so.)

Offence & sensitivities

Certain expressions are legally proscribed – here in South Africa, for example, hate speech is going to get you into trouble. If you’re reading this from elsewhere, you might have similar laws.

Those laws could be poorly drafted, and they could even be nonsensical (to you, in that you think that “hate speech” shouldn’t exist as a legal category of speech, or that it shouldn’t be punishable.)

Ignore that issue for the moment. The issue I want to highlight is that there are a range of utterances or ideas that could offend people or simply create discomfort without meeting the threshold for hate speech (or any other relevant legal category of speech).

A recent case was the cancelled Oxford debate on abortion, that was meant to feature Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley. You can read their perspective on the cancellation of the debate by following the links in this piece by the President of the Cambridge Union, and I’d also recommend reading Isabel Hardman’s piece, as she makes some of the good points that O’Neill makes, but less hyperbolically and without being Brendan O’Neill.

The issue here is – how can one avoid the slippery slope whereby any claims of offence or sensitivity eventually become grounds for not expressing a view, while still being compassionate towards people who have legitimate sensitivities on various topics?

The one end of the spectrum is the classic Liberal position of asserting that we’re improved by allowing ourselves to hear things that make you uncomfortable – the truth wins out, we develop better arguments against falsehoods, and we might get to “toughen up” along the way.

But these things are all easy to say from a position of intellectual and material comfort, and less so when you’re the threatened group. So, there’s serious room for compassion, especially for Humanists like me. However, there’s a tension between these goals, and it’s one that’s difficult to resolve.

The unfettered free speech argument doesn’t automatically get the win, in my view, because of issue #3, namely:

The corn-dealer’s house is right next-door

Many folk who defend free speech refer to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, and rightly so, as it makes a superb case for when speech should and shouldn’t be restricted. But it was written in in 1869, and it’s possible that perfectly reasonable arguments for then are not entirely reasonable for now – or that, if they are, they lead to rather different policy conclusions than was the case for Mill’s time. Take this passage from Chapter 3:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

There’s the problem in a nutshell: if you agree with Mill’s argument, give some thought to how we should implement the argument in terms of comment policies, Facebook and Twitter terms of use and the like.

Mill is talking about a mob of people who need to be riled up to the extent that they will set aside the time to make a plan, then congregate at someone’s house to protest. It takes serious affront to result in that sort of motivation, because you need to make an investment to lodge your protest.

Today, especially on something like Twitter, a ready-made mob of thousands can be assembled instantly. They might not even know you, or understand what you did “wrong”, because your misstep can get re-tweeted by someone influential, with everyone else simply jumping on a bandwagon.

Reading one abusive Tweet is no problem for most, but imagine reading hundreds of them, from people who would likely never have the courage to stand outside your door, shouting abuse as in Mill’s scenario above. If he thought that the mob outside your house should be controlled, and if you agree, should the social media mob also not be controlled?

Liberal bullying can still be bullying

To quote a September 2013 version of me,

there’s an arms-race of hyperbole going on, especially on the Left, and therefore especially in matters pertaining to social justice. This is understandable, especially because the Right has bombarded the world with similar hyperbole for long enough. But the trend is not a good one, and we should resist it.

It’s not good, partly because we denude language through doing so. More importantly, though, it’s not good because it gives an intrinsic advantage in argument to those who shout the loudest, and who are willing to claim that they are most fundamentally or critically hurt. And in the long run, it’s not good because the only rational (or sadly, so it might seem) way to respond to a climate of hypersensitivity is to shut up, and not say anything at all, for fear of offending someone.

EichI’m not at all sure where the dividing line is between expressing justified grievances and bullying someone out of a debate – or out of a job, as happened to Brendan Eich, ex-CEO of Mozilla, yesterday. While it’s true that some viewpoints are not worth entertaining, that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who holds those viewpoints shouldn’t be allowed to, and shouldn’t be allowed to campaign for them without fear of reprisals.

Homophobia is wrong, and harmful – you’ll find plenty of posts over the years highlighting the offence, hurt, injustice and sometimes even murders that can be attributed to homophobia, from the relatively trivial cases of Error Naidoo to the properly odious Scott Lively, who had a part in inspiring the criminalisation of homophobia in Uganda.

However, it’s not at all clear to what extent Brendan Eich is a homophobe at all, unless we define homophobia simply as the belief that certain legal entitlements should be reserved for heterosexual people. Again, I must stress that I personally reject that belief – discrimination based on sexuality is premised on an entirely arbitrary characteristic, and is thus unjust and should be unlawful.


