January 17, 2006

Free speech?

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Several times recently people have asserted that others are 'wrong' merely because they don't conform to the perceived majority views of western society. In the entry above the debate is centred on the expression of an anti-homosexual viewpoint by Sir Iqbal Sacranie, president of the Muslim Council of Britain. Although I do not personally agree with his standpoint I have no problem with him, or anyone else, expressing the convictions of their faith providing that no active persecution takes place. Yes, religion is entirely opinion and cannot be proved, but how can the reverse viewpoint be proved either? Yes, religious extremists contradict what we believe to be correct, but from their viewpoint our feelings are blasphemous, and who’s to say who is ‘right’?

Why should people be forced to limit what they say simply because it might offend others? If we follow that argument to its logical conclusion no debate should be allowed at all, because all possible arguments offend someone!

It seems to me that everyone is extremely hasty to proclaim the necessity for free speech, providing that those speaking agree with them personally or with the popular or politically correct concept.

By defending the rights of the persecuted in an attempt to promote free speech are we going too far and as a result merely creating new victims of persecution?

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Voltaire

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  1. Voltaire's statement was one of the most important ever made but, like much Enlightenment thought, it does involve a certain degree of utopianism. I have no problem with being offended by people's views (I support Man Utd, I am well used to hearing vitriolic abuse aimed at something I love) but it's when those views cross over into dangerous incitement that we must beware. Is it ok, for instance, to advocate assaults on immigrants, on women, on suspected criminals? Is it right to claim that certain sections of society are inferior, subhuman or morally wrong knowing that there will be those who listen to such pronouncements and then act violently on them?

    If we could trust people to keep their attacks to words and words only then yes, I would be perfectly happy to allow utter free speech. But this is not going to happen in the real world. There are too many people who, for whatever reason, have violent tendencies which such sentiments could fuel, sending them out to commit crimes in the knowledge that someone out there has given them support and a blessing.

    Most people who are pro complete freedom of speech are the sort of people who deserve it, individuals who accept that there will be difference and variation in society that they can debate but wouldn't ever take up arms against. But that's not the whole of society and that's the reason why we need to ensure that we don't allow verbal persecution to be widely disseminated.

    Admittedly this raises the problem of what do we class as unacceptable but that's another debate.

    17 Jan 2006, 12:33

  2. Is it right to claim that certain sections of society are inferior, subhuman or morally wrong knowing that there will be those who listen to such pronouncements and then act violently on them?

    I think you're slightly over-the-top in believing that what Iqbal has said is going to suddenly generate an anti-homosexual riot…

    We've got to distinguish between lifestyle-choice and the inability to choose here.

    I believe that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. This does not mean that I won't be proved wrong in the future. Or that I won't be proved right. This is my opinion. Condemning a lifestyle choice is different to condemning ethnic minorities in society.

    Admittedly this raises the problem of what do we class as unacceptable but that's another debate.

    Well yes but a far more important debate given what you've said. And who is "we" when it comes to deciding what is and isn't unacceptable.

    17 Jan 2006, 13:02

  3. dan

    The difficulty is that there are many people who look up to thier religious leaders but may not possess equal mental capacity. As uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility.

    17 Jan 2006, 13:14

  4. I think you're slightly over-the-top in believing that what Iqbal has said is going to suddenly generate an anti-homosexual riot

    I didn't directly say Sacranie's words fall into this category, I don't think they do in themself. But it's a matter of being careful not to engage with the slippery slope that leads to words which might have that effect. Plus, as a rational human being I cannot say what would trigger someone who has a propensity to violence as that's not my mentality.

    Anyway, I've said on Tom's blog that I believe homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice and there is no choice involved, you are or you are not. But that's not something we can prove at this time so I've no wish to be drawn into a debate on it.

    Well yes but a far more important debate given what you've said. And who is "we" when it comes to deciding what is and isn't unacceptable.

    Well exactly, hence why I'm not going into this here as it's veering off topic and is a massive debate on which I have not yet completely settled my opinions.

