The Relativity of Freedom of Speech in Lebanon

The last few days have taught me that the statement: “I believe in freedom of speech” has to be amended to become the following: “I believe in freedom of speech as long as I agree with the speech.” Beyond that point of agreement, all bets of civility of discourse are off. Bigot, ignorant, racist, condescending, extremist, hypocrite, illiterate or any derogatory word of choice gets dropped in order to counter a point, regardless of what that point may be.

Santa Muerte, Santa Ejre:

I didn’t want to go over anything related to this issue again. It was blown way out of proportion. But my words were taken out of context. Lebanon’s self-anointed blogging police started to ridicule what I had to offer. Somehow this blog being nominated for Blog of the Year at the Social Media Awards became a mark of shame for some people – as if that changed things. News outlets started contacting me for their stories. And I realized that, even though I had actually blogged about the issue, I had never gotten the chance to say what I had to say for my input was very brief. In spite of the issue being overdone at this point, I believe it is my right to tell my point of view in detail. You may want to read it and you may not but here it goes.

I found Bershka shirt, aptly called shirtgate – the Mexican Embassy IS opening a shrine - offensive. Is it my right to find it offensive? You bet it is. Did I call for the shirt to be banned from Lebanese markets? No. Did I say it wasn’t a person’s right to wear the shirt? No I didn’t.

You don’t need google to consider the shirt offensive. Any person’s first impression of what the shirt says is with what they connect it. I believe it was Descartes’ school of thought which said our perceptions are the actions of our mind on our senses. The actions of your mind come from your previous experiences. When Lebanese people look at that shirt, the first thing they’d see is what they previously know: Mary icons present in churches or homes.

What people don’t seem to get is that people have different red lines whose crossing means getting offended. If people are offended by the shirt, it’s okay. If people are not, it’s okay as well because those people have their own lines as well and if they are crossed then they will bring their own fury to being. What’s not okay is some people calling those who are offended bigots, ignorants, etc… For not being aware of Santa Muerte, which 90% of the Lebanese populace wasn’t even aware of prior to yesterday.

This brings me to another point: Santa Muerte is irrelevant. It is not culturally relevant here and it’s being used to iron out the issue by those who want to portray all religious folk in Lebanon as a bunch of narrow-minded individuals. Is the shirt Santa Muerte? It could be. At least that’s what Bershka said. But it could be Our Lady of Guadelupe as well, which is actually present in many Lebanese churches, one of which is in my hometown which could be why I found the shirt print familiar.

The point is: the fact that Santa Muerte is not something most Lebanese are familiar with means that the shirt will be taken offensively. People do not have to google a shirt print. You judge it based on what you know. As an example, alcohol is allowed in Lebanon but it’s not culturally permitted in Saudi Arabia. Would you walk in their streets with a Jack Daniels shirt? Cow meat is allowed here but it’s not culturally allowed in India… how about a shirt with a burger on it? The list goes on.

You may not want to be culturally limited even if you are aware but what I believe many need to realize is there’s more to the world than the space between them and their computer and Twitter followers and, if a person has a blog, readers. We talk and analyze and extrapolate but the fact of the matter remains that less than a third of the Lebanese population has smartphones and not everyone has access to the internet and not everyone likes to read our English-written blogs. I may not get up in a fit if I see someone wearing that shirt on the street but are you willing to bet no one else would?

Only today, I had my legs crossed at a bank in Tripoli when a man asked me to uncross them because he was offended by my shoes’ sole being in the far corner of his eyesight.

Another important thing to note is that Santa Muerte is not a saint nor is it a holy figure. It’s Mexican folklore. Lebanese people who are not aware of their own folklore are supposed to know international folklores as well now? The Catholic Church of Mexico considers those who worship Santa Muerte as heretics-lite. This may not be relevant to those who don’t care what any religious institution has to say but it does for those who do, of which I am not. But there is another aspect to the conversation that is being disregarded because it doesn’t fit with the perfect Santa Whatever explanation.

After all, why would Mexican relatives of mine find the shirt print offensive if it were all that “innocent?”

Another point being raised is that Bershka is simply bringing in their entire collection to Lebanon, which I find to be non-sensical. Do companies always automatically import everything they make into this country without any form of market study or market appraisal? Any look at the shirt would have sufficed to realize it might cause a backlash among many of their customers. The shirt may have not been brought into the country but the price tag of 49,000LL means there was a will to bring it in.

The bottom line is: both sides of the story have arguments in their favor. It goes down to what you believe in. If you believe holy figures should not be demonized then the shirt offends you. If not, then the shirt will not. But people from both sides attacking each other is unacceptable as I witnessed firsthand with people calling me ignorant, a bigot, condescending and a bunch of other things just for the fun of it.

Ziad el Rahbani vs AUB Students:

Nothing can beat Santa Muerte when it comes to attention over the past few days. But the man of whom I am not a fan Mr. Ziad el Rahbani had an open dialogue session at AUB during which a bunch of attendees protested his political stance against the Syrian revolution and called him out on it.

The interesting part, though, is that I found out about the Ziad el Rahbani protest not from someone who is supportive of those students but one who was absolutely outraged because they made AUB students look like fools in front of such a man. That person, typically, felt it appropriate to call those students every word imaginable from the belt down. And he wasn’t alone at it.

The protesting students had their share of supporters as well who felt what they did was absolutely noble. I am personally with what those students did because it was 1) peaceful, 2) a demonstration of their basic right of free speech and 3) it didn’t interfere with the session’s proceedings.

I believe it is their right to protest in the way that they did. Their right stops in a hypothetical scenario where they wreck the hall or attack Mr. Rahbani himself.

I am personally supportive of what the students did and I commend them on it. But isn’t it the right of both who are against and supportive of Ziad el Rahbani to be heard?

George Abdallah:

On the other side of the political spectrum, many Lebanese are protesting what they are calling the French authorities unjustly keeping Lebanese George Abdallah behind bars. To that extent, they set up protests outside of the French embassy occasionally, most of which were peaceful and only served to prove the point being raised.

I do not agree with the protests, nor do I agree with the whole “unjust imprisonment” idea. But isn’t it their right to voice their disdain of the situation as well without having irrelevant me ridiculing them for it?

Boycotting Guns ‘N Roses, BDS, Israel:

Prior to the Guns ‘N Roses concert in Lebanon, a movement calling to boycott the concert was started. Many Lebanese may have not gone to the concert because of it but many other did. After all, the concert was a success. The boycott call was picked up by many Lebanese and often ridiculed.
The only question that popped in my head was: are they bothering me if they are not attending a concert without calling for the concert to be canceled?
The only answer that answered my question satisfyingly was: no they are not.

So I shrugged it off and didn’t write about it. Let them have their fun. I don’t think we should panic every time an artist who has set foot in Israel decides to hold a concert here. But what if someone wants to have a panic attack because of it? Simply, let them have it.

I draw the line when those movements start expanding to some form of neo-culutral terrorism whereby they get the concert in question to be canceled, the artist to cower from coming over and, sometimes, Lebanese acts to suffer in the process.

The bottom line:

Be it a shirt, a political movement, a concert, a dialogue session or a simple conversation, people are allowed to differ in opinion and have their opinion heard even if others find it subpar, unconvincing or unacceptable. What is becoming clearer to me, however, is that the concept of freedom of speech in Lebanon is relative. You get to enjoy its perks as long as you conform to what the vocal bunch expects of you to write or say.

But you know what, the past few days have also shown me that if being ignorant, a bigot and condescending comprises of what I did, then I am all those three and more and I’m proud of it.

Do you regret the whole Bershka shirt post, I was asked over the past two days. My answer was and will always be: definitely not.

Notta-Bene:

For those who were up in a fit how we weren’t discussing more “relevant” issues in Lebanon today, I invite you to read the following articles which I have written over the past two weeks:

It’s not my problem the only time you read is when a post goes viral enough for you to get a link.

6 thoughts on “The Relativity of Freedom of Speech in Lebanon

  1. Elie I think you are a reasonable person. And you had the right to be offended. Actually there is no right… you were offended. Period. But I think, in this case, you were simply wrong in your assumptions and should have changed your mind when you discovered that.

    You specifically said: “but demonizing religious holy figures for the sake of having fun such as in this case is, quite frankly, unacceptable. I find it revolting and offensive.”

    No one is asking you to be an expert in Mexican folklore, but after you discovered that the t-shirt was not meant to be offensive* you should have realized you were wrong in thinking that people were demonizing holy figures for the sake of fun.

    The original reason for you taking offence was wrong, yet you stayed offended. I feel it is a typical case of “belief perseverance”

    so imho, there was nothing wrong with your original reaction, it was perfectly valid, but I can’t really support your persistence after new information came to light. Not that anyone cares what this anonymous dude supports ;-)

    Reply
    • Let me quote the Mexican ambassador in Lebanon on the issue:
      “regardless of the ubiquity of skulls in Mexican culture, Alvarez said this particular design, a combination of the Virgin of Guadalupe with the skull face of Santa Muerte, was done in “poor taste.””
      This is from this article: https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/t-shirt-of-death

      Which means that those who find the shirt “demonizing religious holy figures for the sake of having fun such as in this case is, quite frankly, unacceptable” have a point.
      It may not be the entire point but it’s still part of it. Again, if the Mexican ambassador sees similarities to the Lady of Guadelupe – a sentiment also shared by the Mexicans I know – who am I to argue? Or do I know more about Mexican culture than mexicans now?

      I stayed persistent because, as I believe i made clear in this, Santa Muerte is irrelevant to whether anyone is allowed to feel offended by the post or not. It’s not about belief persistence or whatnot – it’s simply about me not seeing the relevance of Santa Muerte to the case in question.

      Either way, the post isn’t only about Bershka and Santa Muerte.

      Reply
  2. This is how everyone is. Good job Elie on keeping your head high through the onslaught. They are the ones who looked ridiculous and petty and, ironically, ignorant.

    Reply

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