Because as usual, there’s a background issue that needs to influence our reading of a case like this, and that issue is that Eich is a Christian, who believes that marriage is something ordained by God, and reserved for a man and a woman. And for as long as we (or in this case, the USA) respects freedom of religion, that’s not only a legitimate belief to hold, but also a legitimate position to campaign for, and to donate money to defending.

Perhaps we should weaken our respect for freedom of religion, and insist that a church or a minister who wanted to marry anyone should also be willing to officiate marriages for gay couples. If you won’t marry a gay couple, you can’t marry anyone. Perhaps we should argue that if you get tax breaks from government, you should lose them if you discriminate on arbitrary grounds such as sexuality, or race, or gender.

But that’s not where we are, yet, and (some) churches are still operating in a grey zone where their archaic morality is grudgingly accommodated, even in progressive democracies. Maybe it shouldn’t be – but for as long as it is, Eich has a warrant for believing (on his, archaic, standards) that it’s not unjust to deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and that it should be unlawful for them to marry.

This is the cause that Eich was supporting, in that he gave a $1000 donation, in his personal capacity, to a campaign in support of Proposition 8 (that sought to outlaw gay marriage) in California. He wasn’t alone – Proposition 8 passed, meaning that over 50% of voters voted in favour of it, before it was later overturned by the courts.

All of those people who voted for Prop 8 were – and no doubt, still are – wrong. But of those thousands of people, Eich might be the only one who was hounded out of his job, after his donation came to be public knowledge. The dating website, OKCupid, displayed a banner to Mozilla Firefox users, telling them  to change their browsers because of Eich’s position. This and similar moves (e.g. Rarebit apps, who pulled their apps from Firefox), as well as sustained criticism on social media, led Eich to resign (or so we’re told – he might well have been pushed, judging by the Mozilla chairperson’s statement that “We failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community”).

So, in essence, Eich lost his job for being a Christian (of a certain sort). One of my closest friends would (I think – I haven’t checked this detail) hold the same view regarding gay marriage, and is certainly no homophobe in any other sense. I think he’s wrong about marriage and who it should be reserved for – but I would think it even more wrong if he were not able to hold the view he does, for fear of losing his job.

Yet, of course we should be able to express our dissatisfaction, even sometimes outrage, at the things people do and support. As I said at the top, I don’t know where we draw the line. But Eich operating in his personal capacity is a separate thing to his role at Mozilla, and his personal democratic choices are legitimate ones until the law says they are not. He was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs, which are constitutionally protected.

If you think that’s wrong, you need to campaign against freedom of religion, not against Eich.

(Related – an earlier piece on the Chick-fil-A homophobia.)


As submitted to Daily Maverick.

It’s sometimes difficult to escape the feeling that we’re living under the tyranny of the perpetually indignant. Taking the time to think things through and developing a measured response to some hot-button issue is a luxury we’re infrequently allowed. Not only do media outlets thrive on sensation, but readers are also often eager to be the first to express outrage at some new conspiracy, malfeasance or instance of ineptitude.

And so those hot-button issues can get generated out of thin air, then recycled and amplified in the echo-chamber of Twitter and other social media. Last week, Twitter itself became the latest subject of hysterical misinterpretation when they announced their new policies for blocking tweets. As of January 26, tweets (or Twitter accounts) can be blocked on a country-by-country basis rather than globally, as was the case before software refinements made selective blocking possible.

The Forbes’ headline “Twitter commits social suicide” summed up many of the responses, which made accusations of charges of censorship and complicity in killing free speech trend under the hashtag #TwitterBlackout. Some even suggested that the once-plucky underdog had now sold out, and was caving to the (purported) illiberal demands of their new investor, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

But bin Talal only purchased a 3% stake in Twitter, and we have no evidence that he has any interest in dictating policy. We also have no evidence that Twitter’s policy change is a bad thing for free speech. In fact the opposite seems a far more plausible reading, which makes it more the shame that most of the indignant seem to not have bothered to read the policy itself.

It is not the case that Twitter will be monitoring your delight at having found your car keys (in the last place you looked!) or your #occupation of some patch of suburban scrubland. Any blocking (or censorship, for that is what it amounts to) will be reactive rather than proactive, where a party with legal grounds for requesting a takedown of tweets or an account lodges an application with Twitter to do so.

