The freedom to choose

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Opinion by Kenny Yum

About a dozen or so students walked into my office the other day demanding that The Eyeopener apologize for a picture we ran two weeks ago.

In doing so, they touched off a dilemma that we could not ignore.

The picture we ran was one of a Hindu god carrying Pepsi cans, with a Pepsi logo in the background. When we received complaints after it was published [see below], we decided to run a letter to the editor accompanied with a clarification. The picture, we said, was not intended “to hurt anyone’s feelings or disparage anything sacred.”

But the clarification was not good enough for the students who came into my office. They said we were beating around the bush. One said if we didn’t do anything about it, they would.

They are right. In this circumstance, I think we should apologize.

So why am I writing this column?

Because I understand the nature of cultural and religious sensitivity. Because I believe in debate and free speech.

And because what happened this past week put the two ideas — free speech and religious sensitivity — at polar opposites.

I had realized that after we printed the clarification that the staff at The Eyeopener probably didn’t fully understand the implications of our statement. We were accused of ignorance.

We set out to learn. We talked to a Hindu expert, a journalism professor, a campus groups coordinator. And each of our staff — 13 of us — talked to our families, peers and colleagues for input.

I spoke one-on-one with two Hindu students who wrote letters. One said that he was more liberal and understood our point of view, but wanted an apology. THe other was more fearful of the consequences if we didn’t own up.

One said that he wanted a straight apology. I told him that I would recommend to my editorial board that we do so and that, regardless, I would write a column explaining what was happening.

He maintained that an apology would make the group he was representing happy; that a column explaining our reasoning might be seen as us avoiding the issue.

But for the sake of freedom of speech and editorial independence, I must.

I must because I believe intimidation — either in the form of a dozen students marching into a newspaper office, or statements that I perceive to be threats — is never a solution in a democratic institution or a country.

Would you like your newspaper to be dictated to?

We wouldn’t.

As a medium for debate, our newspaper constantly pushes and tests the limits. Lines of acceptability are drawn, crossed and redrawn.

We accept the responsibility that comes with editorial independence.

But we don’t accept self-censorship, or that we have to consult dozens of groups before we publish an article, a picture or a column.

With situations like this, we learn, and we change. But we continue to assert our independence.

Debate can clear misunderstandings. In our recent case, the Hindu students who complained can understand our very real concern with independence while we can understand their concerns with religion.

And you, the average reader, who may not be Hindu, can understand what all the fuss is about — that The Eyeopener is not a cold and distant publication, made up of snobs who laugh off complaints. Or that the Hindu students are not radicals, but people who were genuinely hurt by seomthing we printed.

It is for that reason I told the student that I must explain.

I told the student that our actions will be decided in good faith and with reasoned debate.

And that any reaction on their part would be a measure of themselves as much as our actions are a measure of us.

Reader finds artwork offensive
Originally published in The Eyeopener February 10, 1999

Re: Generation Vexed
I take strong exception to the illustration of Lord Krishna in the above mentioned article and, most importantly, to the Pepsi cans shown in the four hands of Lord Krishna. He is the Supreme Godhead to millions of Hindus around the world.

I am shocked at the insensitivity and ignorance of the writer to portray the fountainhead of Krishna consciousness in such a demeaning pose.

Freedom of the press does not imply that one can hurt the feelings of the followers of other faiths. Can you, or the Moslem writer of the article being referred to, dare to show Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammad in your paper in such a commercial posture without being called blasphemous and being condemned like writers Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen?

Your paper owes an apology to the aggrieved people and I urge you to officially withdraw the offensive picture and to be more careful and discreet in the future without publishing anything on such sensitive issues. —Priya Singh, fourth-year AIM student.

Editor’s note
Originally published in The Eyeopener February 10, 1999

The Eyeopener would like to clarify that the artwork accompanying the article, “Generation vexed,” was not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings or disparage anything sacred. The picture was a satirical commentary aimed at Pepsi’s aggressive marketing campaign in India. Further, the art was chosen and created by the editor of the article and not the writer.

Re: Reader finds artwork offensive, Feb. 10
Originally published in The Eyeopener February 17, 1999

Every Wednesday morning I grab a copy of The Eyeopener, and laugh through the pages with the humour.

However, the past two editions have left me disgusted and insulted to the point where I feel as if I am being the one laughed at.

I find the use of the defaced Hindu god insulting and am deeply offended and disgusted at your ignorance to use such a holy image as the pit of your satire in OUR paper. I respect the personal opinions of others, however opinions based on utter ignorance really set me off.

In response to Priya Singh’s comments, you defend your actions by suggesting that it “was not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings or disparage anything sacred.” However, I don’t believe you and your staff fully understand its offensive implications.

As practising individuals in any faith, many people worship their gods and other holy people through images, icons and statues. Photos are carried with people everywhere they go, symbols are worn around their necks and held close to their hearts, while statues and figurines are held and handled with great care. I am sure that we can agree that in its physical context these items and images have a greater value to people who turn to them for prayer, guidance and spiritual relief.

Any form of satire seeks humour or purge at someone’s expect… I would question you, at whose expense do you believe the image to offend? I see nothing more than another promotion for Pepsi.

I do believe that you sincerely did not intend to offend anyone, however, feel your initial actions were careless, and I do not sense any remorse or regret in your latest comments. I strongly urge you to consider the damage that you have implicitly caused, not only to the Hindu community, but to all those who religiously practice any faith.

I too believe that you owe an apology to all your readers and ask that in the future you consider the effects that such sensitive issues may lead to. —Ajay Patel, second-year engineering student.

Writer responds to letter
Originally published in The Eyeopener February 17, 1999

Re: Reader finds artwork offensive, Feb. 10
It is a shame that your God Krishna was portrayed in such a manner that offended you and many other Hindus.

It is a shame, indeed, because it caused you to miss the entire point of my article. My work is read by people all over the world. Let me quote one letter I received: “I hope the boy leads a better life rather than long for a drop of Pepsi from the can in the waste bin.” —Simon Varghese, India.

The people at The Eyeopener are committed to good journalism, and will always be. And I will be committed to telling the truth as I see it.

And the truth here, in your attack of me, for being a MUSLIM, no matter now if it was unknown to you that I had NO PART in creating that graphic, is that you are guilty of the things you originally accused me of: “insensitivity and ignorance.”

How my religion factored into this bewildered my editors, but for anyone Indian like myself, the purpose of pointing that out was damn well clear. Miss Singh, you beat the ancient tabla of hindu-muslim antagonism, which I have no part of, nor want anything to do with. So next time, learn the facts before you accuse. And check your own real prejudices before you attack the imagined prejudices of others. —Suleman Din, fourth-year journalism student.

Group demands apology for defaced image
Originally published February 17, 1999

This letter is regarding the defaced picture of God Krishna that was published in the previous Eyeopener. We talked to you previously about the concerns of the Hindu group of Ryerson about the picture. We wanted to apologize for publishing the defaced image of God Krishna, but the publisher did not apologize. Instead they tried to beat around the bush. We want a formal apology for the defaced image in clear words and the original image of God Krishna in the next issue. —Ani Betel, on behalf of a group of Ryerson Hindu students.

Originally published in The Eyeopener February 17, 1999

The Eyeopener apologizes for the image printed with the article, “Generation vexed,” which appeared in the Feb. 3 issue. The image used was inappropriate for the article.

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