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Thursday, 21 April 2016

The age of inverted meanings

YOU have to hand it to some people. They can be quite barefaced hypocrites when it suits them.

The same people who say that “too much freedom is a bad thing” can suddenly invoke freedom of speech when someone they like is banned from speaking. Usually it’s not someone telling them anything new, because new ideas would require thinking. And thinking, of course, should be banned.

But if someone confirms their opinions, no matter how wrongheaded they may be, then suddenly a whole new breed of “human rights defenders” sprout up.

These are what I call the Human Rights Are Good But (HRAGB) defenders. They are ready and willing to fight to the death to defend their own human rights. But not anyone else’s.

So for example, if anyone with a different point of view wants to speak, these HRAGB will protest because those people will cause “confusion”.

By now we should know that anyone who can think is likely to be confused while those who cannot, or refuse to, are the “enlightened” ones. This is the Age of Inverted Meanings after all.

But if they or their ilk want to speak and others protest, then immediately the protesters are trampling on their so-called freedom of speech. Never mind if they use that freedom to tell others that they may not speak and if they do, they ought to be prepared for dire consequences.

It makes you reflect on how the word “freedom” has been so abused these days. If you talk about the freedom to think, others will come back and talk about the freedom to be sheep. If you talk about freedom of expression, they will talk about the freedom to conform to oppressive norms. And nothing gets more abused than the term “freedom of religion”.

To most people who think, freedom of religion means the freedom to decide what faith you want to adhere to, free from coercion of any sort. It means that you are able to study all the faiths that interest you and decide on the one that sits best with you spiritually. It may well be that in the end, it is the same faith that you were born in that most resonates with you, but the journey to that discovery is actually what strengthens it.

But for some people, freedom of religion only means the freedom to embrace one religion and not to ever even consider any others. And for those who happen to be born in a family of that religion, then there is no freedom to decide for themselves, once they are mature enough, to leave it. Or indeed to make the conscious decision to stay. We are supposed to have free will after all.

Such is the distorted version of freedom that some people believe in. Freedom of speech means essentially “I am free to abuse you but you are not free to abuse me”. It also means that “I am a sensitive human being while you are some hard-shelled creature that I don’t recognise”.

I also often hear people talking about “too much freedom”. This is a very curious term because where is the “just enough” bar? Some people have even described the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a document that gives people “excessive” freedom and that “some religions” do the same.

Anyone who actually reads the UDHR will realise that the human rights it describes are very basic and universal (the right to a name, or the right to the highest attainable level of health for example) and that all religions talk about human rights and responsibilities.

The right to life goes hand in hand with the admonition not to kill, for example. There is no such thing as a religion that gives “too much freedom” unless it is some small cult led by a dubious charismatic leader. Certainly none of the major religions of the world can be described that way.

The hypocrisy that some people exhibit about freedom knows no bounds. They defend the right to dress as they want while sneering at those who are different. They tut-tut at personal sins while blithely ignoring major sins like corruption. They talk about always obeying God while at the same time forgetting God’s injunctions to always be just.

What do we do in the face of such hypocrisy? We have to keep calling them out.

When they put on a pious face and then lie, we have to say so. When they chastise others for being sinful, then we should ask if they have no sins themselves. When they are blatantly unjust, those of us who consider ourselves believers must heed God’s word to put right the injustice.

Only then can we have that most desirable freedom from hypocrisy.

  • Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

Tags / Keywords: Marina Mahathir , columnist

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