Cassandra 2012 Headline Animator

Friday, 3 August 2012

Freedom to Speak, not to Hurt

  • In the USA the boss of a fast food chain tells a religious broadcaster that he is opposed to gay marriage and the authorities in some districts threaten to ban his outlets from setting up in their town. The governor of the man’s home state declares Aug 1st to be a day of solidarity with the fast food chain boss. (The net is full of reaction to this debate, I linked to a New York Times article believing it to be a more trustworthy source than some of the other publications that appeared when I Googled “Chic-fil-a”)
  • In Ireland a judge calls Social Security “a Polish charity”. Later the judge apologises citing the “context” as her excuse.
  • In South Africa the government takes steps to suppress news of atrocities committed by, mostly young, Blacks on their white neighbours.
  • In a televised discussion in the UK a black Tory MP tells a black churchman that his intolerance of gay marriage is equivalent to others’ intolerance of black immigrants. (This was featured on BBC Newsnight 2nd August 2002, I am unable to provide a link)
What do these four stories – and no doubt there are others that I could have cited – tell us about the right to free speech and the treatment of minorities in the world today?

It was, I think, Voltaire who famously said “I disagree profoundly with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Or words to that effect). Freedom of speech, the right to express an opinion however bizarre, is one of those “inalienable rights” guaranteed by the US constitution though not necessarily so well protected by laws elsewhere.

Duties accompany rights
But along with rights come duties and it is the duty of all those exercising the right to voice their opinion in public to consider the effect of their words on those who might hear them. It is also, it seems to me, necessary for the speaker to be able to defend his or her remarks with rational argument citing evidence. When the Irish judge was unable to do that she was right to apologise, recognising that the remark was hurtful to many hard working Polish people in Ireland.

I would like to know the basis upon which those who oppose gay marriage hold such an irrational opinion. How are they, or anyone else, harmed by the availability of such a ceremony? The rational answer must be that neither they nor anyone else is harmed by gay marriage. On the other hand, to oppose the idea is hurtful to those who wish to publicly declare their love for each other before their god and in the presence of a congregation of co-religionists.

Does that mean it is right to seek to prevent a person holding such irrational beliefs from setting up a business in my town? No, of course it doesn’t. Should defending his/her right to express that opinion extend to having a day set aside in his/her honour? Not unless you want to draw attention to unfounded opinions that are hurtful to some of your fellow citizens.

Is opposition to gay marriage equivalent to racism? Is it a “hate crime”?

We have come a long way in my lifetime
Before I attempt to answer those questions it is worthwhile taking a short trip back in time. Not so long ago it was considered perfectly rational to make the assumption that black people are inferior to white people. In parts of the USA as well as in South Africa it was against the law for blacks and whites to mix socially, let alone marry each other. This was the case less than 30 years ago in South Africa and little more than 50 years ago in the USA.

Go back another 20 years, to the time of my birth, and you would have no trouble finding people who thought it perfectly rational to argue that the world’s problems could all be laid at the door of Jews and that the solution was … you know the rest.

Within the same time frame it was illegal in many parts of the world for two men to have sexual relations. Indeed, there are still parts of the world where this is the case.

These days we, in the developed world at least, consider ourselves to be more enlightened; we understand that behaviour that takes place in private between consenting adults harms no-one else and is, therefore, not to be frowned upon by the law. We understand and accept that people of all races are equally capable of being clever or stupid, saintly or evil.

Engage the brain before opening your mouth
So incitement to, or the actual infliction of, violence against people because of their skin colour or their sexuality is inexcusable and the right to freely express such a view is, I believe, correctly prevented by the laws of most civilised societies. The same goes for expressions of hate towards particular religions, including those whose influence on the governments of some nations is so strong that those governments outlaw the practice of homosexuality. In such cases it is right to condemn the government and to argue rationally against the outdated religious teachings that are cited by the leaders of those religions. But to incite violence or to make hate filled statements is unhelpful and ought to be against the law.

So, hold whatever opinion you like but please think carefully about the consequences – the effect on potential hearers – before expressing them in public. And don’t use beliefs that you can’t back with rational argument to try to change the law of your homeland.

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