    17 Jan 2006, 13:46

  5. I believe that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. This does not mean that I won't be proved wrong in the future. Or that I won't be proved right. This is my opinion. Condemning a lifestyle choice is different to condemning ethnic minorities in society.

    I'm not sure if lifestyle is the right word here. It assumes that all gay people have come together and have decided upon what it means to be gay. Like a religion, basically. You might need to explain this better, but for now I'll tell you how I read "homosexuality = lifestyle choice".

    I assume that you understand that there are many ways of how people deal with homosexuality, so let's abandon the suggestion I just gave [that they all came together and decided on the definition of the lifestyle]. So what do they have in common? Same sex relations. What if they decide to have no sex at all? Okay, same sex relationships. What if, for whatever reason, they decide not to be in a relationship? Okay, the are inclined to have these relationships. So this lifestyle definition is to be inclined to have same sex relationships. How do you choose to be inclined to have a certain relationship?

    Without the word lifestyle, you're left with saying homosexuality is a choice. Fair enough - there's no way you can convince me and there's probably no way I can convince you it's not. Which brings us to who is right and who is wrong. Does it matter? If homosexuality is proven to be a choice, I'll still believe it's not. If it's proven to be embedded in someone's personality, I don't expect world religions to reconsider their statements, nor do I expect you to believe it's not.

    17 Jan 2006, 14:01

  6. The problem with what you've said, Holly, is that in order to follow it you do have to define unacceptable behaviour. You have to identify a point at which expressing an opinion progresses on to inciting some kind of action… which is extremely difficult.

    'Is it right to claim that certain sections of society are inferior, subhuman or morally wrong'
    I don't think Christianity, for one, would claim that homosexuals were inferior or subhuman. In fact, according to the bible we are all equal in the eyes of God. Homosexuals are rather seen to be living in sin, in the same way as unmarried couples. This doesn't make them any less human than married Christians that commit other sins (which we all do).

    I don't necessarily think that the term 'lifestyle' has to be defined here. Hamid was only using as the alternative to genetic predisposition.

    17 Jan 2006, 14:40

  7. Your relativism hurts my feelings and makes me cry.

    17 Jan 2006, 14:52

  8. I know this debate isn't about the word 'lifestyle', but it does point out the problem with free speech: misinterpretation. I'm more worried that in the background of the argument, different values are given to different lifestyles.

    Condemning a lifestyle choice is different to condemning ethnic minorities in society.

    Honestly, if ethnic minorities stand for 'genetic predisposition', then lifestyle choices to me sounds like anything not genetically predisposed, from the clothes you wear and the number of piercings in your ear to the food you eat, the sex you have, and the God you worship [or not]. To quote the lovely Megan sitting next to me: Whenever 'ethnic minorities' are mentioned in the media, often they are related to religion as well, especially islam and judaism. That might be a misconception from either the media, or from me, but that's the idea I get from the debate on this blog again.

    17 Jan 2006, 16:10

  9. The problem with what you've said, Holly, is that in order to follow it you do have to define unacceptable behaviour. You have to identify a point at which expressing an opinion progresses on to inciting some kind of action which is extremely difficult.

    I know that, hence why I've said I consider this to be a difficult issue. But I find that there is often a broad consensus on what constitutes certain behaviours and actions. After all we live in a common law legal system where the judges are sentencing based on precedent and their own interpretations in most cases. It's ingrained in this society that we judge each case on its merits or otherwise. If someone stands up in front of a bunch of young Irish people and calls them taigs then it will probably be met with indifference. Do that to older Irish people or ones from Northern Ireland and you have the potential for largescale insult. But you'd have to literally judge it on each case though often the answer is quite obvious to anyone with an understanding of the situation in question.

