How Did The Obscene Articles Tribunal Get Hijacked?

(InMediaHK)  How Did The Obscene Articles Tribunal Get Hijacked?  By Leung Man-tao (梁文道).  May 24, 2007.

[in translation]

It is no secret that the Christians are the most important political force in the USA.  One of the reasons why President George W. Bush was re-elected was the strong support from the evangelical Christians.  During his two elections, "moral value" was one of the most attractive issues.  Many evangelical preachers urged the faithful to vote for "a servant of God who will really defend America" and they attacked the Democratic Party candidate John Kerry who supported legal abortion.  Certain conservative Catholics even claimed that all church members who vote for Kerry will be "excommunicated."  Apart from the issue of abortion, these evangelical Christians are also concerned about these other moral issues: stem cell research, euthanasia, same sex marriage, gays in military service, the display of the Ten Commandments at courts, saying morning prayers at public schools, teaching "intelligent design" alongside the theory of evolution in public schools, etc.  These are the standards by which evangelical Christians use in order to distinguish the good people from the bad people, and they also use it as the important basis through which they make their political choices (such as in voting).

In <The Cultural Wars and the Moral Crusade> (Ming Pao, Sunday Life, May 20, 2007), An Tu wrote that this particular trend has spilled outside of the USA.  He pointed out that the "Hong Kong agents of the American rightwing evangelical Christians" have brought this type of "moral crusade" to Hong Kong and are trying to conduct the same type of cleansing campaign in Hong Kong.  He said that "according to their argument, the mass media are the chief culprits for the moral degeneration in society.  But unlike in the United States, they are not content with using their own publications and sermons to rail against the secular world or the mass media.  Instead, they are actively using the mass media and exploiting the media's predilection for sensationalism to create moral issues and cause moral panic."

Here I would like to add another point.  The evangelical Christians are not just active within their areas.  On the contrary, they have entered into the mass media in a big way and they have even tried to penetrate various political organizations in order to increase their influence.  Without them, the Republican Party would never have taken a religious detour from the conservative east coast into the southern Bible belt.  Certain Hong Kong evangelical Christians have also adopted the techniques of their American counterparts by "hijacking" certain public organizations and turning them into propaganda tools for their religious messages.

As An Tu said, the soil in Hong Kong is different from that of the USA.  The USA has always had a strong Christian background with many people believing that they are "one nation under God."  Therefore, in the USA, legal scholar Ronald Dworkin framed this question for debate: "Is this a religious nation that tolerates nonbelief?  Or a secular nation that tolerates religion?"  By comparison, Hong Kong is a highly secularized society.  There are not many Christians to begin with, and the evangelicals are just one part of them.  How can they "hijack" public organizations that belong commonly to society as a whole?  One of the methods is to exploit the flaws within the Obscene Articles Tribunal system.

We know that each society has its own limits of tolerance.  Cultural articles which cross over this boundary should not be exposed to the unsuspecting public.  But who shall determine what these limits of tolerance are?  Who shall be the gatekeeper to decide what shall pass or not pass?  The Obscene Articles Tribunal that has recently been embroiled in controversy recently is one such gatekeeper.

To be fair, the design principles and the operational procedures of the Obscene Articles Tribunal are a lot better than a model in which government officials take charge (as in mainland China).  First and not least, the Obscene Articles Tribunal is not an administrative department.  Secondly, its adjudicators can be recruited openly from society to make the judgments.  Thirdly, the judgments are performed in response to complaints as opposed to active censorship of cultural articles beforehand.  The tribunal represents the entire society when it decides which articles are acceptable by the mainstream and which other articles should be punished (or even banned) because they are contrary to mainstream values.  We can only expect the tribunal to have a set of general principles and directions, but we cannot expect it to be exact in all the details.  First of all, the moral values of the so-called mainstream society are unstable and may sometimes shift.  Secondly, it is impractical to have too many details because many innocuous cultural articles will be restricted while certain wayward articles are let through because they apparently do not violate the published standards.

Therefore, this Obscene Articles Tribunal must have a representative set of adjudicators from all walks of life.  They should be a sample of society which represents the people to guard the gates and render relatively objective moral judgment.  The adjudciators cannot be too few in numbers and they cannot all come from a special group with the same set of values.  Our society is diverse and multicultural, and the moral standards of its members cannot be completely homogeneous.

