Netflix’s gay Jesus film: Can freedom of speech go too far?

Nii Ntreh Dec 17, 2019 at 01:30pm

December 17, 2019 at 01:30 pm | Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

December 17, 2019 at 01:30 pm | Opinions & Features

Poster for The First Temptation of Christ. Photo Credit: Netflix

The giant streaming service Netflix is under attack from people all over the world after the company put up for viewing, a comedy that depicts Jesus as a gay man.

From New Zealand to South Africa and to Brazil, there have arisen, millions of voices protesting the 46-minute film titled The First Temptation of Christ.

In what Christians are calling sacrilegious, critics say the film is an offensive and tasteless joke on the Biblical Jesus Christ and the faith of Christians.

In The First Temptation, Jesus Christ takes a presumed boyfriend, Orlando, home to meet the holy family.

The furore in Brazil has translated into over two million signatures petitioning Netflix to pull down the comedy show. But the company is yet to comment.

Brazil is home to both the film’s creators, Porta dos Fundos, and a deeply religious population including over 100 million Catholics.

In defence of what they have produced, Porta dos Fundos told The Guardian that the group “values artistic freedom and humour through satire on the most diverse cultural themes of our society and believes that freedom of expression is an essential construction for a democratic country.”

With this issue comes a number of moral and political problems unavoidable even by a generation that hopes things go away if we do not talk about them. We are being asked to take second and third hard looks at the modern understanding of the right to free expression.

Free expression is contentious as part of the democratic experiment, necessarily because we do not know where to draw the boundaries. The problem is even gloomier when you realize that democracy is supposed to find strength in the uniqueness of individual thought and expression.

There are truly fifty-and-one shades of grey to this centuries-old problem and none of those shades comes close to black or white. The best political thinkers have only found working theories, useful to us until they are not.

Usually, in cautioning us about free expression, we are asked not to shout “fire!” in a cinema, as if that helps a serious philosophical question. The advice is well-intended but also hollow.

Consider these: When is it free expression? Who can have it and where? Should all forms of expressions take into cognisance the feelings of others? And if someone says they are offended by how and what you express, do you cease expressing yourself?

Should expressions serve some utilitarian purposes at all? Do we understand what it means to curtail expression?

How about who you can piss off and why?

The last question is famously important in these times of ideological tribalism. One of the qualms raised by those Netflix has pissed off is that Netflix will never put on offer a satire about the founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammad.

Muslims, at least those of the orthodoxy, have clearly drawn a line in the sand on the image of Prophet Muhammad. Some may even go to extreme lengths to emphasize how much they dislike caricatures of the prophet.

In the West, liberals tend to be sensitive to these sentiments expressed by Muslims. But their unwillingness to have an equivalent zeal when the Christian Jesus is the butt of the joke does not go unnoticed by Christian fundamentalists.

This places the Netflix hullabaloo in treacherous dimensions. The next time authoritarian figures like Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump tap into Christian fundamentalism for their political campaigns, they will have fingers ready to point at Netflix.

But this entire question of whether it is right to produce a gay Jesus film plays out in a capitalist market space. Perhaps, Netflix’s most useful characteristic is that it has more things to watch than a satire on Jesus Christ.

The company’s PR team would by now wonder why they cannot dismiss the current problem with the slogan, “Choose other shows and chill.”

Expressions are a phenomenon so central to democracy that any plans of re-engineering which would unduly affect the syntax of our freedoms need to be shelved eternally. Expressions are only human, and if the modern democratic experiment is to stay true to our humanity, it would define freedom as the celebration of those things that are human.

Those things that are as human as being gay or black.

We cherish dissent and especially recognize the prisoners of conscience. It is all well and good but it also seems the only difference between those situations and what Porta dos Fundos has found itself in is simply a question of who is worth pissing off.

All forms of expressions are bound to be rebellious, insulting, demeaning and hurtful to someone somewhere. Nothing is quite sacred when everyone is encouraged to have an opinion.

Freedom of expression is one of those things you can only hope people will responsibly undertake. We cannot pretend to legislate our way into a perfect society.

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