This has always been Twitter’s policy. For example, evidenced claims by film studios of copyright infringement have led to tweets being deleted. The difference between the old policy and the new is that, instead of those tweets being deleted globally, they will only be blocked in the country where that tweet violated the law. If you tweet some pro-Nazi sentiment in Germany (where doing so is illegal), Germans won’t be able to see the tweet but the rest of the world will.

In other words, more people can now see the tweet than was the case before. And if you’re planning a revolution on Twitter, you could always tell your fellow Bolsheviks to simply follow Twitter’s own instructions for changing your country settings to “worldwide”, thereby allowing you to see any tweets, no matter how repressive your situation might be.

What’s more, users in countries where tweets have been blocked will be able to see that something or someone has been blocked. And here Twitter has again done its best to increase rather than decrease transparency, by committing to posting the details of who requested the censorship at Chilling Effects. The “Streisand effect” shows us how exposing attempts at censorship will tend to increase the dissemination of the undesirable material – here made easy not only by changing your Twitter settings, but also by the fact that the same undesirable material, if originating outside the censoring country, will not be blocked by Twitter.

In short, then, Twitter has done nothing to increase the likelihood or frequency of censorship, but instead attempted to obey the laws pertaining in certain jurisdictions without affecting information flow in others. It’s a positive move, and is being conducted in a fully transparent and defensible way. On balance, there’s good reason to suppose it could result in increased protection of free speech.

But for the #TwitterBlackout crowd, evidence takes a back-seat to indignation. Some indignation is of course justified – it shouldn’t be the case that governments attempt to censor speech (arguably, outside of some narrowly-defined cases). That they do so is not Twitter’s fault, and there is nothing that Twitter can do about it. Taking a stand against censorship by refusing to obey local laws would simply result in the complete unavailability of the service, as is the case in China.

Us advocates of free speech, and those campaigning for other causes, can forget that our idealised version of the world collides with the real worlds of politics and pragmatism. It’s not Twitter’s job to share your or my ideological commitments, and to run the risk of being shut down in more places than only China. Here, it’s governments that are censoring, and Twitter is doing is best to minimise the effects of that censorship while spreading its global reach for the sake of profit. That’s their job.

The privilege in not finding things offensive

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

It’s easy to forget that arguments in favour of unfettered free speech often come from positions of privilege. That privilege could be economic, social or educational, but whatever its origin, the result can be a bewilderment at the thought that anybody could find mere words offensive enough to censure.

I’ve made this sort of case before, defending various people and a wide range of utterances – from Floyd Shivambu and Kuli Roberts to Annelie Botes. A consistent thread in those columns has been that we learn nothing by silencing odious voices – that it’s only through being exposed to opinions that make us uncomfortable that we develop defences against them.

Again, it’s easy for some of us to say these sorts of things. It’s easy for me. For others it’s less so, especially if you might have been subjected to years or generations of abuse. So the idealism of a position – mine, broadly speaking – which entails hoping that society will at some point grow up and learn to deal with offence can easily seem rather smug – not to mention condescending.

However, it remains paternalistic to impose constraints on what we’re allowed to read and hear when those constraints are intended to protect us from offence. We don’t have the right to be shielded from all potential offence, even if there may be cases where the offence is simply gratuitous rather than potentially instructive (even if not instructive to the target of the offensive claim, then to the wider audience that is exposed to it).

But conclusions regarding whether a particular case intends gratuitous offence or not are subjective ones, also complicated by the emotive nature of many such cases. A recent case involved an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) decision against River’s Church, who were instructed to take a billboard down following a complaint by Eugene Gerber.

Gerber is reported as saying that the “billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid”. In comments to an article addressing the judgement and the apparent contradiction of an atheist (where atheists often defend their right to offend the religious), Gerber clarified his motivation for the complaint, saying:

During our darker apartheid years, it was ultimately the reaction and pressure from the international community that allowed us to move into a democratic society. And now, as our free speech rights are dying a slow death in South Africa, we once again need the world to take note and join our outcry.

So one atheist in South Africa gets a Christian billboard taken down, and blogs all over the world (atheist and Christian alike) are up in arms about my infringement on free speech. Yet, about a month ago, a Christian had a television commercial taken off air for exactly the same reason, and not even a peep on the internet about free speech. My options were simple, impede on their free speech but the get the message out there that our country needs help, or let them have their billboard and sit back and watch free speech decline. The latter was simply unacceptable.

