Friday, June 10, 2005

Political correctness, tolerance, or censorship?

It sounds like we will soon have laws against religious hatred, according to Home Office Minister Paul Goggins, yesterday. It's going to be hard to define what exactly should be banned, though.

So far as I can tell, the test seems to be: words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up religious hatred. What a court may make of "likely" to stir up religious hatred is anyone's guess - certainly there are some people (you meet a lot of them in debate on the internet) who are likely to be stirred mightily by an apparently innocuous remark.

Racial hatred laws are right and proper. Nobody can pick or change their race. More than that, there's no valid reason to denigrate another race, or mock people for their race - apart from Americans and the English, who clearly deserve it ;-)

But philosophy, culture and religion are all very different from "race". This is about thought, ideas, and speech. It's dynamic, not static. It's about growth, discovery, development.

It's a fundamental part of many ideologies that those who do not share The Truth™ need to be convinced of the error of their ways. Preventing this infringes religious freedom and freedom of speech. Suppressing ideas attacks the freedom of thought of those who are denied access to forbidden concepts. How shall they believe, except they hear...?

Some belief systems teach precisely contradictory positions (Athiests and Moslems, on God, for instance). People must be permitted to call another religion or pholosophy "wrong" - even (or especially?) where we disagree with the speaker, or agree with the belief under attack!

The notion that there is no absolute truth, that all beliefs are equally valid, is an idea like any other. It would be the ultimate irony to treate it like an absolute and fundamental truth itself, making the belief that someone else is mistaken the only sin!

The right to change or abandon your religion, and to participate in the necessary free debate, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Are we allowing an entirely spurious right not to have your beliefs called into question to trump the more fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion. After all, freedom of religion does not mean the right to immunity from challenge to your beliefs. Like protectionism in trade, that ultimately futile strategy weakens what it claims to protect. Freedom of religion means the right to freely choose or change your own beliefs. And someties the right to grow up, and move on.

As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a journalist of Ugandan-Asian extraction, put it: "sometimes our community is wrong, and we need to criticise them." This freedom must not be challenged by well-meaning attempts to shield anyone's sacred cows!

Civil debate is usually more effective than confrontational, angry, hostile debate. But it's not going to be easy to legislate about how civil debate must be, and it's going to be utterly impossible to do that without stifling the debate itself - the oxygen and lifeblood of Democracy and Freedom.

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