Law Morality and the Chief Film Censor
An Editorial in the May issue of Faith in Focus, magazine of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.
Law Morality and the Chief Film Censor.
Here in New Zealand we live in a world, very different from the one we grew up in or the world our parents and grandparents knew. I’m sure that our grandfathers who fought at Gallipoli, and other theatres of war for this land of milk and honey did not believe they were fighting for the moral license now embraced by much of New Zealand society. Although New Zealand was never a profoundly spiritual society, it once had values, which we would recognise as Christian, which were embraced by our institutions and society at large. No doubt there was a degree of hypocrisy, but we were genuinely shocked by immorality. Our personal and social morality was clearly defined. Swearing and blasphemy was heard, but not in the presence of women. Marriage was valued and divorce rare and shocking. You might recall honesty boxes at orchards and market gardens, when you paid your money for a pound of tomatoes and you carefully took the exact change from the honesty box. Diaries were not locked up with iron bars and garage doors, and the handful of murders that happened each year did not stop most of us leaving our doors unlocked. Indeed we would leave the house unlocked day or night, present or absent, without a thought. Sexual ethics were clearly defined and homosexuality was not issue. The only shocking tabloid was the ‘Truth’ and television had not yet arrived. I recall when I wanted to marry as a policeman, the police hierarchy had to give their approval and criminal checks were done on my wife-to-be and her parents. We and our forebears could fill pages with the differences between then and now, but the point is that there was a clearly defined morality. Books and films were banned, because of their immoral content, and there was widespread agreement just what was moral and what was not.
Today when it comes to personal and social morality, our society is perhaps as liberal as any in the world. The administration of our present censorship laws, as we would expect, reflect the moral liberalism of this society. I had the opportunity to interview Bill Hastings recently for Faith in Focus, the current Chief Censor of Film and Literature. A former Canadian, an affable and well educated (surprisingly young) man, who once lectured in Law, now oversees the censorship of printed and other media, which enters our country and our homes. He and the other Censors have the unpleasant task of viewing much offensive material generated by a society which long ago lost its ethical bearings. His faith in God has been shaken because of the material he has had to review in his job. He believes in biological evolution, but that man has a soul and he hopes that there might life after death, and has a loose view of works righteousness. But he does not live his life on the basis that the Bible is the Word of God.
I came away from his office with a feeling of great sadness. We did not talk about his personal homosexual relationship, that was none of my business, but what came through to me was how a profoundly alien morality was now entrenched in the power structures of our society. Of course, I mean alien to Christians and others who might call themselves morally conservative.
This struck me in a number of ways. It goes without saying that it appears contradictory to a Christian that a Chief Film Censor would be a homosexual, but there was something else. I asked Mr Hastings some questions about the other Censors in the office, whether there were other homosexuals or perhaps Bible believing Christians. His answer surprised me. He said that he didn’t ask those sorts of questions when employing someone. Other criteria, rather than one’s moral position, were the basis on which a Censor was employed. (I did give Mr Hastings the opportunity to comment on the draft of my editorial, which he kindly did. And here he wanted to add that he is required to give preference to the person who is best suited to the position. Also he must have regard, “not only to the person’s personal attributes but also to the person’s knowledge of, or experience in the different aspects of matters likely to come before the Classification Office.” Mr Hastings commented, “I would argue that ‘personal attributes,’ ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ relate to the set of skills required of these positions rather than to a person’s religious beliefs, sexuality, or political views.”)
To understand his position and the way the Censor’s office functions, we need to realise that Mr Hastings takes a particular view on censorship. He claims that their censorship decisions are not moral decisions, but only legal decisions. Moreover, he claims that the law itself prohibits him from making moral judgements. When asked if he brought his personal code of beliefs to bear on his censoring role, he responded: “Well, we can’t. If we were to do that we would be taking into account something that is extraneous to the law and would be exposing ourselves to judicial review. The law is quite clear.” He denies that he is making moral choices in his role. I explained the dictionary definition of morality, but he was insistent:
No I would disagree with that. It’s one of the attributes of this law that is so specific and so harm based, as opposed to morality based, that it prevents any of the censors or myself from bringing to bear their personal likes, dislikes or views when they are classifying a publication.