So as long as their [sic] are people out there who voice the concern at me being able to have a billboard removed, I think I made the right choice. Hopefully the next headline you read is ‘Atheist tries in vain to have billboard removed’.

Limiting free speech for the sake of protecting it is certainly counter-intuitive, yet not obviously mistaken. Gerber could have been attempting to highlight how easily claims of being offended can result in limitations on freedom of speech, thus gesturing at a broader, perhaps systemic problem. But the evidence for this motivation is sketchy – not only because examples of these sorts of limiting moves are easy to find, but also because he appears to be wrong about the facts.

Assuming that the television commercial Gerber is referring to is Unilever’s Axe Excite advertisement, featuring “super-hot angels crashing to Earth” then smashing their halos in order to (presumably) be able to “know” the man wearing the deodorant in question, it’s simply not true that this ASA decision went unnoticed. My browser bookmarks include five newspaper articles and three blog posts – most of them explicitly concerned with whether the ASA was being overly sensitive towards claims of offence.

Just as with the Axe advertisement, one can ask whether the River’s Church billboard was sufficiently offensive to merit censure. While these are subjective judgements, a broader question is whether the ASA should even be placed in a position of needing to make them – especially if they are placed in this position by those who regularly protest the hypersensitivity of others to criticism.

The ASA ruling on the billboard was at least consistent with the Axe ruling. But if a depiction of an atheist having an “empty head” (itself a subjective reading – I’d be happy to entertain the charitable possibility that this image depicts a head lacking in certain beliefs) or believing that they are accidents now meets a threshold of unacceptable offence, then that threshold is far too low.

Regulation of advertisements that make false claims is certainly merited. But in this case, as a colleague (and atheist) pointed out, many of us might know as fact that we are accidents. As for having empty heads, well, as Psalm 14.1 reminds us “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” If a billboard isn’t allowed to call unbelievers fools (on the uncharitable, and more plausible reading), would Gerber now have us petitioning for the Bible to be withdrawn from sale, or edited to remove content offensive to atheists?

Gerber’s complaint to the ASA was hypersensitive and misguided, in that it serves to undermine free speech arguments in more typical cases involving things like blasphemy. But as I’ve indicated, some feel better equipped to shrug off insults than others, and cases like these are thin ends of very thick wedges. Speech (and advertisements are of course a complicated example of speech) can create a climate of hostility, serving as propaganda for encouraging negative attitudes towards certain groups.

I do still hope that we can learn to deal with these insults without feeling the need to run to the courts or the ASA for protection. It remains true that any restrictions on free speech on the basis of offence put us on an unprincipled and very slippery slope. And, as I’ve argued before, freedom to cause offence doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for us to do. Somehow, though, I wish we could find a mechanism to shut some people up – but only the deserving ones, of course.

Kuli Roberts, and the right to (offensive) free speech

As published in Daily Maverick

Amongst the usual bundle of perceptive, contentious and misguided comments, tweets and columns on the Kuli Roberts issue, a response from Ferial Haffajee merits attention: “racism’s best antidote is anti-racism, not reconciliation”. Reconciliation and forgiveness involve a tolerance, and a sensitivity, the time for which has passed. We know that there are many racists, sexists and other types of bigot out there – and knowing who they are, and letting them have their say, is the only way we are able to track our progress in changing their minds. Continue reading “Kuli Roberts, and the right to (offensive) free speech”

Responsible reporting: At what cost?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Free speech is not the only value that democratic societies subscribe to. Nor does, or should, our commitment to free speech always have to trump competing values such as national security or personal dignity. But the principle of free speech nevertheless stands in need of exceptional, and exceptionally strong, counterarguments in cases where we are told that it is not permissible to broadcast or publish any particular point of view.

This commitment to an open marketplace of ideas rests on the belief that each person should have access to the points of view in circulation, so that he or she is able to exercise their right to moral independence by considering the ideas themselves. As Mill reminds us, compromising free speech costs us both the opportunity to hear things that are true, which can help to correct errors; and also to hear things that are false, where the truth is strengthened by “its collision with error”. Continue reading “Responsible reporting: At what cost?”

Bloggers for a free press (#SpeakZA)

Last week, shocking revelations concerning the activities of the ANC Youth League spokesperson Nyiko Floyd Shivambu came to the fore. According to a letter published in various news outlets, a complaint was laid by 19 political journalists with the Secretary General of the ANC, against Shivambu. This complaint letter detailed attempts by Shivambu to leak a dossier to certain journalists, purporting to expose the money laundering practices of Dumisani Lubisi, a journalist at the City Press. The letter also detailed the intimidation that followed when these journalists refused to publish these revelations.

We condemn in the strongest possible terms the reprisals against journalists by Shivambu. His actions constitute a blatant attack on media freedom and a grave infringement on Constitutional rights. It is a disturbing step towards dictatorial rule in South Africa. We call on the ANC and the ANC Youth League to distance themselves from the actions of Shivambu. The media have, time and again, been a vital democratic safeguard by exposing the actions of individuals who have abused their positions of power for personal and political gain.

The press have played a vital role in the liberation struggle, operating under difficult and often dangerous conditions to document some of the most crucial moments in the struggle against apartheid. It is therefore distressing to note that certain people within the ruling party are willing to maliciously target journalists by invading their privacy and threatening their colleagues in a bid to silence them in their legitimate work.

We also note the breathtaking hubris displayed by Shivambu and the ANC Youth League President Julius Malema in their response to the letter of complaint. Shivambu and Malema clearly have no respect for the media and the rights afforded to the media by the Constitution of South Africa. Such a response serves only to reinforce the position that the motive for leaking the so-called dossier was not a legitimate concern, but an insolent effort to intimidate and bully a journalist who had exposed embarrassing information about the Youth League President. We urge the ANC as a whole to reaffirm its commitment to media freedom and other Constitutional rights we enjoy as a country.


Cape Times and Argus – holocaust denialists?

Taryn Hodgson – who you’ve read about previously, when she impersonated the typical student by a) writing a letter to the UCT student newspaper, and b) making little sense, is at it again. This time she focuses on (b) exclusively, and swaps her fake student hat out for the one worn in her capacity as the international co-ordinator of the Christian Action Network (CAN). Her current concern relates to the evil tolerated by the South African press:

In what appears to be a case of censorship by the press, The Cape Times and Argus have again refused to place an obituary notice (for aborted babies),” said Christian Action Network (CAN) international co-ordinator Taryn Hodgson in a statement.

The newspapers had refused to publish the advertisement in their classified “Deaths” and “Personal” sections, Hodgson said.

“Freedom of speech seems to be undermined when newspaper editors censor obituary notices and refuse to give appropriate media coverage to the hidden holocaust of 900 000 South African babies killed by abortion,” she said.

Without wanting to get into anything pesky like “science” – which would involve Taryn accommodating irritating details like EEG’s only showing brain activity around 30 weeks, therefore making the claim that “babies” are being killed rather unsustainable – Taryn’s arguments are again rather peculiar. The quite reasonable explanation provided by Independent Newspapers editor-in-chief Chris Whitfield (who said that it would be “inappropriate to publish the anti-abortion obituary in the “Deaths” section”, as “such advertisements would violate the ‘sensibilities for people who use the columns to commemorate loved ones'”) was dismissed as “hypocritical” by Taryn on the grounds that the newspapers’ classified sections “often contain legitimately offensive material such as strip joint advertisements”.

So, as our arbiter of what is “legitimately” offensive, Taryn wants us to believe that a) it’s morally incontrovertible that strip joints are offensive, and that b) it’s perfectly acceptable for my obituary for a dead mother, brother, wife, etc., who I didn’t want to die, and who I probably miss, should appear alongside an obituary (or obituaries) for 900 000 zygotes, blastocysts and foetuses, who may at some point have developed into babies that the parents presumably did not want to live? That seems rather offensive to me – or at least it would if my spouse’s obituary were published on the same day. And the lack of sensitivity displayed by CAN is amplified by the fact that their freedom to have their viewpoint heard is undeniable: they were welcome to publish their ode to lost (and fictional) souls in other sections of the newspaper, and they live in a country where their mystic mumbo-jumbo is fully tolerated, and even encouraged by our political leaders.

And even on her own standards, there’s a final peculiarity: Taryn will be leading a march to Parliament on February 1 in protest against the “thousands of babies, killed by abortion, who have never had a funeral”. Is she not aware that there are plenty of other babies (real and fake) killed by TB and AIDS (etc.) who die without funerals? Can we take her seriously until she insists on publishing obituaries for them, too – or are they less important for the purposes of this tasteless PR stunt in the service of Jesus?