Ask Lord Bobo: Fellatio, human rights, and freedom of expression

This article was originally published on The Malaysian Insider.

Dear Lord Bobo, I gather some people were hurt and angered by your column titled ‘What to get your man for Christmas’. They said it was not funny and was offensive. But I found it pretty funny. Is there something wrong with me? (Lucy, via email)

Oh yes, indeed, Lord Bobo is aware that some found that piece offensive (in fact, we told you in the column itself that some people would be offended — we told you, we’re omniscient!).

There has been a bit said about it on social media, and some individuals have been quite dedicated to bringing the column to the attention of as many people as possible.

Such commitment should be applauded. After all, it is part of the 198 actions and His Supreme Eminenceness is always happy to see those happening. Followers of LoyarBurok and Lord Bobo will know that we are all for freedom of expression — free your mind! This also includes the right to express dissatisfaction with things published by LoyarBurok, of course.

However, some overzealous folk aren’t satisfied with criticising the column or its writers and have gone further to call for an apology to be issued and for the piece to be taken down from The Malaysian Insider. This is where Lord Bobo draws a bold line with his furry monkey appendage.

Our apologies (no, not for the column!) in advance, but His Supreme Eminenceness will have to delve into human rights for a little bit here.

WARNING: Serious human rights stuff now.

Freedom of expression. What does this mean? It means the right to express yourself. This is a fundamental right enshrined in the Federal Constitution. So naturally, it is a right that Lord Bobo has commanded his minions to protect to the best of their abilities.

What about feeling offended? Is this part of my right to freedom of expression? Despite what some people seem to believe, and to passionately live their lives by — there is no right not to be offended.

Salman Rushdie quite correctly said: “There is no right not to be offended. That right simply doesn’t exist. In a free society, an open society, people have strong opinions, and these opinions very often clash. In a democracy, we have to learn to deal with this.”

Freedom of expression means having to put up with confronting, hearing, and seeing things you disagree with, don’t like and may even find objectionable. Freedom of expression also means you can use that freedom to respond in a civilised fashion to whatever you find objectionable, disagreeable and offensive. This freedom also means that you are at liberty at any moment to turn away or stop reading and preserve your delicate and fragile sensibilities.

Is this right unfettered and unlimited? Not at all.

The law has prescribed limits to it. For example, your freedom of expression cannot be used to incite violence and hatred, defame people without a good reason, lie in court, assault someone, etc. You can see from these legal offences that the limits on expression are where they result in tangible or threatened serious personal or societal harm.

Human rights are not merely about the treatment of the state against an individual — they include the treatment and behaviour between individuals.

Therefore, when applying Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (which is almost identical to Covenant 569 of the Universal Charter of Inter-Galactic Liberties, and the 37th entrée on the menu of the restaurant at the end of the universe) horizontally to contesting groups (a fancy way of saying freedom of expression between citizens as opposed to between governments and individuals), restrictions to freedom of expression are permissible to protect the rights of others, including ensuring women as a group are not discriminated against on grounds of sex or gender.

The thinking regarding whether the use of sexist language may constitute sex discrimination (and thus should be censored) is still not settled. The test to be applied is unclear.

One school of thought requires looking at the speech within the context it is used, and whether it leads to sustained, prolonged and long-term harmful effects to women, particularly in societies where women are marginalised and maligned.

Another school would ban all forms of sexually explicit (direct or indirect) expression, on the assumption that all forms of sexually-suggestive speech inherently objectifies and relegates women as sex objects.

The argument is that at a secondary level, such low-value speech would promote the stereotyping of women that reinforces sex discrimination and attitudes. In more serious instances, this form of reinforcement implicitly sanctions violence against women or invites the suggestion that women are “rape-worthy”.

All that being said, when deciding whether a particular expression should be restricted, we need to look at the context in which the expression is used. A broad brush approach of detached objectivity will not help in all circumstances. Think purple bananas, which are alternately, depending on context, symbols of either HSE’s munificence or dreaded wrath.

Does the Ask Lord Bobo column — written so obviously in the form of comedy or satire, but perhaps was distasteful to some — fall within the margin or out of it?

All comedy and satire flirt at the cutting edge of risk because they are carnivalesque — they comment on and challenge sombre approaches to our sedentary lives. Should this be censored? This is where divergent views have been expressed — and Lord Bobo has received many views.

One view is that the column in question was, in fact, clearly poking fun at men, not women. The suggestion that the best thing a man could possibly want was fellatio, and that a woman would be doing him the biggest favour in the world by giving fellatio and that for any man this would be the most ideal present for Christmas, was a tired portrayal of men as merely interested in sex.

The contrary view is that the article constitutes in itself a form of discrimination against women and that it perpetuates the current power disparity between men and women.

His Supreme Eminenceness is highly amused that his response was accused of being nothing more than an advertorial for the LoyarBurok cufflinks (out soon at an online store near you —!) — as if this accessory so highly sought after by women and men alike needed any advertorial at all.

So what do you do now?

First, ask yourself — what was it that made you offended?

Second, ask yourself — why did that affect you so?

Third, ask yourself — has this caused serious tangible harm to someone or a community that it should be censored? Forget about those imagined slings and arrows. Anyone can come up with those.

Fourth, give the benefit of the doubt to the author or offender and consider other possible perspectives. Things are often not a clear-cut as you may make them out to be. For example, for the Ask Lord Bobo column in question, many have said that it isn’t “sexist”, another group said it was possibly sexist but not really all that big a deal and a very vocal number have called for the public pillorying of Lord Bobo.

Fifth, if you are still offended, then express your offence in whatever manner you choose. Pick a few of those 198 actions. But remember — requesting the limitation or denial of someone else’s right to freedom of expression requires some justification beyond your personal angst.

His Supreme Eminenceness would invite anyone to continue to dialogue with us and voice their views, for and against, on the most awesome blawg. Register here.

LoyarBurok is proud to be one of the only places which allows real freedom of expression. We must continue to talk about the problems of freedom of expression, otherwise we will not progress.

This has been a longer-than-usual Ask Lord Bobo column (hello to the TMI editors — do we get paid double for this?). We’ve received many comments from our friends (and some non-friends) and felt that the column’s position needed to be made clear. Oh, it’s not clear? We will end with a summary.

LoyarBurok strongly upholds the right to freedom of expression. The Ask Lord Bobo column will continue to remain true to this basic principle. You can feel free to disagree with the advice given in this column (but we remind you that His Supreme Eminenceness is all knowing). You can feel free to think that the jokes made are lame or unfunny. You can feel free to be offended by the contents of the column.

LoyarBurok welcomes any views by anyone. The right to freedom of expression doesn’t give way to the non-existent right not to be offended.

Although Lord Bobo already knows your question before you even knew you had a question, as a practical display of your true desire to have your query answered, His Supreme Eminenceness has graciously allowed you to communicate your questions by either emailing [email protected] or tweeting your question, mentioning @LoyarBurok and using the hashtag #AskLordBobo. Now, what the hell are you waiting for? Hear This and Tremblingly Obey (although trembling is optional if you are somewhere very warm)!

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Ask Lord Bobo is a weekly column by LoyarBurok where all your profound, abstruse, erudite, hermetic, recondite, sagacious, and other thesaurus-described queries are answered! It is the ONLY place that His Supreme Eminenceness' thoughts are regularly channeled, via His Lordship's most loyal meditating purple-banana munching minions.

Posted on 6 February 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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