Tony Blair’s government recently failed to pass a controversial piece of legislation, the Racial and Religious Hatred bill. A watered down version of the bill is likely to be introduced in its stead:
The new offence is designed to stop hatred being whipped up against people because of their religion — not just their race. …
Sikhs and Jews already have full protection from incitement because the courts regard them as distinct races. But Christians, Muslims and others have not been given the same protection because they do not constitute a single ethnic block.
Presumably the government expected Christians to support the bill, but it was opposed by groups including the Seventh Day Adventists and an unlikely alliance of humanists, secularists, evangelical Christians, and even some Muslims. The latter group of strange bedfellows, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, worried that the bill would undermine free speech:
“A free society must have the scope to debate, criticise, proselytise, insult and even to ridicule belief and religious practices in order to ensure that there is full scope — short of violence or inciting violence or other criminal offences — to tackle these issues.” …
The signatories to the letter include two Muslims, Dr Ghyasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, and Manzoor Moghal, of the Muslim Forum.
Their views contrast with the stance of the Muslim Council of Britain, widely seen as the country’s most representative Muslim body, which is supportive of the new legislation.
The Church of England supported the legislation, but Dr. N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, opposed it. Wright is a clergyman and a New Testament scholar who makes a lot of waves. (If you do a blog search on Tom Wright you’ll get more than 17,000 hits.)
On February 9, Wright addressed the House of Lords on the theme, “Moral Climate Change and Freedom of Speech”. Here are some excerpts (the full text is available here):
What we face, my Lords, is “moral climate change”, comparable to other forms of climate change and equally dangerous. The 1960s and 1970s swept away the old moral certainties, and anyone who tries to reassert them risks being mocked as an ignoramus or scorned as a hypocrite.But since then we’ve learned that you can’t run the world as a hippy commune. Getting rid of the old moralities hasn’t made us happier or safer. We have discovered that we do indeed need some guidelines if chaos is not to come again. …
This uncertainty, my Lords, has produced our current nightmare, the invention of new quasi-moralities out of bits and pieces of moral rhetoric. … But it isn’t just the invention of new moralities that should concern us, my Lords. It is the attempt to enforce them — to enforce, that is, newly invented standards which are in some cases the exact opposite of the old ones.
How else can we explain the ejection of a heckler from a party conference for questioning the government’s stance on Iraq, or the attempted silencing of protests on the same subject in Parliament Square? How else can we explain the anxiety not only of religious leaders but also of comedians when faced with that dangerously vague and insidious Religious Hatred legislation? How else can we explain the police investigation of religious leaders such as my Right Reverend colleague the Bishop of Chester, or the Chair of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, for making moderate and considered statements about homosexual practice?And since the crimes in question have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs, what we are seeing is thought crime. People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged.
My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime. All that such a situation can achieve is to add another new fear to those which minorities already experience. The word for such a state of affairs is “tyranny”: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police. …
Part of the problem of “freedom of speech” is that it tends to be the media who are most in favour of it — though they themselves often cheerfully censor information that cuts against editorial policy. Freedom of speech, my Lords, is useless if it is only selectively enjoyed, and if it is not combined with appropriate responsibility.
If “freedom of speech” is to be rehabilitiated as a useful concept, it needs to be set within a larger context of social and cultural wisdom. …
“Tolerance” is not the point. My Lords, I can “tolerate” someone standing on the other side of the street. I don’t need to engage with them.
“Tolerance” … is a parody of something deeper, richer and more costly, for which we must work: a genuine and reciprocal freedom, a freedom properly contextualised within a wise responsibility, freedom not to be gratuitously rude or offensive, especially to those who are already in danger on the margins of society.
It is a freedom to speak the truth as we see it while simultaneously listening to the truth as others see it, and to work forwards from there. …
My Lords, it is precisely that sort of wise, responsible freedom which is at risk if you’re afraid that honestly held beliefs, clearly and respectfully expressed, are likely to get you into trouble with the law.
Wright makes a lot of provocative points here. I singled out just one in the title of this post: tolerance is not enough.
Wright suggests that tolerance is a cheap virtue. We need to do more than tolerate those who are different from us: we need to engage them in dialogue.
Hence the importance of free speech. When people are free to express their ideas, conventional views get held up to critical scrutiny. We learn from one another, and we make intellectual and moral progress.
That’s why Wright opposed the Racial and Religious Hatred bill. It is impossible to engage others in dialogue if you’re afraid that you’ll be arrested if you speak your mind.
On the other hand, free speech is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Thus Wright is critical of the way free speech is currently exercised in our society. He says that free speech must be exercised responsibly; it is useless if it is only selectively enjoyed; it must be set within a larger context of social and cultural wisdom; it is a freedom not to be gratuitously rude or offensive.
Wright doesn’t say so, but I suspect those cartoons that denigrated Muhammad and Islam are in the background here. Did the cartoons promote dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims? Did they cause us to think twice about our conventional understanding of Islam, or did they merely reinforce the sterotypical view? Did they contribute to the human race’s intellectual and moral progress?
We are grappling with complex and incendiary issues here. Governments and news media act irresponsibly when they make simplistic, expedient gestures.
In the current geopolitical climate, moving forward is like hiking on uneven terrain: with each and every step, we must be extremely careful about where we set our feet.
copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz