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Restraint required to protect freedom of speech: The Portuguese Chicken

by Dr Simon Longstaff
05 August 2002
The 'Portuguese chicken' company (actually South African) and its advertising agency will probably chalk this article up as another 'positive outcome' (any publicity is good publicity) flowing from their most recent use of controversial material to flog cooked chooks. All I can say is that I hope they are wrong.

In my last contribution to B&T, I argued strongly in favour of the principle of freedom of speech. However, in the context of that argument, I made an additional point – that the best way to preserve these fundamental freedoms, so that they are available at times when we really need their protection, is to exercise a measure of voluntary, self-restraint. I should have gone on to make a third and even more fundamental, point.
Freedom of speech . . . asserts that no person is an object to be used simply as a means to some other end.
Freedom of speech rests, in part, on the principle of 'respect for persons' – that each and every human being is of equal value – irrespective of race, gender, religion, sexuality – or anything else. It asserts that no person is an object to be used simply as a means to some other end. That is, all people have a basic degree of dignity that is denied when we use them merely as a 'tool' for some other purpose. It is out of respect for persons that we generate the idea that their freedom to speak is worth protecting.

Most people 'get' the basic idea. Those who struggle with it can usually be convinced by asking them to participate in a simple thought experiment. All that they have to do is imagine what it might like to be in the shoes of someone who has been stripped of their dignity. Alternatively, they might imagine what it would be like if one of their loved ones – a child, perhaps – was to be treated merely as an object by others. This usually does the trick – and the point is made.

I wonder if Michael Abdul engaged in this kind of thought experiment before deciding to build his client's prosperity on the backs of people alienated and traumatised in ways that most of us could hardly begin to contemplate? I wonder if he has imagined how he might feel if it was his mother's lips that had been sewed together to protest against her detention? I wonder if he would celebrate an advertisement that played with the idea that his child might be inclined to cut the sutures of silent complaint in order to eat an extra portion of chicken?

Who knows, perhaps Michael and his client asked and answered such questions to their satisfaction before proceeding to use the plight of the asylum seekers to flog a few chooks. However, if this is so, then it would be good to hear this from their own lips. Then we'd know that this was not a careless act – but a conscious decision – maybe even a decision taken in good conscience.

If this is so, then it was an uncannily unfortunate moment of hypocrisy when the ad agency chose to generate controversy through the use of imprisoned people. In order to show what I mean, let me quote an excerpt from the company's website – published by the head office in South Africa. At one point the company explains the origins of its corporate symbol – the Barcelos Cockerel. Here's what it has to say:

"We believe many an ageless truth is found in myth and legend. One such myth dating back to the fourth century is that of the Barcelos Cockerel: 'In Barcelos, a small town in Portugal, a passing pilgrim was wrongly accused of theft, for which the penalty was death. Feeling threatened in a foreign village, he only had his faith to call upon. He appealed to 'Our Lady' and St James (the patron saint of protection) that justice be done. The pilgrim found his way to the judge who was to decide his fate. The judge was about to commence eating a roast cockerel for his dinner. The pilgrim pleaded, 'If I am innocent, may that cockerel get up and crow!' The cockerel at once got up and crowed heartily. The cockerel has, to this day, been the symbol of faith, justice and good luck.' ... if there is only one simple truth, it's that there will always be room for a little more pride, passion, courage, warmth, fun and traditional hospitality in the world."

Somewhat ironic? You bet!

There can be no doubt that the chook company and their ad agency acted without malice. They did not intend to cause harm. They would not have thought that their strategy might degrade others. They would not have thought ... but, what did they think about? Did they think long or hard enough about any of these concerns?

The Barcelos Cockerel clearly didn't crow for the people in detention. Not much good luck to be found there. As for justice . . . well, that's another story. At least they had their dignity . . .

Dr Simon Longstaff AO is executive director of St James Ethics Centre.