Minister for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunnell visited Imperial last month to speak at Interfaith’s student led debate on the right to freedom of speech. Views were heard from members of the Jewish Society, Islamic Society, Christian Union and a secular member of the Debating Society.
The Minister explained that he predominantly supported the current British legal framework regarding free speech. He considered the UK as not completely secular but pluralist, and called legal amendments to allow Kosher and Halal foods and the allowance of turbans rather than motorcycle helmets as the right thing to do. Below are summaries of the speeches from each of the speakers. Please note, these are the views and religious interpretations of the individuals, not their respective societies.
A Christian perspective from Edward Ip
Jesus claimed in John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes through the Father except through me.” This raises the question of whether Jesus’ teaching, and consequently Christians’ attitude towards human freedom, is fundamentally oppressive. I wish to show how the teaching of Jesus is not oppressive, but is actually in line with the heart of the idea of human freedom.
There is a difference between engaging on an endeavour to truth openly, and deviating from the existence of absolute truth. To engage on a pursuit to the truth, one accepts that there are absolute truths to be found, and it is human’s task to seek evidence to arrive at them. That is fundamentally different to asserting that there is no absolute truth in life, and one must be willing to accept the possibility of many different mutually exclusive propositions being true simultaneously; it is not pluralism.
At the heart of desiring freedom of speech, there is an underlying hope in wanting to arrive at absolute truth with certainty. Often freedom of speech comes to the spotlight when we think our perspective that we regard as true in life is being suppressed. This automatically presupposes a belief that certain propositions about life are absolutely true. Thus, it is the engagement to a particular endeavour to truth that we wish to obtain through the freedom of speech, not the denial of the existence of truths themselves and consequently arriving at an ad hoc freedom of speech (ability to say whatever we want.)
To summarise, freedom of speech must mean a possibility to engage on an endeavour to arrive at the true proposition of life, rather than the acceptability of any feasible attempt to this task. Our end goal is to arrive at the truth via this engagement, which is an exclusive position (excluding propositions that are contradictory to the supposedly true proposition), but where engagement is still possible having arrived at this position. Further, this is to be done in harmony with each other, with mutual respect and care for each other.
The teachings of Jesus are of such a nature. He proclaimed his teaching is unique and exclusive. This means that he excludes the possibility of all other teachings being true, apart from his own. But what is at the heart of this exclusive message? Firstly it is a message of love; that we should love God’s character and love our neighbours as ourselves. Secondly, it is a message of truth; the accessibility to the truth is possible through Jesus himself. Thus at the heart of the gospel of Christianity is one that wishes man to love each other and to pursue the truth, namely, knowledge of God’s personal and infinite nature. This is what is non-negotiable and exclusive about Christianity, and whatever opposes that, Jesus claimed, is a false description of life.
Jesus’ teachings concur with the heart of why man desires freedom of speech. I challenge the reader to carefully distinguish the difference between promoting freedom to engage openly in finding the way to truth and the seeming freedom created by the acceptance of any feasible claims of truth, which is not freedom at all. For in doing so we have completely betrayed the whole purpose of desiring freedom of speech.
A secular view from IC Debating Society
Freedom of speech is a precious gift that should be bestowed to all. Restricting it, especially in religious settings, is inherently bad.
In our personal lives, we exercise our right to freedom of speech to be perceived as a unique individual with personal thoughts and opinions. From the rhetoric of politicians to the gossips of neighbours, speech is used by all to express their innate humanity and personality. Constraining the freedom of speech, therefore, is analogous to dehumanising individuals.
In broader society, freedom of speech is essential to political and religious critique or dissent. Voicing the public opinion and holding decision makers to account is crucial to democratic function. Constant electorate feedback should form the basis of a responsible government’s mandate.
The freedom of speech prevents the build-up of discontent in the society by allowing one to vent his grievances. Unvented struggles are prone to escalation and thus lead to the breakdown of society. Regimes that allow little freedom of speech are akin to a pressure cooker, building up pressure until the destined violent explosion.
History shows us what freedom of speech has awarded us. The abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and other humanitarian achievements were not gifts from above, but struggles from below. Freedom of speech allowed these pioneering social leaders to effect change and spread their message of revolution to their fellow citizens.
In the religious setting, freedom of speech in our society is especially limited. Many religious dogmas and practices are taboo subjects for believers as well as others. Children or new converts are encouraged to accept things without question. If God says the Amalekites need to be exterminated whereas the Israelis are His “chosen people”, that is just the way it is. Douglas Adams questioned at great length why “certain issues…we’ve decided are holy, above questioning” unlike for say sports controversies or economic policies. We are especially “tolerant” to religion. We treat the criticism of religious practice as “politically incorrect”. However, our society’s implied restriction of freedom of speech to religious issues has incurred a huge toll. Recent incidents of Catholic priests molesting children are prime examples of how silence and inaction create problems. Victims, overwhelmed by the idea that priests are absolutely holy and that the Church has unquestionable authority, were afraid to come forward to exercise their freedom of speech and testify against their faith. That reluctance allowed perpetrators to remain at large and harm more individuals.
How about radical and hate speeches made by religious groups? Take the restriction of extremist preaching in the interest of national security because of the hatred and anti-governmental feeling it incites. Terrorist attacks are abominable. However, restricting the freedom of speech meant that the requests of extremists are unheard and discounted by the society. That would lead to more discontent in extremist groups and drive them to be even more extreme. Moreover, extremist organisations recruit members often by invoking the restriction of their freedom of speech by the government and convince potential supporters that they are the victims and should be sympathised. By letting extremists air their views and rebut them outright in public, we can extinguish their major propaganda tool and show potential members of extremist organisation we are on the right side.
Noam Chomsky famously said, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of views he liked. So was Stalin”. We, as citizens of a democratic nation, should strive to remove all barriers to the freedom of speech.
A Jewish perspective from Charlotte Levene
As a student it is important to me to express my opinions and stand up for what I believe in, but with Judaism playing a central role in my life what limitations does this make on my freedom of speech, or is it a right?
In Judaism there is the principle of Lashon Harah, negative speech, which is the principle of not speaking negative comments about a person even if they are true. This is sourced from “You shall not be a gossiper among the people”. This would generally encompass bitchy comments, or gossip magazines which cause hurt to the celebrity.
A Chasidic tale vividly illustrates the danger of improper speech: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather ALL the feathers”. The man protested, “But that’s impossible.” “Of course it is” replied the Rabbi, “although you may regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to collect every one of these feathers”. This shows how careful you have to be when speaking; a hurtful word may spread and not be able to be recovered, as you never know who it might reach. Lashan Harah isn’t saying that one can’t voice an opinion, but not a personal attack and respect for others must be kept.
Judaism also has a strong principle of love your neighbour as yourself. One can express one’s opinions but why would one want to hurt people’s feelings or incite hate? This is one of the main problems that is brought on by Freedom of Speech today.
The Talmud is the basis of Jewish Law, however it also contains all the arguments and thought processes that caused the Sages to come to their decisions. The Sages often had completely differing opinions. The fact that all these arguments are recorded shows how valuable the process of arguing and standing up for your beliefs are in Judaism. God gave the responsibility to man to choose the law via a process of democracy – a majority decision.
However, even through all the arguing, one must have great respect for their ‘rival’. Two of the greatest rivals who had differing views on everything allowed their children to marry in the end, being at peace with each other.
So, what has this shown me about my role as a Jewish Student, am I allowed to stand with placards at a rally? If we didn’t live in a place with differing opinions, society would be quite boring! There are different ways of publicizing my views: I can cause hate and single people out, or I can be composed and treat people with respect. The Talmud shows that that standing up for beliefs is very important, and as a student I have great power to make a change in society – and I should take it.
Judaism gives me the tools of how to speak. It is not freedom of speech - it is responsibility of speech.
A Muslim perspective from Yasser Mahmoud
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”
Cutting through the jargon, most people understand that freedom of speech is the right to say what you want. The wording is often a source for disagreement but the notion in itself is laced with hypocrisy; the way we conduct our lives, interact with others and raise our children is not in line with this. Children are taught that if they cannot say anything nice then not to say anything at all. In our interactions at work and our social lives we do not “freely” express ourselves – our speech is limited by common courtesy and if we hold a bitter thought about our supervisor or co-worker we keep that to ourselves for the fear of losing our jobs or upsetting our peers. Some may say you are still free to say these things, when in effect your freedom is limited by the fabric of the society in which you live and so this idea of truly free speech is alien to us.
Some may argue it should be a fundamental right that if we find an ideology, state or person that we have genuine disagreement with we should be free to express our beliefs. This freedom to criticise is very important; the prophet Mohammed (pbuh) practiced this right with idol worshippers. It was a fundamental part of Islam to be able to critique that which you believed to be wrong, even if the view was held by the vast majority of society.
This freedom to criticise constructively was very important, yet alongside this there was a very careful line drawn in the Quran (surah 16, 125) “call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching.” Although there was complete disagreement on fundamental issues between the early Muslims and their countrymen they did not transgress beyond the bounds of good manners. One of the sayings of the prophet (pbuh) was “whomsoever believes in God and the day of Judgement should say good or stay quiet.” The idea of freedom of speech being absolute and without bounds does not agree with Islamic tradition. Furthermore in Islam there is a large weight given to what an individual says as well as what he does, not an arbitrary line drawn between actions and words where you can say what you want to me but not physically hurt me. The prophet (pbuh) said “A slave of God may utter a word without giving it much importance and because of it he will be raised degrees of reward, and he may utter a word carelessly which displeases God without thinking of its gravity and because of it be thrown into Hell.”
So what is the solution? Disagreements stem mainly from interpretation of meanings; one individual may believe he has a particular right and another may disagree on what that right entails. As long as there is no consensus on definition of freedom of speech, we cannot move forward. When this definition is set, it must be protected by law so individuals that practice it are not subject to attack and those who go beyond it are held accountable. In a fair society, double standards cannot continue; we invite Belgian M.P. Gurt Wilders to visit the House of Lords and show his film Fitna, yet ban another foreign national, Zakir Naik, from even entering the country. We cannot use the excuse that we are at war or under threat from terrorists – we have to stand for justice for all. But principles of freedom of expression must also be in line with the values we live by and individuals must not be allowed to change that. Only then can we succeed.