Sometimes keeping schtum – the real meaning of free speech?

February 5, 2010

Politics & Current Affairs


This week, in response to the UK’s proposed equality bill, the Pope decided to row in and express what was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a conservative opinion.

I am, and have always been, liberal in my political leaning (albeit, I would argue, without the bleeding heart!). I believe in a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage and everyone’s fundamental right (irrespective of ethnicity, class or gender) to have a fair shot at the world.

I believe in state, not church, and I abhor those who seek to restrict individual and expressive freedoms by citing “natural law”. I believe that no form of religious education should be supported in state-sponsored schools: if you want your kids to learn about god (what or who ever you conceive him/her to be) then do it in your own time. And so, I found myself shouting at the newspaper as I read what Benedict had to say.

I felt entirely confident in my scathing criticism of him. In the wake of the findings about historic child sex abuse scandals too numerous to fathom, the years of repression and hypocrisy at the heart of the church’s behaviour in Ireland, and the outrage caused by the church’s recent support for a convicted rapist I was sure that “Nazi Ratzi” should have been put firmly back in his box and left there to realise the futility of his existence.

“How dare he say a thing…”, “Who does he think he is…?”, “As if he should be allowed to take up newspaper column inches…!” Pen in hand, eager to revert to my adolescent self and draw an inverted cross and “666” on the Reuters image of Benedict glaring at me from the pages of The Guardian, I realised there was a fatal flaw in my logic.

I do not believe that any religious view, Catholic or other, should impede the progress of legislation designed to enable a more inclusive and tolerant society. I believe the Pope is wrong –equality legislation, by its very nature, cannot hinder the attainment of rights and freedoms. Not being in the minority with this view, what was surprising was the outpouring of vitriol in response to Benedict’s comments.

We, the liberals, had no need in this instance to be the loudest voice. There was no rational reason for Benedict’s comments to raise our heckles the way they did. It’s not even as if there was a real engagement or debate in this instance. His comments didn’t have the potential to prevent or delay the path of liberal progress, for they were sidelined as minority, zealot and indoctrinated almost before the ink was dry. We were not being challenged – he was.

I suspect that any liberal worth their salt would say they unquestionably support free speech. And there’s the rub. Despite all our liberal leanings we have, perhaps, not come as far as we might hope. Free speech can’t just be held sacred for what you, or I, or any one group believe. I may passionately disagree with Benedict’s view but I have crossed a line if I don’t believe he should be allowed to express it. And maybe that’s the true cost of free speech – sometimes it means that we, the liberals, have to remain schtum.

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About frimframworld

Total coffee fan, dedicated foodie & news hound. Strategic PR & political comms as a day job. All comments my own - blogging in a personal capacity only.

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