Of course, he does not mean that he is amoral. “If you want to see any morality in the decision of morality, is that it complies with the law.” In other words, he, and the other Censors, honestly apply the law. This alien idea that morality has nothing to do with evaluating the content of publications was thrown into stark relief, when I asked him if an immoral person could do the job of Chief Film Censor. His answer was both consistent and frightening: “Absolutely. As long as I applied the law, the law doesn’t care who is applying the law.” Just think about that for a moment. An immoral person could, just as well as a moral person, be the guardian over the entry of immoral publications into our society. He wasn’t saying he was immoral of course. He sees himself as a moral person.
But Mr Hastings’ position is untenable. One of the key words in the Films, Videos and Public Classification is the word ‘objectionable.’ The word ‘objectionable’ is defined in four sections. Firstly, if a publication, “describes, depicts , expresses, or otherwise deals with matters such as sex, horror, crime cruelty, or violence in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good.” Two Christian videos which explore homosexuality and aids are banned partly under this idea that they are injurious to the public good - meaning that they injure the homosexual community. Other grounds were included, for example: "[T]hat confidence in public health cautions could be undermined; that people could be encouraged not to practice safer sex for fear of being identified as members of the groups portrayed as inherently inferior by the videos." The second section, in the law, gives specific examples of ‘objectionable’ activities, like bestiality, but also requires a subjective judgement as the Censor must decide if a Publication, "promotes or supports or tends to promote or support" a number of crimes like the exploitation of children for sexual purposes, for example. Such an evaluation must be inherently subjective to some degree. The third section requires that “particular weight shall be given to the extent and degree to which, and the manner in which, the publication...” Then five subsections give the parameters. One is: “Degrades or dehumanises or demeans any person” Another is “Represents(whether directly or by implication) that members of any particular class of the public are inherently inferior to other members of the public by reason of any characteristic of members of that class...” The Human Rights Act 1993 Section 21(1) is then referred to. This Human Rights legislation is important, because the Review Board, of which Mr Hastings was a member, appealed to it, when it banned the two Christian videos on homosexuality and AIDS, included this reasoning in their d
Parliament appears to have signalled its intention to limit freedom of expression set out in s.14 of the Bill of Rights Act, 1990 first by enacting the Film, videos and publications Classification Act 1993 and secondly by allowing freedom of expression to be limited by reference to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Human Rights Act 1993.
It is a matter of record that the High Court upheld the decision, and the case is now subject to appeal. I then asked Mr Hastings if words like “degrading, dehumanising and demeaning” were not moral categories. He initially denied that they were in relation to this law. But I asked him again if these were not terms that we would use in a moral context. He answered:
They might be. They are possibly, I mean I would concede that they are the most subjective of any of the terms in Section 3, and I suppose given that there is an opening there for the insertion of some sort of personal...”
Mr Hastings paused here, perhaps conscious that here was an admission that moral judgements are involved. When he says that these terms are the most subjective, he is admitting that censorship judgements are not purely objective legal judgements at all. He went on to say that this subjectivity was, “balanced by that fact that [there is] a precedent in this office. We (I hope anyway) consistently interpret those words in the same way; so that people know where they stand.” He adds that there is a process of checks and balances which involves peer-checking, for example. Nevertheless, he cannot escape the fact that there is an element of subjectivity involved, and even if all their classifications were consistently the result of a particular definition of "demean", "degrade" and "dehumanise", that definition is still ultimately subjective. It still involves a personal moral judgement. One other important criteria that is involved in classification of publications is the judgement of ‘inferiority.’ If a publication depicts some class of people as ‘inherently inferior’, it can be classified as objectionable and, in the case of the Christian videos I have mentioned, even banned.
