Monday, February 20, 2006

Tolerance is not enough

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


At 8:41 AM, February 20, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Just to clarify slightly, the UK already protects Christians too - it is enshrined in some of our older laws (although rarely invoked). We have specific blasphemy laws which apply only to christianity, and of course it is treason to speak against the church of England, and sedition to doubt any of it's ministers! This law was intended to update the blasphemy laws.

The law failed because if you read it closely it actually said that if any person found a public speech offensive, that would become a criminal offence. The main opponants of the bill were the whole of the entertainment industry, including some pretty big guns led by Rowan Atkinson (BlackAdder, Mr Bean).

At 11:03 AM, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Grant said...

Interesting blog Q. Dr. Wright is right! It seems to me that our society continues to break down and even lose its ability to intelligently dialogue, assess, and make informed judgements. We react more than we think. (I include myself in this as well.)

When someone disagrees with an opinion or a stance it is often disregarded without being considered, or examined. We have an "us and them" attitude. Our ears are open to those we identify with and our ears are closed to those we label as different. Identification has become more important than ideas.

In the interest of tolerance and plurality we seemed to have missed the point. A healthy, well-adjusted society, is one in which ideas are easily exchanged and discussed and even challenged and strenuously defended. Of course there are limits. Respect must always be in play.

What I find ironic in all these changes is this: the more "tolerant" we profess to be, the more "intolerant" or at least "selectively intolerant" we become. It is that "us and them" point again. We have become tolerant of those who preach, for lack of a better word" the same "tolerant" worldview as ours, but at the same time, we don't want to hear from anyone who would question the validity of our veneer of tolerance. Further still, I see more personal attacks these days than I see argument against one's position. It seems much easier to discount a person than it is to consider and then discount, or accept for that matter, someone's ideas.

The only outcome I can see in all this is a lack of dialogue and mutual understanding, which will only increase our fear, distrust, and intolerance. Ultimately how can anyone really respect another's rights if they aren't allowed the freedom to openly share them in an appropriate, respectful manner?

Real tolerance is the welcoming of all kinds of thoughts and ideas. Real plurality is creating a marketplace for ideas to contend with each other with the rational being that ultimately the greatest ideas and truths will win out in the end.

At 6:46 PM, February 21, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Mrs. Aginoth:
Thanks for the clarification. I am vaguely aware of the laws against blasphemy, but I hadn't connected them with this issue.

When was the last time anyone was charged with a criminal offence for blaspheming, or speaking against the church of England? I doubt that the laws offer any real protection. But that's not a complaint: I doubt it would constitute progress if England started to enforce the laws.

• Grant:
Thanks for delurking!

(Blogger should market a delurking device, like the decloaking device in Star Trek. It would be a big seller.)

Identification has become more important than ideas.

Well said. I think most of us feel so overwhelmed with the demands of modern life that we look for shortcuts. And in the realm of ideas, the shortcuts tend to involve identifying ourselves with our own kind of people.

Understanding others who are different than us takes a serious investment of time and mental energy.

The more "tolerant" we profess to be, the more "intolerant" or at least "selectively intolerant" we become.

There's truth in what you say. Let's take a specific example, one that Wright touches on.

On the face of it, it seems intolerant to say that homosexuality is wrong and harmful. And, to be clear, I don't believe homosexuality is either of those things. But I don't think it should be a crime to express that opinion. Like Wright, I strongly oppose the criminalization of thoughts and ideas.

Can our society tolerate opinions which, on their face, are intolerant? Admittedly, we have to draw a line somewhere: the line where expressing an opinion crosses over into the promotion of hatred against an identifiable group. But merely saying that homosexuality is wrong, or even that the recognition of homosexual marriages will harm society — we ought to be able to tolerate that degree of dissent / "intolerance".

Otherwise, we make a mockery of free speech, which is supposed to be one of our core values.

At 5:22 AM, February 22, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Q asked When was the last time anyone was charged with a criminal offence for blaspheming, or speaking against the church of England

On 11 July 1977, the fortnightly gay newspaper, Gay News, was found guilty of blasphemous libel after it published James Kirkup’s poem, The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name

Although there had not been a conviction under the blasphemey law for some decades prior to that. But it shows that if someone is determned enough, the law still stands.


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