“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
That quote we all attribute to French philosopher Voltaire, was actually inferred – it’s not a direct quote*. Whatever its original source, though, we can all benefit from the gist of what it’s saying: we may disagree with what others say, but they have every right to express their opinion under the protection of free speech.
I grew up during the Thatcher era, in a household where one parent was left-wing and the other right-wing; one parent loved funky music, the other classical; one parent loved popular sports on TV, the other couldn’t stand them. I grew up in an environment of free debate and discussion around the kitchen table; nothing was exempt from criticism or inquiry. And I think that was healthy, to a degree.
I also went to a school that encouraged freedom of thought and expression of opinion. In my group of friends in what would now be called year 10, I remember one friend being staunchly pro-Israel and the other pro-Palestine – yet they still got along as friends. My best friend up until sixth form was an atheist, while I was a committed Christian. She expressed her reasons for not believing in God, as I occasionally expressed my reasons for faith. It was okay to disagree with one another and still get along. Being willing to listen to another’s point of view flourished in such an environment and we all learnt to tolerate others and get along with those who were different to us.
We could vehemently disagree among friends on politics, religion and taste in music, while remaining generally civil – and often light-hearted in the process. Did we poke fun at one another sometimes? Did we hurt each other’s feelings now and again? Most definitely. Did it mean we couldn’t get along and remain good friends? Absolutely not.
But things have changed. It seems that some opinions are a bit more correct than others. And some opinions just shouldn’t be allowed to be aired at all. Hints of Orwell’s 1984 have been bubbling to the surface since the Internet was created, as people increasingly want to shout down any opinion that is at odds with their own ideology, and declare others to be ‘haters’ for denouncing practices they disdain.
It’s interesting that last month comedian Jerry Seinfeld shared his reluctance to perform to student audiences at universities. He claimed that the younger generation were so politically correct that they complained excessively about the content of his humour.
These have also been my observations: when atheists mock Christians for being stuck in the Middle Ages – essentially reducing our faith to an insignificant, childish pursuit – do we respond that this is hurtful and should be retracted? When unbelievers laugh at Christians’ ‘antiquated’ goal of getting hitched before having sex, do we claim that this is damaging our psyche and is deeply hateful?
This is the beauty of freedom of speech in the context of everyone having a platform to air their point of view. These are Western values that underpin democracy.
Speech that is directly threatening or that incites hateful action, such as the barrage of content the likes of Caroline Criado-Perez receive on a regular basis – that may include threats to rape, kill, maim or destroy their property should obviously not be tolerated. I’m not advocating the freedom to verbally attack and viciously spew vile threats.
But we descend into dangerous territory when we set up countless rules and parameters for what may be said. The BNP’s outlandish proposals were exposed for all to see due to freedom of speech. If material from such extremist groups is banned altogether, I fear that that may make their ideologies grow in favour among disgruntled sectors of the population. When error or extremism are freely exposed to the light and to counter-arguments, people are better equipped to form more moderate views.
If people feel unable to express their views in public, there may be an increase in what I would label ‘underground extremism’ – hence the rise in anonymous, incendiary pieces or comments.
Note that it’s precisely under conditions of press control and restriction of expression that extremism thrives: only one side is permitted a voice. Think: communism or the Nazi regime.
There’s gargantuan difference between vocalising your thoughts that worshipping idols is sinful and may bring God’s judgement on a nation, and advocating for the annihilation of Hindus and withdrawal of their right to a job or a home. The former is opinion, the latter is hateful extremism.
If I disagree with certain lifestyles – saying that if I do not accept or celebrate certain practices, then I’m rejecting the person, is akin to saying I have to accept that veganism is good, otherwise I’m not really accepting of a person who is a vegan. I think veganism is unnecessary, but if someone wants to be a vegan – they’re free to do so – and I’m sure I can get along with some vegans without vilifying them or rejecting them.
Scrutinising someone’s ideologies or morals is not hate speech. I think it would be fair to label it as harsh or hurtful or unfair, but not hate-filled. For example, I’ve lived next door to couples whose lifestyles I objected to. They didn’t ask for my opinion on this and I did not offer it. I live and work civilly among people whose lives are in direct opposition to mine. I believe it’s my role to act lovingly towards everyone, as long as this doesn’t entail compromising my beliefs.
Do I wave placards in the faces of people I disagree with? Would this be appropriate, Christ-like or helpful? No. But a public forum discussing such issues, or my own blog where my own opinions are expressed? Absolutely. Those who don’t wish to hear a mainstream Christian view don’t have to read or visit such sites. If they do, they’re usually welcome to express disappointment or disagreement. I love and embrace all types of people, no matter their status, background or beliefs. I choose to live in an area that is very diverse, instead of an area full of people like me. But disparate views should not mean we cannot engage or get along in the public sphere.
The one Christian stance embraced by all denominations and organisations is the exhortation to love. And I think that’s possible without having to agree on everything. Condemnation and hate of people is not synonymous with dislike of practices or opposition to beliefs.
I’m also a linguist who believes we should take care with the words we choose. But let’s be clear: claiming that we think someone is misguided, or criticising their life choices and saying they should be examined, does not constitute the term ‘hate’.