RIGHTS WATCH: Censoring a Conversation

Hilary Sinclair | Print Coordinator

Imagine Pope Benedict XVI locking lips with an imam. That arousing mental image got real last week. It appeared on billboards and hung from bridges in Rome, Paris, Tel Aviv, New York and Milan on Wednesday, courtesy of clothing company United Colors of Benetton’s newest ad campaign.

The Vatican, in typical Vatican fashion, got offended. The sensual depiction of its leader prompted threats of legal action against the company. In response, Benetton removed the image from the collection of controversial kisses that make up its newest campaign, entitled ‘Unhate.’

This latest move by the Catholic Church comes during the Pope’s visit to Africa where he, irony aside, preached to leaders that they should stop depriving their people of hope for a better future.

There’s an irony to the Pope making these optimistic statements while the Vatican uses its monetary influence to censor the conversations that could actually cultivate this hope.

As of late, our society seems to value large-scale conversation more than ever. All you have to do is look at the tents and demonstrations popping up in hundreds of cities around the world.

Starting a conversation is what this ad was meant to do as well.

Benetton is no amateur when it comes to using shock tactics. Their past ads include a man dying of AIDS with his grieving family next to his hospital bed, a black woman breastfeeding a white baby and three identical human hearts labeled black, white and yellow.

All these contentious images have a purpose, however. They may be intended to raise consumer awareness of Benetton’s products, but they’re doing so by attempting to shock the population into having a conversation.

People are angry because they feel their religion is being mocked. But I think what is really being mocked here are the people themselves—people who can’t see past the homosexuality (and a lot of people are up in arms about that), who can’t look up from their Bible or Qur’an and see what is really going on around them.

Religious intolerance is breeding hate and war, and guess what, our society is not working.

So let’s talk. Let’s look at these ads and ask ourselves why they shock us. Why this meeting of ideas is so unfathomable that the Vatican feels they should be torn down and many in the religious community are upset. It is because in our limited scope of the future we cannot picture a time when this is possible. That is the message here.

The message also extends its shock to political figures.

We get Barack Obama locking lips with Chinese President Hu Jintao, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sucking face with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas playing tonsil hockey.

Now, these are not awkward grandma kisses. They are intimate, eyes-closed mouth parties so skillfully edited that they could be real. And maybe they should be—could be—real.

This campaign, ultimately, is about more than selling clothes. This campaign is about forcing us to talk about why we are shocked by these images. It’s a shame that a valuable participant in the discussion has opted to shut it out, rather than speak up.

This column originally appeared in The Link Newspaper at http://thelinknewspaper.ca/article/2274 

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One thought on “RIGHTS WATCH: Censoring a Conversation

  1. I agree with what you have presented and believe that shocking images are good ways to start a dialogue but there are other ways of doing that as well. Offending a religion, in my opinion, is not something that we should be aiming towards. Instead of kissing, they could have simply shown them hugging and I think that would have received a more favourable feedback. This has not started a dialogue but created a controversy.

    On a side note, I do agree that censoring a conversation is highly inappropriate.

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