This obviously has huge implications for the preaching of the Law and Gospel. Unrepentant sin carries with it a stigma of judgement and rejection by God and by the Church. Homosexuality in particular is an abomination, placed on the same level in Scripture as bestiality (Lev. 18:22,23.) One who practices such behaviour should be put to death according the Law of God (Lev. 21:13). (I am not suggesting that the Old Testament penal sanctions apply in this New Testament Age) Nevertheless, biblical Christianity will declare such individuals involved in these acts to be unrighteous. This is a judgement of moral inferiority, at the very least. Of course this is the case for all sin and not just homosexuality. (I would argue that adultery is just as heinous a sin.) Neither do we deny that “all have sinned.” Moreover, when a Minister preaches on such a subject, I also need to stress, there is a earnest desire that such an unrighteous person will turn from his sin and embrace Christ as Lord and Saviour. The Preacher does not denounce sin to attack the individual sinner. Rather, out of genuine love for the sinner, he seeks by the means of the Word and Spirit to persuade a homosexual to turn from his sin and find salvation. But it cannot be denied that the Bible does make a woeful judgement on those who practice homosexuality and who will not repent. Obviously the Christian framework of judging that which is ‘demeaning’ or ‘inferior’ is quite a different framework than that of the Censor’s office. Both, however, are making a moral judgement. The Film Censor is making a judgement, even if it is subject to peer review. That peer review is no less subjective.
If Mr Hastings is correct, that the judgements, which he and his office make are not moral judgements, then we live in a frightening world of arbitrary law imposed by an immoral society. If, as he suggests, the legislation removes moral judgement in applying the law, apart from the element of honestly applying the law, we live in society where clinical civil servants, impartially make decisions according to standards legislated by a largely pagan Parliament.
But the reality is quite different, seen through Christian glasses. There is, according to Mr Hastings’ admission, an element of subjectivity in the decisions of the Censor’s Office. If his subjectivity is not informed in any way by moral values, then what is it informed by? Surely to weigh qualities like ‘to demean’ and ‘to degrade’ and to pass a judgement on publications accordingly, is a moral exercise! One way to illustrate this is to hypothesise that the Film Censors are Bible believing Christians and they had to review a video which contained explicit homosexual sex, or any sex for that matter. Would such a Christian not find such activity "demeaning", "degrading" and "dehumanising", both for the individuals in the publication and mankind generally? To deny that moral judgements are involved in the Censor’s role, therefore, cannot be sustained.
Mr Hastings' own view seems to be that a Government provides legislation in an area of sexual ethics, outlaws some specific sexually related activities in the body of the legislation, and leave the final judgement on the goodness or badness (as non-moral qualities) of the activity to a group of people who deny that they bring their own personal beliefs to their subjective judgements.
Why should Christians be frightened or concerned about this? If an activity is considered bad and dehumanising, such as attacking the homosexual agenda, then it may be, sooner rather than later, made illegal to declare certain behaviours and the individuals who practice those behaviours as unrighteous or immoral. In other words, to preach that human beings are sinful, which is definitely a judgement of moral inferiority, should logically receive the same treatment from the legislators and enforcers of our society. If the general appeal to human rights legislation is maintained, and if the courts as the last resort of appeal are themselves peopled by non-Christian liberal humanists, the day may not be far away when it will be an offence to oppose the practice homosexuality and other moral evils from the pulpit. If the preaching of the law is outlawed, then the Church is denied its expression of compassion in bringing the solace and relief of the Gospel for needy sinners.
We have a feminist dominated Parliament, fully sympathetic to the view that homosexuality is a legitimate moral choice, which needs protection under the law. Is it not logical for such a group of people to see the criticism of homosexuality on the same level as racism? I leave you this question to ponder. But we also need to say this. What ever apparent victory the Devil seems to gain in our society, it is an illusory victory. The last thing I want to convey is some sense of helplessness or despair. The Word of God tells us that God is working out His purposes, even through such evil, we may experience in our own society. Ephesians 1:18ff. bears pondering also: [I pray that] the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. [These are] in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly [places], far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.