Russell Peters recently hosted his own Christmas special on CTV.

No-win situation with juvenile media’s double standards

  • December 7, 2011

Christians made to look like the bad guy in Russell Peters’ controversy

When CTV announced that its Russell Peters Christmas special would feature a Nativity skit with Pamela Anderson portraying the Virgin Mary, various entertainment media pundits made predictable witticisms about enraged Christians protesting to the point of giving each other heart attacks. The cheap shots, of course, bear no resemblance to reality. Most Christians only protest the most vile material, and even then tend to reserve judgment until they’ve verified that it’s actually as bad as advertised. By and large, Christians have low expectations of entertainment media and, rather than complain, simply change the channel.

As Rex Murphy said in a National Post column, Christians are expected to either secretly enjoy the casual ridicule of their beliefs or, at least, not complain about it.

“The (CTV special) casting is so, so clever — getting a lewd exhibitionist to play Mary, to call in a pop culture tart to play the very Mother of God.

“But for believers to object, well that would be irksome and stuffy and high-handed and parochial — it being another of this age’s curious predisposition that Christians are supposed, if not to like the jeers hurled at them, to at least be good enough to suffer the insults, blasphemies and mockeries in silence, if not secret approval. To actually object to Russell Peters going for a cheap, unintelligent and vulgar laugh would probably get categorized as “intolerance” or “censorship.”

Having seen the show, I don’t think anything stronger is warranted than a note of criticism to the producers to object to their juvenile publicity surrounding the casting. Apart from a tired old joke about the virgin birth, the show was within acceptable bounds of what one would expect to see on any other channel. The choice of actress portraying the mother of God was certainly insensitive to believers, but the nudge-and-wink remarks in the pre-show publicity were more distasteful than the skit itself.   

Nevertheless, Murphy is correct in his overall assessment that Christians are easy targets for cheap comedic shots. I have filed about a dozen formal complaints about anti-Catholic content to the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications commission) or CBSC (Canadian Broadcast Standards Council). The Catholic Civil Rights League filed at least that many more before my time.

From my experience, even the most reasoned and justified complaint elicits an inadequate response. So it’s no wonder that most people just tune out, or perhaps e-mail a complaint or boycott advertisers who sponsor offensive programming. Broadcast authorities will demand that stations apologize for commentary deemed racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-Islamic. But I’m not aware of a single case where a media outlet was sanctioned for airing or printing an anti-Christian comment. There have been some apologies at the local level, but if there’s a single case where a broadcast licence was even vaguely challenged for defaming Catholicism, it hasn’t happened in the past decade. The double standard is striking.

In a society that values free speech, censorship should be extremely limited to the extent that it exists at all. Bad taste is irritating and can be deeply offensive, but it is not illegal. Those of us who protest media bias and defamation do so in a spirit of dialogue and in the hope that some of the more glaring double standards will be diminished, not because we think censorship is desirable.

While the annual attacks on Christmas were gathering steam, the League was asked to participate in consultations for Canada’s new Office for Religious Freedom, an invitation we gladly accepted. The violent persecution faced by believers in other countries is in no way comparable to bad taste in the media. But the juxtaposition of events did remind me how easy it is for some elements in the entertainment industry to misuse our much-valued freedom as a licence to lampoon the religious beliefs of a sizeable majority of the population.

Those who dismiss complaints with “you don’t have to watch it” are obviously correct, but you could say the same thing about all offensive content, including cases where regulatory bodies are much more likely to intervene. Sending some feedback to producers and advertisers won’t guarantee a more level playing field, but it’s a start.

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