Title: Sado-Maso-Christians? Credit: Craig Young Comment Tuesday 6th April 2004 - 12:00pm1081209600 Article: 208 Rights
A gay perspective on Mel Gibson's gore-fest movie Passion of the Christ' by Craig Young. Is Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic hate propaganda, as some members of the US Jewish community fear? And if so, then how might the lesbian and gay community react to this controversial film? Historically, the gay male community has adopted an anti-censorship stance when it comes to censorship of our own erotic media. Indeed, we have OUT! magazine and Lawrence Publications to thank for Howley v Lawrence Publishing [1986], the pivotal court decision that ruled that state censorship should only be deployed in cases where there was evidence of demonstrable harmful media effects. If anything, some would argue that gay male erotic media has productive or 'pro- social' effects, in that it often depicts gay sex as guilt-free, and there have been numerous debates about how to depict images of safe sex negotiation within this genre. Cindy Patton wrote an excellent article on this subject in the late eighties. As for the lesbian community, it has been split on generational and philosophical grounds over these issues. For radical feminists and those in the anti-rape movement particularly, heterosexual male-oriented pornography was a causal factor in legitimising heterosexual male sexual violence. However, socialist feminists, SM dykes and lesbian erotic media experimenters themselves argued that state censorship was more harmful to women, as it could be used to censor access to women's reproductive and sexual health information, feminist art and lesbian-centred erotic media- which has happened in Canada due to conservative interpretations of 'community standards' legislation. In the case of the Christian Right, their position is contradictory. Pat Bartlett stalked the land purse-lipped and quivering in indignation at the proliferation of publicly available heterosexual and gay male erotic media during the seventies and eighties. Unfortunately, she ran afoul of a genetically inherited cardiac condition, and David Lane became Secretary of her Society for Promotion of Community Standards after her death in 2000. According to its last National Library of New Zealand newsletter, SPCS has one thousand five hundred members left. It annoys film festival organisers through repeated futile forays against programme fare, but is otherwise powerless to interfere with lesbian and gay media due to its shrunken, aging and poorly educated membership. During the nineties, positions became reversed over the vexed issue of two US anti-gay fundamentalist videos. Due to the passage of the Films, Videos and Publications Act 1993, there was some legal question about whether there was a distinct clause related to prohibition of anti-gay and other 'hate media' on grounds of potential harm to vulnerable communities like ours. The Court of Appeal judged that there was no such offense, and the two anti-gay videos were allowed wider distribution. Now, it is the turn of Mel Gibson's controversial 'Passion of the Christ.' In this case, it is the US Jewish community that has raised objections to the content of the film in question. Gibson may not have intended it, but the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has expressed concern that "Passion of the Christ" taps into the anti-Semitic medieval genre known as 'passion plays' which blamed Jews for the trial and crucifixion of Christ, and legitimised pogroms and massacres against members of that religious and ethnic community during the European Middle Ages, as well as reinforcing anti-Semitic theological traditions that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust of the thirties and forties and resultant genocide of six million European Jews (as well as Sinti/Romani gypsies, and starvation and overworking of one hundred thousand gay men during the same period). Is "Passion" hate propaganda? If so, how should it be perceived? According to the ADL, many white supremacist and anti-Semitic neofascist organisations have used anti-Semitic interpretations of the film's content to foster anti-Semitism within the United States. In New Zealand, the Office of Film and Literature Classification judged that the extreme violence of the depiction of torture and crucifixion was sufficient for an R16 certification. The SPCS objected to this, and has appealed against this classification, on the basis that younger fundamentalists and conservative Catholics should be entitled to view this film due to religious freedom, which is enshrined in our Bill of Rights Act 1990, as well as freedom of cultural expression. It will be interesting to see how local anti-Semitic hate groups, like the New Zealand League of Rights, react to this film. The New Zealand Jewish community does not seem to have adopted this perspective, unlike their American counterparts. What does social science have to say about issues of hate propaganda and media effects on social behaviour? According to 'media effects' scholarship, mass media depictions of violence and anti-social behaviour have to contend with other influences on the upbringing of children and adolescents. These influences may reinforce or challenge mass media depictions of violence. If someone is socially isolated and belongs to a violent and dysfunctional family and/or peer group, then there may be increased risk of resultant violence. However, it is probably violent family behaviour that has produced this outcome, because family upbringing is a far more intensive factor than consumption of mass media. So should we ban hate propaganda, if it is violent childrearing practices that may be to blame for hate crimes as a greater influence? Developmental psychology also tells us that child psychological development progresses along certain lines, so that realistic depictions of violence may have an effect on children at eight years of age, but it might be the case that historical distance reduces the possible effect. Are fundamentalist Christians more oriented toward the use of violent childrearing techniques? There is no reliable evidence that this particular causal relationship exists, although the New Zealand Christian Right opposes domestic violence protection orders ('fathers rights' and 'shared parenting'), child sexual abuse intervention and banning physical punishment of children ('parental rights'). In the eighties, Pat Bartlett and the SPCS campaigned against criminalisation of spousal rape. As adolescents may start to question parental religious beliefs, it strikes me that the OFLC's current classification may be useful. By sixteen, teenagers have developed 'strategic reasoning' and can foresee the consequences of actions. They may be able to make decisions about the content of this film themselves when they watch it. It is to be hoped that the New Zealand Jewish community is permitted to distribute materials about the role of passion plays in anti-Semitic pogroms during the Middle Ages, as well. Happily, mainline Christian denominations have responded to the concerns of the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish community organisations in the United States, and condemned anti-Semitic interpretations of the trial and crucifixion of Christ, as well as the historical role that 'passion plays' played in the Middle Ages. What about religious freedom? There is a difference between religious freedom and religious 'liberty'- the latter means that there are no constraints on religious organisations whatsoever, and they can trample on the rights of others at will. Fortunately, there have been court cases that have ruled that Jehovahs Witnesses cannot interfere with children's blood transfusions, so religious 'liberty' is not an absolute if it threatens the rights of others. Unfortunately, though, this would have to be a direct and tangible threat. Does the "Passion" represent such a threat? No-one is asking that it should be prohibited outright, but the OFLC's existing classification decision should be upheld. Children may lack the ability to critically assess realistic depictions of interpersonal violence and it is possible that it might reinforce existing violent and abusive parental childrearing practices. On that basis, its existing classification should remain in place. Recommended Reading: Anti-Defamation League (US Jewish advocacy organisation): John Freedman: Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing Scientific Evidence: Toronto: University of Toronto Press: 2002. Ann Hagell and Tim Newburn: Young Offenders and Media: Viewing Habits and Preferences: Policy Studies Institute: London: 1994. Carolyn Moynihan: A Stand for Decency: Patricia Bartlett and the Society for Promotion of Community Standards: Upper Hutt: SPCS: 1995. Cindy Patton "Safe Sex and the Pornographic Vernacular" in Bad Object Choices (ed) How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video: San Fransisco: Bay Press: 1988. SPCS website: Craig Young - 6th April 2004    
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