Brazil censor the First Temptation of Christ; but more freedom is the answer, not less

I have previously commented on the blasphemous Netflix show The First Temptation of Christ here. That was my case, not for banning the programme, but for not watching it and then choosing to do what you will with your Netflix subscription privately. You can read that post for why I make that case.

The reason I raise this again is to make a slightly different point. The headlines are no longer speaking of Christians up in arms about the programme – which most people can and will ignore – but something altogether more serious that they can’t ignore. A judge in Brazil has ordered Netflix to remove the show from the Brazilian version of the streaming service. This judgement overturns a previous ruling and stands until a higher court dissents. You can read the Guardian report here.

It is interesting how the reports are not stating this as something to be lauded. Clearly, many people in Brazil and across the world were highly offended by this output. Frankly, I found it offensive. But personal offence should not be a ground for banning something. As I said in my original post, it is a ground for ignoring it and not watching it. But it is striking that those who would typically applaud the closing down of “backward” religious views and the prohibition of what they term “hate speech” are now aghast that culturally Christian Brazil might label the new orthodoxy as blasphemous and then close down what many in Western Europe simply take as legitimate.

Historically, social liberals argued that it was social conservatives – especially religious conservatives – who were all too ready to shut things down in the name of blasphemy. Let us watch whatever we want, let us say what we want, let us express ourselves as we want and if you don’t like it just don’t look, they would say.

Then the tables turned.

The social conservatives began arguing that the progressive liberals were closing down speech and expression all in the name of their own secularist blasphemy laws. Let us watch what we want, let us say what we want, let us express ourselves as we want and if you don’t like it don’t listen has been the cry of many for the last 20 years or so in the face of an increasingly intolerant brand of liberalism. Now we see the pendulum show signs of a swing back and the social liberals cannot fathom why somebody would censor their right to say what they want using almost identical arguments to those that they have employed in recent years.

Of course, there are two consistent ways of navigating our way through this. First, if we are inclined to make arguments regarding hate speech, then we must be prepared for those who find our positions offensive to shut us down on the same grounds. The problem with this is that it is a zero-sum game. Eventually, there is nothing anybody can say because someone, somewhere might deem it a little too nasty. To put it another way, those who live by cancel culture, will be cancelled by cancel culture. But if we do want to insist ‘that’s offensive’ is a legitimate ground for closing something down – even if we try to safeguard it a little by saying that ‘that’s offensive’ is only valid if it is offensive to a sufficient number of people – we have to accept that we will face cancellation as significant numbers of people who do not think like we do inevitably use it to see our views deemed verboten.

The other way to ensure we are consistent is to accept that blasphemy laws – whether religious or secular – are not viable. Whilst this would allow us to air things that others find deeply offensive, the pay off is that they may say things that we find equally offensive. We may have the right to utter whatever form of words we wish, conveying whatever ideas we may wish, whilst others have the right to do the same. The First Temptation of Christ would, indeed, be available to watch as people wish to watch it, but the Christians offended by it may equally freely express their offensive gospel and similarly unpalatable doctrinal positions to those who don’t like them.

The thing is, only the second of those options really works. Not just because the first leads to nobody able to say almost anything, but because only the second option offers any sort of alternative for those who demur. If we insist that offensive things must be banned, those who disagree simply have no option but to no longer say or express whatever it is they nonetheless continue to think in reality. But if we say all views must be permitted, the one who demurs can nonetheless choose not to listen and ignore the content that they find so distasteful. Prohibition leads to a winner-takes-all solution; freedom of expression allows for each party to express or ignore whatever speech and content they so dislike.

I fear, however, we will end up with more of this pendulum swinging. Prohibition so often seems to accompany power. While social conservative hold power, they ban what they perceive to be objectionable as expressed by social liberals. While social liberals simply ban what they find objectionable as expressed by social conservatives. Only a proper commitment to the freedoms of expression and speech can offer us any sort of reasonable outcomes whereby those who wish to speak are able and those who wish not to hear can take steps not to do so. The answer, as so often, is not less freedom but more.