Friday, 18 September 2009

Offend or please

The equality legislation currently progressing through parliament has caused some concern because of its possible implications for freedom of speech and conscience. A quick trawl of blogs and sites reveals the level of concern amongst conservative Christians. John Richardson ( the Ugley Vicar) sees the expansion in the rights of various minority groups as a nail in the coffin of religious freedom and an ushering in of an age of religious persecution ,
I have no doubt that if not for me, then for other Christians soon, the knock will come on the door, and I will need to make sure I've got my toothbrush and some sugar cubes in my pocket. (The last was a hint I remember reading about for people living behind the Iron Curtain who faced arrest.)Other Christians have welcomed the legislation, pointing out the irony of people complaining about oppression when what they arguably want is the right to oppress others (especially gay people) in the name of their faith.
However, all of us, whatever our views, should consider carefully the issue of preserving a level of freedom of speech and conscience, even when this has the potential to offend (and some would say any level of freedom of expression allows the potential to offend.) It is clear that we cannot have complete freedom of speech. People must not be free to incite hatred or violence, but to bring in laws that aim to eradicate offence seems to me a slippery slope.
One of the things I detest about our obsession with health and safety regulations is that we act as though we can eradicate risk completely. Now, not only is this impossible because life involves risk, it would also be bad for us as some level of risk helps us learn. In the same way, I do not think we can eliminate offence either and to do so would leave us the poorer. Healthy debate involves hearing opposing points of view and forming our own opinions. The privilege of being able to do this hones our intellect, shapes our ability to reason and discern and validates us as fully human and able to exercise this freedom. I, for one, do not wish to live in a thought police state where with the best intentions I am cotton- wooled from all offence and my brain, heart and soul turns to mush.
I believe that some have called for a strong clause of reasonableness to be applied to the equality legislation to prevent its misuse. I support this, and also think there should be a strong regard for context.
One of the examples given is of an atheist, working in a Catholic care home, being offended by a crucifix on the wall. Because “offence” is a subjective thing it is not implausible to imagine that someone might be offended. They might see it as a depicting a violent act of torture, one that offends their sensibilities and causes distress. As an atheist they may see it as part of an antiquated and offensive set of beliefs, it intimidates them, they’d like it removed.
Now, the person above may be genuinely offended, but is their offence reasonable? I’d guess not as the majority of sensible people would point out that they chose to take a job in the context of a Catholic care home, what did they expect?
Several street preachers have been arrested for preaching that homosexuality is sinful. With a strong clause of reasonableness the police would have to look carefully at the language used, how intrusive and intimidating the preaching had been. Some might argue that context is also important. For example, a particular Church may have a strong view on issues of divorce or sexuality but members of a congregation can leave and join a different church if they don’t like the ethos and approach, avoiding a street preacher is harder.
As always, the issue is sometimes more complex; not all members of a congregation are voluntarily present. Could a gay teenager brought up attending a church which condemned same sex relationships reasonably claim they caused him harassment and distress? I suspect so and such churches may have to rightly be mindful of their duty to act within strict ethical guidelines and prove that they have done so, especially when dealing with the young and vulnerable.
A strong focus on the importance of reasonableness and context would not eradicate all the problems caused by (and to be solved by) the equality bill -and we should not forget that it aims to solve problems by protecting people and addressing existing injustices. But in an atmosphere of anxiety (paranoia?) from some conservatives and some disquiet amongst liberals committed to freedom of speech, it might create a workable middle ground.

The Equality Bill has been left relatively intact following scrutiny by the Commons Public Bill Committee. The Committee stage ended on 7 July 2009. From the numerous amendments that were proposed, only a handful have made it into to the Bill. The Bill now progresses to Report stage before heading to the House of Lords. The Bill is still on track to receive Royal Assent in Spring 2010 and become law in October 2010.


  1. Broadly I agree with you. I'm not sure a reasonableness test is practical; both reasonableness and context are subjective tests (like offence) and I can only see that it would follow the same course.

  2. I am afraid the law does work with concepts which are subjective. It does consider whether people might have reasonably understood something, or what the intention behind an action was, for example. It is not a case of having black and white cut off points, or else nobody ever would or could have a case to appeal against a decision ( as McFarlane is doing) I think that situation would be worse!