Celebrate the freedom to offend

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THERE are times when I am glad I don’t live in the great US of A.

Especially in the lead up to Christmas where, in the US, knives are sharpened, strategies planned and battlelines are drawn between the Christians and Secularists.

Mostly the fights are legal stoushes over the placement of Christmas nativity scenes on public land, but they also include which carols are sung in schools, what prayers are said at which events and, of course, the fearsome lobbying over whether a department store uses “Merry Christmas” or the less offensive “Happy Holidays”.

Therefore, it is nice to be in Australia where only the occasional summer Christmas bee flies into someone’s bonnet. Instead of dragging each other into court over different beliefs and expressions of those beliefs, we seem more content to allow religious imagery and messages in the public sphere, within reason of course.

Christmas is one of the only national times we truly have anymore that helps us not only to focus on relationships, love and generosity, but also invites us to reflect on the big questions of meaning in our lives. In reality though, perhaps it is just too hot to really cause a fuss about people wanting to celebrate their faith and culture.

There is one area where we have to be careful to avoid slipping into the adversarial US Christmas model though, and that is laws around “offence”.
Every now and then a politician, journalist or lawyer seeks to test out the idea that there should be limits on freedom of speech and religion if they could be seen to “offend” an individual or group. An example of this is Christmas in Belgium where they have replaced the capital Christmas tree with an art sculpture to avoid offence.

Comedian Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) points out that humour would be severely affected if we were no longer allowed to offend people’s beliefs, and goes on to say: “The freedom to criticise ideas is one of the fundamental freedoms of society”.

Freedom of expression, religion and speech are the backbone to what has made Australia such an accepting place. The free exchange of ideas, however daft or hurtful they may appear to others, is critical if our society is to flourish.

So this Christmas hug a pine tree, visit a church, or better yet watch Mr. Bean’s Christmas special when he plays with the nativity scene, but also remember that debate and the risk of offence can lead to truth, something well worth celebrating this Christmas.

Nick Jensen is a director of the ACT Australian Christian Lobby

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