The Press on THAT t-shirt and being offended

The Press has a good editorial on THAT shirt in Canterbury Museum.

The offensive T-shirt currently causing a stir in Christchurch is not that easy to find.

It is tucked away in a booth by itself in a corner at the Canterbury Museum’s T-Shirts Unfolding exhibition – the booth itself would be easy to miss, and to miss it you need to negotiate your way past the warnings of offensive material at the entrance.

To get in to the booth, a security guard must lift a tape for you, and then you turn left, then right, then right again before the blasphemy of the shirt confronts you. On the front of it there is a nun who is pleased with herself, and on the back Jesus is described with a four-lettered anatomical noun. If the sight of the shirt offends you, you will have literally gone out of your way to be offended.

The shirt itself is offensive, of course, without a doubt and officially so. It was banned by the Chief Censor in 2008, so it would be unlawful to wear it in the street, where people have no choice whether to see it or not. A special dispensation was given by the censor to the museum to allow it to be shown in a curated exhibition charting the history and cultural phenomenon of the T-shirt.

Offence can only be taken not given…and for someone to be offended at the exhibition they must really, really want to be offended.

As I stated before I don’t find a t-shirt offensive, I find the designers of the t-shirt just a bit sad that they feel the need to try to offend people in such a crass manner.

So, why is the museum showing offensive material? The question is open to debate, and it surely is a debate worth having. And that is what museums and art galleries are for. The way the shirt is displayed is not in itself gratuitous, and those who have made a choice to enter the booth are perhaps those least likely to be bothered by it.

But some people will be bothered, not by viewing the shirt, but by the blasphemous nature of what it shows and the fact that it exists at all.

The offence they feel, which is real and sincere, is perhaps felt more deeply because the shirt is back on display and because a public body, such as the museum, has endorsed its inclusion in the exhibition.

Inevitable comparisons will be made – if the shirt had depicted the Prophet Muhammed, would it have been included? Why is it frowned upon to insult one person’s religion, but considered OK to denigrate another’s?

Precisely my point. I doubt the Museum would be so quick to insult Muslims because they tend to have a propensity to stab, shoot, bomb or behead people who they feel have insulted their paedophile prophet.

The feelings of those who take offence should not be taken lightly, but the display of the shirt also connects in with the current debate on free speech, and the limits of free speech, which has come to the fore because of the recent terrorist attacks in France and, now, in Denmark.

Those were rightly considered outrages against the freedom of expression on which Western democracies depend.

One of the inevitable consequences of freedom of speech is that sometimes, someone is going to be offended by what is being said, or drawn or portrayed. Sometimes, such imagery will challenge or confront people, but to censor it is to limit the freedom of expression of one group to appease the sensibilities of another.

The logical extension of that is that all dissenting voices must be silenced, at which point freedom of expression ceases to exist.

By the same token, those offended must be allowed to express their feelings and be listened to.

By all means express your outrage…shout if you must but the reality is if we believe in freedom of expression and freedom of speech that doesn’t just mean the speech or actions that you agree with it means all views.

There is none more accurate on the topic of being offended than Steve Hughes:


– The Press