The present problem is that we do not know what the qualification standards for these adjudicators are and we do not know whether the relevant department consider religious background when these adjudicators were chosen.  In theory, every religion has its own special values and moral standards.  If Hong Kong is a secular and  multicultural society, then the adjudicators who are the gatekeepers should not all be believers of a certain religion and they cannot let the believers of a certain religion or even religious clerics account for a relatively high proportion of the adjudicators.  If the adjudicators of the Obscene Articles Tribunal has a certain proportion of Christians, should it also have recruited Buddhists, Muslims and even people without religious beliefs in the same proportions in the population?

In the past, the Obscene Articles Tribunal knew that it did not have enough adjudicators.  Thus, only a small number of adjudicators participated in the regular work.  Going back in history, that was how the statue of David was classified as Category II Indecent Material.  Therefore, they increased the number of adjudicators to more than 300 persons nowadays.  But since the reviews are conducted mostly during office hours during the day, the most active adjudicators are those who have flexible schedules and who are especially concerned about moral matters.

When we say that the "most active adjudicators are those who are especially concerned about moral matters," we must also recognize that the people who have the most open values are often least concerned about moral issues.  Conversely, those who are the most conservative and who believe that society is becoming morally degenerate are easily offended and will come forth to uphold the moral standards.  For example, the ones who bring up moral issues in American politics are not the so-called liberals but the rightwing evangelical Christians instead.

Presently, within the Obscene Articles Tribunal adjudicators, there is such a group of people who are most interested in purifying moral standards.  They have formed the "Obscene Articles Tribunal Adjudicators Association."  Please note that this association is not an official organization and it does not represent all of the adjudicators.  But its has somehow become the spokesperson for all of the adjudicators.  Its chairman Yip Kwok-hing is sometimes erroneously considered by some media to be the chairman of the Obscene Articles Tribunal."  Each assignment of the Obscene Articles Tribunal is an independent one, but each adjudicator must make independent judgments under the premise that they need to consider the consistency of the standards of judgment over time.  Through their long history of involvement, these adjudicators have formed a tradition such that the magistrate has to keep reminding each new adjudicator about the importance of "consistency."  Many people compared these adjudicators to jury members in court.  But since when do we have such a thing as "veteran jury member"?  Or have you ever seen jury members organize on their own to form a "Jury Members Association"?

Similarly, the people who are most active in complaining to the Obscene Articles Tribunal are actually just a small group of people most concerned about moral issues.  Take the case of the Truth and Light Society.  They received subsidies from the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority to run a "Media Education Workshop" in which one of the activities for secondary students is to emulate the work at the TELA and OAT.  The students learn first to write letters of complaint to the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority.  They learn how the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority decide whether to refer the case to the Obscene Articles Tribunal.  Then they see how the Obscene Articles Tribunal reviews the complaint.  The instructors even encourage the students to write actual complaints to the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority in order to "let the students gain practical experience."  Over the years, how many letters of complaint arose this way?  How many articles were then classified as "indecent" as a result?

Whenever the Truth and Light Society secretary general Choi Chi-sum gets criticized, he likes to emphasize that they also have freedom of speech and that "the freedom to complain" is a form of "freedom of speech."  But isn't the principal purpose of freedom of speech about exchanging ideas and debating in public?  Instead of learning how to complain to the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority, why not teach the students the logic of debating moral issues and how to complain to the newspapers for the public to read?  Instead of inviting the intervention of the state apparatus, why not encourage the students and other fellow travelers to write letters to the media and participate more often in public debates?  In the case of the Chinese University Student Press, the students held a public forum but the Truth and Light Society refused to attend.  Do they think that writing a letter so that three persons can reach a judgment in a closed-door meeting is a better way to exercise freedom of speech than a public debate in front of the public?

Hong Kong is not the USA.  We are a very secularized society and we should respect the values of all the religious groups.  But we cannot let any one organization impose its values on all of society.  What we see right now is that a certain group of people has cleverly seized control of the existing system and used the public tool as its own "religious tribunal."  The recent complaints against the Bible is a vigorous reaction against this situation.  On one hand, it exposed the absurdity of the situation.  On the other hand, it has also aroused anti-religious sentiments (I don't think that the people at the Truth and Light Society anticipated this) and created a counter-current of popular complaints.  I hope that people will calm down after this episode and not resort to using complaints to bring in the state apparatus.  Let us return to an equal, open and free public space.  At least in the cultural and ideological fields, we should maintain "big society, small government."

Related Links:  The Very Public Adjudicators of the Hong Kong Obscene Articles Tribunal; The Ming Pao Category II Indecent Material