    If we're dealing with the specifics of homosexuality then I refer everyone to the lack of equality in law, the incidence of homophobic attacks of all hues (from verbal insults to murder), the refusal by some sectors of society to even acknowledge homosexuality even though it can be incredibly hard for those who are gay to come to terms with it. Is it hard to understand why the gay community feels comments from religious communities more strongly than your example of the unmarrieds? When was the last time someone was murdered for being unmarried? And what of those Christian groups who wave placards declaring "God hates fags" at homophobic murder trials, or these Muslims (which to be fair probably don't include Sacranie) who go around saying gays should be killed?

    We have rights and responsibilities and much as we can shout for our rights we must remember we have responsibilities to those in society who aren't able to stand up and defend themselves.

    I don't necessarily think that the term 'lifestyle' has to be defined here. Hamid was only using as the alternative to genetic predisposition.

    A lifestyle can be changed. I believe sexuality can't. I also find the use of the word in relation to sexuality to be somewhat dismissive and accusatory, as if the person using it has not considered that there are few people out there who'd choose a lifestyle which makes their life harder, more vunerable and (in some cases) contrary to deeply held religious beliefs. If there is a different meaning of the word "lifestyle" then we will need to define it here as this usage is a perjorative one to at least one debater.

    Thorwald I have to agree with everything you've said, even (especially) the stuff I think I am guilty of doing which I shouldn't. It's sometimes hard to clarify things in debates on this media but that's the nature of blogs I guess.

    17 Jan 2006, 16:47

  10. Thorwald:
    Call me blonde, but I don't completely understand what you're trying to say.

    If homosexuality is, indeed, genetically determined it is tantamount to an ethnic minority, I suppose, in that it is part of a person's makeup and is unchangeable. However, if it is not it could be said to be on a par with religion, choices of aparrel and so on. Should genetic predispositions and lifestyle choices should be treated with differing levels of respect?

    You used the example of members of religious movements living identicle lives ('they all came together and decided on the definition of the lifestyle'). I would dispute this to some extent. Yes, a religion is built upon the same foundation, but you have only to look at Christianity to see that within that umbrella of faith people have hugely varying ideas of what is right and wrong, and thus live their lives in very different ways. By your logic should we believe the dangerous misconception that, for example, all Muslims are fundamentalists willing to engage in terrorist acts?

    17 Jan 2006, 17:12

  11. Holly, I'm really not disagreeing with you!!! I, too, would condemn any acts of hatred towards any section of society. I have said that already. I am merely defnding the rights of everyone to hold an opinion, despite the fact that others may disagree.

    As far as the predisposition-to-homosexuality debate, your opinion is just that – an opinion. The opinion that it is a lifestyle choice is another opinion is another. Neither are proven yet, so both are valid.

    17 Jan 2006, 17:19

  12. No, but that's the problem by calling something a lifestyle, which I was trying to address.

    I think the reason you don't completely understand lies not in genetic predisposition [you being blonde]. It's the fact that you place religion on a par with homosexuality, where I was worried that – as religion is often placed on a par with ethnic minorities – it would be under different scrutiny.

    I completely agree with you on the dangerous misconceptions and the variety within each religion. I was mainly using the example on the use of the word 'lifestyle' and the generalisations you obtain when using such a word.

    17 Jan 2006, 17:22

  13. I was confused because there's a difference between putting homosexuality and religion, for example, on a par as far as the severity of your judgement of them is concerned and associating two separate features of a person's makeup, which I presumed was what you were getting at when you were talking about the misconceptions of the media in comment 8.

    17 Jan 2006, 17:42

  14. Sarah To be honest you're just a more optimistic, less misanthropically* cynical version of me hence your (to be honest quite admirable) belief in freedom of speech. Oh well, I've said my piece and won't be changing any minds here, but then I don't really know if I'd want to. Do what you want as long as it does not impinge on the happiness of others. Don't know who said that but I like it.

    *Although having said I dislike people as a whole, I rarely meet an individual I don't like or try to get on with. Individuals are just full of lovely surprises.

    17 Jan 2006, 19:16

  15. Holly, thank you for that. I know that I often sound unrealistically idealistic, but sometimes I think it's worth having the discussion even if there's no chance that any of it might come true!

    17 Jan 2006, 20:40


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