Of Preachers on Buses and Censorship
For some reason I have agonized for over two weeks about whether to publish this. Yet, here goes…
Same knife weh juk sheep juk goat.
I am extremely uncomfortable with the recent JUTC ban of preachers on buses. Sometimes it verges on dislike. My discomfort is nothing to do with Jamaica (supposedly) being a “Christian nation” or because Jamaica holds the record for the most churches per square mile (keeping in mind that most of the preachers on buses were Christian). It’s nothing to do with any tarnishing of that reputation, especially because the last I checked Jamaica is a democracy not a theocracy…so the majority religion should not hold sway over policy making anyway. And it’s not because I haven’t found bellowing bus preachers annoying…or because preaching can have a disruptive effect on the listener…or because I don’t think one is entitled to a quiet and safe (yes, safe) bus ride. I also don’t think that this is symbolic of the nation turning its back on God, or that banning bus preachers invites the devil to take over. I am uncomfortable because of the alarm bells clanging in my mind are signalling that something is not quite right whenever a particular group is singled out for attention that amounts to censorship. Not fond of either it or discrimination (except in very very narrow circumstances, like affirmative action…and even then I’m queasy). With this ban on bus preachers the limit on free speech is clear and that should make you uneasy too.
In this instance preachers have been singled out. The ban is broad – not just Christian preachers – but still it is a specific group of people who have been singled out for this “special attention.” To me it’s not much different from the selective enforcement of the Noise Abatement Act against secular events while many crusades and tent churches go until the wee hours untouched. Or has that changed?
I’ve noticed that much has been written, tweeted, debated, and said in the days since the JUTC issued the ban. The debate seems to center around (1) recent census data indicating that a significant number of Jamaicans is atheist and this fact being acknowledged, analyzed, and accepted; and (2) that even if not atheist, one should be free from hearing the “Word” during one’s daily commute. To a lesser degree I’ve seen the discussion framed in terms of “minority” versus “majority” and the twists of having the latter make the rules that govern the former. All of these analytic lenses are important I think. But none of that lessens my unease at preachers being singled out because it seems as if a fundamental point is being ignored: why isn’t the ban addressed ANYONE who is disruptive on public transportation? For that matter why is it a “ban” and not a rule governing the conduct of passengers and operators of vehicles that transport the public?
Why wasn’t there a less reactionary, broadly framed and constructed rule that, perhaps, is aimed at public safety instead of singling out any one group? Because I think that there is a clear public safety issue here: bus preachers or any other continuous loud disturbance on a bus or other public carrier presents a hazard to the operators of the bus, and potentially affects passenger safety. That would encompass, at least, bus preachers, bus drivers, bus conductors, and bus passengers who insist on blasting their music from cell phones (or headsets). OK not a public safety issue? Then it could simply be framed as a reasonable condition of using the public transport. ALL would have to abide by the rule established by the licensing authority, which includes rules meant to address the comfort (and marketability? attractiveness as a means of transportation?) of the means of transport. As it stands with this ban what’s to prevent say the Gaza faithful or the Brethren of Tommy Lee from boarding buses and sharing why they love that clique, its rules, and its music so much? Is that preaching? Because it’s not a a church/synagogue/mosque? How does one define preaching exactly? Would this activity then be promoting? What prohibits that? Or what’s to prevent protesting teachers, students, or a particular community’s members from boarding buses to loudly share that message of protest? Is it that the JUTC will react each time a similar or related issue arises, eventually creating a patchwork of ad hoc and arbitrary rules? This ban is yet another short term solution to a problem and so it’s unacceptable. I expect that there are other rules or laws specific to disturbing the peace on public transportation so why not simply dust them off, improve where necessary, and emphasize that these rules or laws will be better enforced against any and all parties?
Or, building on my original thought: craft a rule that is general and broad in scope; a time, manner, and place restriction that does not address either the content of one’s speech or the deliverer of that speech. The current rule gets at place (on a JUTC bus) and time (never), hints at manner but is incomplete (preaching presumably vocally so what about sandwich signs or a sign language preacher?) but fails generality because it is directed at a specific group (preachers) sharing a specific message (a religious one). Instead I think that it should be a rule limiting loud music or activity, speaking, or any other activity meant to disseminate any message in, from, or using public carriers — whether charter taxis, robot taxis, those cars with mounted PA systems, “executive ” or regular buses, or the Knutsford Express — unless (1) one has a license or specific permission to disseminate a specific message in, from, or using that vehicle (e.g., a government agency or NGO sharing a public health message about the dengue outbreak or HIV/AIDS testing/prevention/awareness, or a public service message reminding people to register to vote (but not about voting for particular candidates or parties)); or (2) the vehicle has been restricted to a private group (e.g., a staff bus) and business will not be solicited along a route or from the general public. Private vehicles would fall outside the scope but would still be subject to other public nuisance rules, laws, or ordinances. Perhaps this kind of rule would (re)kindle in Jamaican society things like civility and respect for public spaces and those using them. A spark for truly embracing the ideals of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (see also here).
As it is now, the ban has created an atmosphere where a group has been singled out to the (apparent) delight of many; some are on the defensive and others are gleeful. Schadenfreude? Constructive discussion be damned. That’s another reason I hate this ban: it prevents real, constructive discussion. There’s also the fatigue — something’s been done, so much is wrong so I’m just glad that something has been done — that breeds complacency regarding rights. And then the cavalier attitude of many toward discrimination of all sorts — job announcements that specify age or gender, unwritten rules about the type of person who can use an establishment, laws about how people can have sex. Discomfort.
I take no issue with the growing discussion of the invasion of Christianity into official public life. For example, the brief commentary that I saw on Twitter during the Jamaica 50 presentation at the National Stadium about why there was only a Christian prayer (or any prayer at all) is entirely valid in my opinion. It is a discussion that needs to happen. Why? Because, again: Jamaica is a democracy not a theocracy. Also: the nation’s motto doesn’t and shouldn’t only apply to skin colour or ethnicity.
As I see it the slippery slope has been greased – maybe lightly but greased nonetheless – toward censorship and more formalized discrimination.