Restoring our faith in free speech

By Simon Barrow
June 15, 2006

-Jun 15, 2006

It is now 45 years since a letter in a leading British newspaper, The Observer, helped to establish a worldwide freedom movement which today claims nearly 2 million members in over 100 countries.

When Amnesty International was first launched it made a straightforward appeal to governments, in particular. It told them to stop locking up people just because they disagreed with their political or religious opinions.

In the intervening period we have seen the disappearance of the Berlin Wall, the dismantling of apartheid, the fall of Soviet communism, the demise of several other dictatorships, and the internet’s dizzying dissolution of our information walls.

But new threats have emerged. The 1980s ‘national security state’, engineered through interventions in Latin America, has transmuted into curbs on civil liberties in the interests of a global ‘war on terror’ against armed supranational movements.

Transnational web-based companies have also quietly colluded with states, most notably the Chinese, who wish to control communication and suppress debate among their citizens.

And now various religious communities, egged on by what Nick Cohen calls ‘the politics of competitive grievance’, have mobilised on an unprecedented scale to seek to ban books, plays, films, cartoons and TV shows they do not like.

Since the Jerry Springer The Opera brouhaha (which still rumbles on), the floodgates have opened - the Sikh play Behzti, Theo van Gogh’s Submission, the Muhammad cartoons, The Da Vinci Code, and the latest MF Husain art show which outraged some Hindus.

This is something the founders of Amnesty probably never predicted: a series of civil-religious movements for censorship. And it isn’t just about ideas; it has cost lives too.

Behind the anger lies fear. Faith communities are rooted in tradition, authority and respect – all of which is radically destabilised by that commerce-and-communications driven collapse of hierarchies that we call globalisation.

Add to that widespread inequality, multiple historical resentments, and differences in human meaning which mostly defy the universal immediacy of our media. The upshot is wounded people looking to “restore order”.

With politics and the economy monopolised by corporate interests, dissent has now moved into two disturbing arenas – insurgent violence and protest against cultural expressions which seem to threaten to “our way”.

The situation is not helped when governments are tempted to buy consent by addressing distress in a broadly censorious form – the messy Racial and Religious Hatred Bill in the UK being one example, perhaps.

Nor is it best advanced by those whose means of advocating free expression is by deliberately showing contempt for others, often with minimum human empathy and little apparent attempt at understanding.

It takes encouragement and acceptance, not bullying and mockery, for a people to learn not to take offence and to offer back something life-giving in place of what they regard as demeaning.

In this respect, a war between secularists and religionists, as between co-religionists, is as damaging as it is simplistic in its diagnoses and ‘cures’. We need to tend each others wounds, not stoke each others’ ire – or there will be hell to pay.

As for the churches, they are in a mess about all this too. Forty-five years ago, when Amnesty began, “Christian sensibilities” were mainstream in Britain and were accorded special protection within the wider social order.

That is no longer the case. And so we have seen increasingly furious rearguard actions to defend the idea of Britain as “a Christian society”, which it mostly is not – if it ever was.

But in the guise of “speaking for God” against a wide range of “offences” (such as Madonna’s daft on-stage crucifix antics, for example) Christians are seen merely to defend their own pride and exhibit a desire for control.

In what way does this really do justice to the God whose Word is given not as a governing edict, but in the riskily free speech that is Jesus, in all his liberating vulnerability?

Trying to ban things people write or say rarely changes hearts and it is an unpleasant echo of those dishonourable times in Christian history when oxymoronic “holy repression” was the order of the day.

We often end up trading moral depth for surface judgement, too. Monty Python’s Life of Brian was once condemned as blasphemous. It is now rightly seen as a telling secular (and theological) satire of false messianism.

Amnesty’s latest ‘defend the human’ campaign says that non-coercive public space is essential if our differences are not to end up being deadly. Censorship is certainly no solution.

People of faith should embrace this truth. But they must also recognise that it has a cost, and be prepared to pay it.

In a plural society Christians are no longer sole owners of their symbols and words. They can be used against us, too. We can get angry if we like. But such energy might be better used offering practical alternatives to a culture of contempt, violence and ‘porn-utopia’.

Above all our willingness to embrace sometimes painful free speech should flow from understanding that following Jesus isn’t about taking offence or demanding control. Rather, it means learning how to absorb hurts so that they can be turned into concrete expressions of love – not fear.

This is an expanded version of an article which appears in the July 2006 issue of Third Way magazine.

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