Transcript of "Media and religion forum speech by Dita de Boni"
Media and Religion Forum
Hello my name is Dita De Boni and I am a columnist for the Business
Herald - Friday Business - and have been for the last year and a half.
As per my introduction, which you have heard already, I have worked
as a reporter, feature writer, magazine writer and editor and
television reporter and producer, so, for my sins, I have worked in
many of the largest newsrooms in the country - specifically the
Herald, TVNZ and TV3.
I am here today to talk to you about what happened when a column I
wrote at the end of June attracted a great deal of anger from some
in the Hindu community.
The first point to make is that it was the cartoon, not the column that
I wrote, that caused the outrage. The column dealt with the idea
that many, many dairy and superette owners these days - many of
whom are Indian, I hope it is not racist to say, but simply a statement
of fact - sell products that, while legal, are to some, considered
'immoral'. I'm thinking about cigarettes, alcohol, legal highs,
pornography, etc; but more than that, things like spray cans of paint
and nail polish remover even, the last two of which can be inhaled by
people in order for them to get high cheaply. As I said in my column,
my own father owned a dairy for several years in which I had to work
as a child, and I know the amount of gruelling hard work it takes. It is
not fair, I wrote, to expect hard working diary owners to be the
moral conscience of society: expecting them to be sort of unpaid
police force, deciding who to sell certain products to or not; banning
people from buying this and that - all when it is actually legal to do
We should make better legislation - that legally restricts or bans
certain things, if we think they are bad - and, as well, parents should
have responsibility for their children when those children are trying
to buy solvents and so forth from dairies.
The cartoon which illustrated my column is done by a long-time,
award-winning cartoonist Anna Crichton. Anna, who is a genuinely
lovely woman who has spent a lot of time in India, drew what
readers said was a depiction of a Goddess Kali-type figure with many
arms. Each arm held one of the morally questionable objects
referred to in the text. To my reading of the cartoon, what Anna was
showing was the Goddess, who represents the dairy owners, looking
on with a disgusted face while selling these wares; I think what she
was saying was that many Indian dairy owners are themselves,
possibly, disgusted by some of these things, but are forced perhaps
because margins are so slim in these businesses to sell the products.
I must confess I saw the cartoon for the first time on the Friday
morning when it was published - like everyone else - and I did not
register anything particularly controversial about it. Admittedly, I am
not a religious person at all, and am quite used to seeing Jesus Christ
and other religious figures mocked in the pages of newspapers.
I thought the cartoon illustrated, quite well, the quandry Hindu
people have about these so-called morally questionable products,
and I left it at that.
Well, soon after I was inundated with emails from very angry people,
furious I had denigrated the Goddess Kali with the depiction. Some
made violent threats, many said they would never read anything I did
again, hoped the Goddess would deal with me and my family, were
disgusted with the Herald, etc.
Please note that the Herald immediately took down the cartoon
from its website. Naturally it can do little about the cartoon in its
actual newspaper pages.
I did not draw the cartoon, so I cannot talk for Anna Crichton in this
context. But what I can say is that a political cartoonist, a satirist, if
you like, is an opinion columnist who uses art to question, probe,
debate, criticise and investigate beliefs. Exactly like I am contracted
to do for the Herald myself in writing. I would say most opinion
columnists - and journalists for that matter - believe that people
should be respected, but beliefs shouldn't be, necessarily. We live in
a secular society, where freedom of expression is a legal right within
both New Zealand law and law that the country has signed up to at
the UN level. Beliefs are proposals about the reality of the world,
and we all differ in these, and they are all open to questioning by
others, I believe.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right that separates
democracies from dictatorships, and therefore, it is hard, as
someone who has been raised with these ideas, to come to any
other conclusion than that all religious, political, social belief of any
sort should be open to questioning and satire, even my own;
especially my own.
But I will admit that there was one criticism within the avalanche
that I received that made me stop and think. That was, more than
one person pointed out that if cartoons of Mohammed had been
drawn, it is likely that we would have put a stop to those being
published before they even got to the page. Indeed, the Herald did
not publish the so-called Mohammed cartoons back in 2006,
considering it overly provocative to do so.
In a way, that is wrong as well. If you believe that all beliefs are
equal - equally wrong perhaps, or right, or misguided, then all should
be brought into the sunlight equally.
The Herald pulled back to avoid the threat of violence perhaps, in
that case. In this case, I think the Herald pulled the cartoons out of
respect for their large Hindu readership, and , let's be honest,
possibly commercial factors impacted the decision.
But if we get right back to the cartoon itself, I think what you will find
if you look at the cartoon through secular eyes is not a mockery of
the Goddess Kali at all. It is not done with that intent, no one is
asking you look at the goddess as flawed in herself, or questioning
why anyone would worship her (unlike the Mohammed cartoons,
which did seek to more or less rubbish some of the beliefs of Islam).
I have done a bit of research prior to coming here to see what
Goddess Kali actually holds in her hands - given that people were
offended in ours she held cigarettes and so forth, modern evils if you
like. I note that most popular depictions of the Goddess see her
holding a sword, a trident, a severed head, and a cup to catch the
blood of the severed head. She is often naked to denote purity. Her
eyes are described as red with intoxication, and in absolute rage, her
hair is shown dishevelled, small fangs sometimes protrude out of her
mouth, and her tongue is lolling. She is also accompanied
by serpents and a jackal while standing on a seemingly dead Shiva.
Admittedly she is kind and loving, but doesn't seem, to this person's
eyes anyhow, to be saintly or passive in her depiction. So I must
admit I am surprised at the level of anger in many of the comments I
Before I finish, I would also like to share with you a story I read
recently about Ahmad Akkari, the Danish Muslim leader who, in 2006
and 2007, travelled the world whipping up lots of uproar about those
Mohammed cartoons that were first published in Demark.
As the Guardian writes, Mr Akkari and a group of Imams helped turn
the Danish situation into an international crisis which saw people
killed and embassies around the world attacked.
Mr Akkari says he has had time to think about the furore he helped
stoke and now believes he was totally wrong about it. At the time he
thought he was fighting for his faith, Islam, rather than seeing the
whole picture whereby in a strong, modern society, a plurality of
beliefs and faiths can co-exist.
I hope you can agree that in our society, which is an open and robust
one, there is room for a large range of differing views - and that
while respect is important, no one belief should be sacrosanct above
any others, in the interests of freedom and democracy.