Two years ago I posted a blog about the censuring of debate and free speech which is probably more relevant than ever.
That blog had been prompted by an earlier incident at Cambridge where I had been on the receiving end of attacks on my freedom to speak. It was not at the level that some experience it nowadays (eg Germaine Greer, or just last week the student who voiced opposition to gay marriage on a Facebook discussion), but it was enough to make me very uneasy about the long-term direction of a society where those who hold non-politically correct (usually ‘traditional’) beliefs are to be silenced, and where, instead, only liberal secularist voices can be heard.
Two years later, my concerns are as valid as ever, perhaps more so.
As the case making the news last week illustrates, once commonly held opinions are today deemed ‘unacceptable.’ It is a bit like a new form of moral censorship. As I wrote elsewhere two years ago (and little has changed), in debate or discussion about new or controversial bioethical or social issues, I have had words thrown at me (dismissively) such as: ‘your Christian beliefs’ or ‘you are part of a religious organisation’ or ‘in your religion…’
Of course, labelling someone as having a ‘religious’ faith may be accurate, but more often than not this use of labelling is really a lazy way of attempting to undermine the worth of an argument without actually dealing with the substance of it: attacking the person (ad hominem) rather than addressing the argument.
Part of the deeper problem lies with those who cannot tolerate alternative views and beliefs when such views challenge a politically correct stance (these are usually the ones who claim to be the most tolerant!). Thus they try to suppress the voices and views of those perceived as being faith-based by labelling them (dismissively).
So we end up in the rather ironic situation where the self-labelled most ‘tolerant’ members of society, arguing for freedom of speech, are actually the most intolerant by dismissing the expression of certain, non-politically correct, views – the views they do not agree with.
Modern liberalism is remarkably illiberal when it encounters a challenge to its own core values!
It should not really take much insight to understand that if the views of people from faith backgrounds are dismissed on the basis of a lack of neutrality, then adherents of other belief systems – atheism, humanism, secularism etc – should be dealt with likewise, and have similar labels and words (dismissively) thrown at them. After all, atheists and secularists all start from a set of beliefs – a worldview – too.
But that is neither likely, and it is certainly not desirable.
Instead, we all need to be heard equally, and be honest that we ALL believe something. Each one of us holds to a particular worldview (a set of presuppositions about life, the universe and everything), which shapes our beliefs and ethics accordingly. None of us is truly neutral.
Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, humanist, secularist…all of us have a right to be heard equally and respectfully in our democratic public forum and all ideas and arguments considered on their merits.
In the original blogpost, however, I did not delve any deeper into why society has headed down this route, to a place where many once common views are no longer tolerated. A short piece inevitably precludes detailed analysis but let me suggest what I think are three key drivers: Autonomy (the rights of the individual), technology and moral relativism.
So today autonomy says ‘I want it’. Technology says ‘we can do it’. And moral relativism says ‘why not?’
‘Autonomy’, and its emphasis on personal ‘rights’, has developed from the post-enlightenment tradition with its focus on the individual. However rights theory has moved from rights to ‘my rights’, and in effect to ‘my wants’ and personal preferences, but still dressed up in rights language. More than that, it has become an injustice to deny ‘my rights’. While individualism and autonomy is rightly valued it is not absolute and must be in a context of relatedness and interdependence.
All three drivers are well illustrated in the area of reproduction, which I have blogged on regularly (eg here, here, here). Children are seen increasingly as ‘my right’, not as gifts but as possessions, to be chosen, with the whole reproductive process increasingly being driven by technology, unhindered by moral relativism. Consequently society flounders from one complex ethical issue to the next, trying to find a way forward with each new technology, that is acceptable to all, but with little to guide except this thing we call ‘rights’. Rights are meant to give us guidance out how to go forward: ‘I have the right to have a baby’, ‘to not have a baby’, ‘to have a baby without blemish’, ‘to have a baby without any disease’, ‘to have a baby at 50’, ‘to use a surrogate’, ‘to die when I want’. The list goes on.
But appealing to so-called rights resolves little.
It shouldn’t take much common sense to realise that my ‘rights’ conflict and compete with other’s rights: mother vs child, father vs mother, child vs sperm donor, child vs child, surrogate vs genetic parent vs child, patient vs doctor. The list goes on.
The thing is, we are not isolated individuals. We are in inter-dependent relationships, families, institutions and communities. So the personal right to watch porn in privacy has implications for our personal relationships and for those exploited by the film industry. My right to drive a car affects pollution levels and congestion. My right to die means someone else has an obligation to kill me. My right to use donated eggs, or a surrogate, or to buy a kidney, exploits another person’s body.
So society is in the impossible situation of trying to arbitrate between competing wants (dressed up as rights). And the more technology develops, the more complicated the situations become. Governments attempt to referee these but they can never balance the ‘wants’ of every group and have no moral basis on which to referee. Instead they try to make it up as we go along, relying on fluctuating opinion polls, focus groups, public consultations, and the promises of the new technologies to save us.
We need a bigger frame of reference – that of the common good. This means not looking out just for me, and my rights, and not doing something just because technology enables it. Instead look out for those affected by my (our) decisions: partners, embryos, babies, children, parents, those with disabilities, the economically vulnerable and our communities. Remembering that my decisions, and those of Government, will be brought into the sharpest relief when they affect people who are the most vulnerable in society, or the least able to defend themselves.
We need values that emphasise mutual obligation among all sections of society, that promote interdependence not independence, responsibilities not rights, selflessness not selfishness.
Those of us who hold a Christian worldview will hopefully continue to be able to voice our views even though they are often not ‘politically correct’ and I recommend that ‘loving all our neighbours as ourselves’ (including the embryo and Germaine Greer) would be a good place to start. Or perhaps we should play the same game and just argue that it’s ‘my right’ to hold non pc views.