Friday, April 28, 2017

"Insulting or Defaming Religion" and the University--A Story of Christus Ranae

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

One of the more interesting trends in the management by universities of the spaces within which discourse and engagement is supposed to occur, are issues revolving around religion.  That management, of course, is always subject to whatever is fashionable among the managerial classes at the university and those they serve.  Yet universities also serve, when it suits, the ideals they are constantly invoking in their efforts to compete effectively in the market for student (as input commodities to generate revenue) and output markets (enterprises willing to hire the commodities produced. In the U.K. many universities appear to have moved the line of management from expression to the protection not just of sensibilities but of the integrity of the belief systems of religious institutions themselves. (See, e.g., here "London South Bank University's Code of Practice for Freedom of Speech, which warns students that one definition of an 'unlawful meeting' is one "at which there is a likelihood that the speaker(s) may… commit blasphemy"").  How might that be approached in the United States (e.g., here and here)?

This post provides a brief discussion that frames the issue and an example of the sort of mundane events that may trigger more profound discussion.

These contradictions tend to mirror those facing states as they seek to navigate a narrow path between the facilitation of free discourse (within the constraints of national political culture), the natural efforts of institutional religion to avoid any challenge to their theology, ethics, or practice, and the realities that popular hysteria directed at ant group can produce violence that itself threatens the social order (and worse when that hysteria is directed by the state or for the benefit of those that control the state apparatus).  There is a fine line, for example, between the encouragement of statements that those outsiders identify as Jews use the blood of Muslims for their Passover Matzah (see, e.g., here) and the argument that Judaism by new covenants between some divine manifestation and people who now organize themselves as Christians or Muslims (e.g., here).  Yet the clear distinction is harder than it appears top police, especially at its edges--is The Last Temptation of Christ blasphemy, art, or the expression of a particular view of theology that is sacred and protected to its creator and those who embrace it? Can it be all these things and avoid suppression by the state, though not the moral judgement of those inclined to give them? (See, e.g., here; criticism here, here, and here). Neither states nor individuals, nor religions nor the international community has been able to come to anything appearing to resemble consensus. Incitement, expression, debate, defamation, the emergence of new religions?--around these conclusions states and religions seek to wrap the power of the state through law. 

This is reflected especially in the work of the United Nations whose inability to produce any form of consensus on the issue reflects the disarray internationally with respect to religion. In the international arena that has put organs like the U.N. Human Rights establishment in Geneva in a bit of a quandary.  On the one hand they have encouraged the freedom of speech; on the other there have been strong efforts to protect religion against criticism through the enactment and enforcement of "insult to religion" laws.  Many states have already enacted them (See, e.g., HERE).  And they have produced their own sets of abysmal injustice, usually serving as a means through which the dominant religion in a state can use the government to protect itself from criticism, discipline its own followers and to ensure the subordination (or suppression) of other religions. Pakistan provides a notorious example (from Western perspectives, but of course less so from its own; here).

On the other hand, the previous High Commissioner for Human Rights sought to develop a set of balancing standards to mediate between incitement to hatred of local communities and the protection of speech that questions the tenants and practices of religion.  In its Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the expert workshops on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial, or religious hatred (A/HRC/22/17/Add 4; 11 Jan. 2013) it was noted,
9. Properly balancing freedom of expression and the prohibition of incitement to hatred is no simple task. Let me state clearly that any limitations to this fundamental freedom must remain within strictly defined parameters flowing from the international human rights instruments, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Article 19, paragraph 3, of the Covenant lays down a clear test by which the legitimacy of such restrictions may be assessed. However, further guidance is needed in the real world when weighing freedom of expression against the prohibition of incitement to hatred. 
10. First, one should realize that the question of distinguishing those forms of expression that should be defined as incitement to hatred and thus prohibited is contextual and the individual circumstances of each case, such as local conditions, history, cultural and political tensions, must be taken into account. An independent judiciary is therefore a vital component in the process of effectively adjudicating cases related to incitement to hatred.

11. Second, restrictions must be formulated in a way that makes clear that its sole purpose is to protect individuals and communities belonging to ethnic, national or religious groups, holding specific beliefs or opinions, whether of a religious or other nature, from hostility, discrimination or violence, rather than to protect belief systems, religions or institutions as such from criticism. The right to freedom of expression implies that it should be possible to scrutinize, openly debate and criticize belief systems, opinions and institutions, including religious ones, as long as this does not advocate hatred that incites violence, hostility or discrimination against an individual or group of individuals.

12. Third, with regard to domestic sanctions, it is essential to make a careful distinction between (a) forms of expression that should constitute a criminal offence; (b) forms of expression that are not criminally punishable, but may justify a civil suit; and (c) forms of expression that do not give rise to criminal or civil sanctions, but still raise concerns in terms of tolerance, civility and respect for the convictions of others.

But these standards are vague, as well, and could see wildly different application even between regions of the same nation. (See esp. ¶ 29).  Thus, the cultural sensibilities and political traditions of the United States are not those of Pakistan (nor is Pakistan burdened by those of the United States) and the cultural sensibilities of one ought not to drive the other.  Each, however, ought to bear the consequences of the choices they make in furthering the objectives of organized and institutionalized religion as both a construct beyond the state and one in which the state might serve as an instrument while at the same time serving as a source of regulation (see, e.g., here).  

For the university, this provides little guidance,e specially where religious institutions and their adherents, eager to protect themselves and their systems might be sensitive to what appears to be a threat or assault on its beliefs, practices or customs. The university finds itself here in a double bind--its legitimacy is grounded in its willingness to be open to debate, even about the more sensitive subjects.  Yet as a creature of the state and culture within which it is  situated, even those investigations can have significant societal consequences. What appears to be the case, however, is that the willingness of American society to tolerate a very wide framework for such engagement, one that lasted for almost a generation, might be shrinking--at least in its societal aspects, or merely changing to suit the times.   

No answers can be sensibly offered in this respect.  Cultures are mutable things, and the university is increasingly dependent on societal toleration for its activities.  The boundary lines between the ability of religion to project its societal power to discipline the activities of non-adherents in their own production of speech, and social toleration (or encouragement) of such projections will continue to change (e.g., here).  In that context it is important to determine whether there is a role for the state--through law--in ensuring that the societal power of religion (or non-religion) does not overwhelm the political cultures that remain enshrined in the domestic legal orders of the United States which might also be reflected in the practices of the university (see, e.g., here). And in this later respect, the most profoundly difficult question--that universities might not get right--is the balancing between free inquiry and the production of knowledge balanced against (1) conformity to the societal expectations of those on which the university relies for its survival and the (2) desires of the stakeholders within its own ranks.

A recent story drives home the point.  And it suggests the way that dialogue is now constructed within the university.  The story follows.

Penn State’s Giant Crucified Frog: Edgy Art or “Anti-Christian Hate Speech”? A flayed amphibian, a seven-foot-tall cross, and a professor on a crusade.
By Victor Fiorillo | April 27, 2017 at 10:55 am




We’re pretty sure that no one has ever written a story before about the art program at Penn State’s Abington campus, but when there’s a crucified frog involved, well, obviously we took notice.

Last week, a new student show, “Jonathan’s Descent,” was hung inside the art gallery at Penn State Abington. The show is part of the school’s interdisciplinary “TransMedia Narratives” program, consisting of a series of artistic creations and a graphic novel that together tell a story.

The centerpiece of the show — or at least the one getting all of the attention — is Christus Ranae, Latin for “Frog Christ,” a seven-foot sculpture of a frog on a cross. The frog is made of clay, and the cross was devised from reclaimed railroad wood. There’s also a barbed-wire crown of thorns around the frog’s head, and gold leaf was used to evoke blood dripping from the wounds caused by the crucifixion.

Artist Ashaundei Smith and his crucified frog sculpture at Penn State Abington, where the artwork is the talk of the campus.

Not everybody is singing the Hallelujah Chorus over it.

Some students and staffers have objected to the crucified frog, and leading the charge is longtime Penn State Abington sociology prof Karen Bettez Halnon, who once made national headlines after she was arrested for some rather animated antics on a flight from Nicaragua to Miami.


At the gallery on Tuesday, Halnon, joined by Penn State Abington science and engineering professor Marcus Besser and some of the students who took offense to the crucified frog, participated in a “teach-in” protest. The day before, Halnon had distributed flyers (seen here) announcing the event. At Tuesday’s teach-in, as many as 60 students and faculty members gathered at the gallery to hear some of the objections.

“This is anti-Christian mockery masquerading as art,” Halnon told us on Wednesday, the day after the teach-in. “I’m a Catholic Christian, and I am extremely offended. This is anti-Christian hate speech. It’s offensive.”

But this is a college campus. Isn’t this a place where students are supposed to sometimes be confronted with things and ideas that challenge their way of thinking and that sometimes, yes, may offend?

“Penn State Abington prominently says and advertises and certifies itself as being ‘no place for hate,’” Halnon says. “Well, this is hateful. If we decided next month to hang up a swastika or hang a transsexual from a rope, then everybody would be crying about it. Or something from Islam. This is all part of the persecution of Christians that is going on in this country right now.”

Smith, a 34-year-old veteran of the United States Air Force, was taken aback when he heard that people were upset with his work, which he says took the better part of a year to complete.

“It’s been really surreal,” he tells Philly Mag. “A lot of people are questioning my intent. I myself profess to be a Christian, and I think the imagery is not offensive — because of my intent.”

Smith, who expects to graduate in 2019, explains how the work is just one part of a larger narrative told by the entire show and the accompanying graphic novel, and his concern is that the people who are outraged by the sculpture aren’t taking it in its full context or taking the time to understand what it all means on a larger scale.

“It doesn’t matter what you intended,” Halnon insists. “The impact is the impact. It’s like with sexual harassment — although the gravity of this is so much greater. It doesn’t matter what your intent is when you sexually harass someone. What matters is how they feel. Similarly, once you release art out into the public, you are responsible for it, and I’m not uneducated in terms of art. I’ve seen it all at the Louvre, Prado, Prague, Boston, London, Oxford and Vatican. But I know anti-Christian sentiment when I see it.”

We reached out to Besser, Halnon’s companion at the teach-in, to get his take on the sculpture. He declined to comment on the artwork itself, but told us that he thought the teach-in was successful.

“This was an excellent opportunity to think about the hard questions,” says Besser. “And the hard question I had in mind in this was was, is there some point when a piece of art crosses over to hate speech? Some feel attacked because a sacred image is desecrated, and the artists in the show feel that they’ve been attacked. We didn’t answer any questions or solve and problems, but I do think we all got something out of it.”

Penn State Abington officials that we spoke with say they intend to leave the sculpture exactly where it is.

“I am so proud of our students and their composure at the teach-in,” says Penn State Abington senior art lecturer Bill Cromar. “They resisted the pitfalls of logical fallacy, ad hominem attack, rhetorical stonewalling, reactionary emotionalism, and lack of empathy that can so easily undermine one’s position when trying to defend difficult, nuanced and contextually driven artwork.”

The show officially opens on Friday, and Halnon says she hasn’t decided what the next move is. We asked her if she’d be leading a protest at the opening.

“I’ve got papers to grade,” she replied.

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