Back in January 2013 I wrote “Feel free to insult me!” about the then government’s proposal to criminalise “insulting” words in the Public Order Act and I recalled that letter as I pondered the howls of rage that have greeted Boris Johnson’s remarks about maintaining the freedom to wear certain articles of dress despite his view that they are ridiculous.
Insults are rude. We would all like to see a lot less of them. But it seems that any discussion in the public square of ideas, beliefs, opinions and values now quickly descends into accusations of offence given. The comedian Rowan Atkinson weighed into the recent debate and defended the former Foreign Secretary’s right to poke fun at religion in a letter to The Times: "All jokes about religion cause offence, so it's pointless apologising for them.”
We rightly treasure our national heritage which enshrines the right to freedom of expression, freedom of belief and freedom of association. Such is true tolerance. That is, tolerating those with whom you disagree. And such toleration promotes dialogue and respect: “You believe something different from me. I respect your right to do that. I don’t think you’re right. I believe something else.” That’s why I welcome Rowan’s freedom to make fun of me as a clergyman if he wishes.
To stifle, limit or restrict our long cherished freedoms, either by legislation or by ‘political correctness’ is actually the route, not of ‘diversity’, but of division, disengagement and disintegration. For, in a post-modern world where truth is viewed as relative and simply a matter of personal choice or preference, it is impossible to discuss ideas without a perceived personal attack being implied. Difference is then smothered and suppressed.
But it should be possible to say ‘I think that what you think is wrong’ with respect and without devaluing or denigrating the other person. We ought to be allowed to think and reason and debate - and joke - about all manner of things, including religious beliefs, and to change our own position as a result. There is surely a distinction to be drawn between a person’s innate value and their beliefs or behaviour. The former is to be cherished, the latter must be open to be be challenged.
From a Christian point of view, we are made in the image of God and the extent of his love for was demonstrated by him giving his son to die in our place for our sin and guilt. Such is the value of every individual. At the same time Jesus calls us to repent of beliefs and the consequent behaviours that hold him at arm’s length or ignore him as our rightful ruler.
In other words, we must love and respect and value others enough to argue with them about truth and to challenge one another about the views we hold and the way we live. It is when people are not allowed to discuss the truth or otherwise of political beliefs or religious claims, when some views are privileged and others proscribed that we end up with the suppression of debate and dissent, which is in short a totalitarian society.
with every blessing, Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar