Freedom of speech and the art of swearing

Tony Campolo, an American sociologist and pastor, once said:

“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

Consider the strong language used by Jesus Christ when he was reprimanding the scribes and the Pharisees in Israel in the first century AD:

`Woe to you, blind guides, who are saying, Whoever may swear by the sanctuary, it is nothing, but whoever may swear by the gold of the sanctuary — is debtor! Fools and blind! for which [is] greater, the gold, or the sanctuary that is sanctifying the gold?

Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and adorn the tombs of the righteous, and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. So that ye testify to yourselves, that ye are sons of them who did murder the prophets; and ye — ye fill up the measure of your fathers. `Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna?”

(Matthew 23:16-17; 29-33, Young’s Literal Translation)

One may question whether strong words such as “fools” and “brood of vipers” are considered swear words, but one thing is certain: they aren’t politically correct because they make people feel uncomfortable, and when used in the context of calling out injustice and oppression, these words can serve as powerful metaphors in terms of symbolism and allegory.

Now consider a recent video by a precocious 16-year-old teenaged boy named Amos Yee in Singapore, who spoke up boldly and openly on important issues that affect humanity, such as poverty, high income inequality and political suppression.

Ironically, and perhaps not surprisingly in a country where freedom of speech is limited, he was charged for creating a YouTube video that “contained remarks against Christianity, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians in general”. It goes to show that many people are more worried about swear words being used in the speech than the actual issues being highlighted for their attention and action.

The sad reality is that many self-professed christians, especially pastors, have been saying things that wound the feelings of others, especially those who do not subscribe to mainstream christian beliefs, when they preach the literal hell, fire and brimstone, or when they discriminate against LGBTQs, and so on, and we hardly come across news of these christians being arrested, whereas we have one boy who was arrested for simply saying Jesus was “power-hungry and malicious”. Whether this assertion is true is subject to anyone’s opinion, and I would say that if wounding the feelings of others were really a crime, then many pastors, preachers and televangelists would be among the first to be arrested; it would be hypocrisy otherwise.

To me, Amos functions as a prophet who calls for social justice and human rights to be restored and reinstated to the society. It is perhaps not surprising that he is not welcomed with open arms by the society at large, as Jesus himself has said “Verily I say to you — No prophet is accepted in his own country” (Luke 4:24, Young’s Literal Translation).

If anything, Amos Yee has single-handedly created a national conversation on pertinent socioeconomic and humanitarian issues such as high income inequality, political suppression and lack of freedom of speech. This is probably something history and social studies teachers would dream of doing in school if they are struggling to prod students to be more interested in such issues. Students are encouraged to evaluate different sources of information in history and social studies lessons, so his video would serve as a platform for such evaluation and does not need to be removed. He is actually a national treasure, and a bold and clever genius.

Related articles

Amos Yee and the hypocrisy of some responsible speech advocates

A voice in the wilderness

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