In Defence of Freedom of Conscience

By David Binder

What do the recent ‘gay cake’ case, the same sex marriage referendum in Ireland and the British government’s aspirations for ‘’snooper’s charter’ all have in common? The answer lies in the fact that they all bring into question how we define and uphold both equality and liberty.

It seems that these two values are increasingly being seen as diametric opposites when in actual fact they should be seen as bedfellows. Whilst I don’t wish to discuss the details of each particular case (for this has been done already), I want to look at how these events bring into sharp focus wider issues regarding equality and liberty, and in particular regard to the latter, the freedom to exercise one’s conscience (whether through speech or expression) regardless of whether if its regarded as acceptable, offensive or otherwise.

I’ll not mince my words; the freedom to exercise one’s conscience is absolutely critical in creating and maintaining a liberal, tolerant and progressive society. Yet, looking at the way society is moving these days, it seems fewer and fewer agree with me. It’s becoming clearer that we are moving toward an age of absolutism where ‘equality’ of various kinds (whether it be gender, economic, marriage or whatever) must be achieved at the expense of all else, including most regrettably freedom of expression and the ability to exercise one’s conscience, even if it is deemed insulting.

Don’t believe me? Then I urge you to do a bit of online research. It won’t take you long to find examples of people from varying backgrounds and nations being hauled up in front of the courts on the grounds of expressing themselves in ways deemed offensive.  Take the 15 year-old boy who was served a court summons for saying that the Church of Scientology is a cult, or the preacher convicted for expressing his view that homosexuality is a sin. And whilst the successes of recent campaigns such as reform section 5 should be celebrated, there is still much legislation kicking around making it possible for speech deemed offensive to be deemed prosecutable crimes.

Indeed, an increasing number whether through social or mainstream media or in civil society itself not only vocally voice their displeasure at those they disagree with (which is inevitable and quite essential for an open society) but demand sanctions against those who in their eyes are ‘wrong.’ Take this increasingly pervasive attitude and combine it with the current and future potential legislation such as the Equality Act[1] and Snooper’s Charter and it’s not difficult to imagine more cases surrounding so called offensive speech reaching our courts in the future. Whilst some might feel they are on the right side in terms of changing social attitudes at the moment, I wonder how would they feel if they found themselves in the future on the wrong side of the law for expressing their conscience in a manner deemed by others as offensive?

Given that Great Britain (and in fact the whole world) will always consist of those with an array of different worldviews, priorities, beliefs etc. the issue of how do we deal with those with whom we disagree is as pertinent as ever. To my mind, there are two basic answers, a.) We either accept these differences, debating and engaging with those we disagree with without fear of sanction or b.) We seek to silence by sanction those who we judge as wrong. I fear that we are moving towards b.) when in reality we should be embracing a.) For a real life example of this in attitude, look to the many universities in the UK, where expression deemed especially offensive is banned either throughout the entire campus altogether or via ‘no platform’ policies.

In saying all of this, I’m certainly not arguing for some sort of relativistic mush whereby we each live in our own entirely self-absorbed universes whereby truths are true for me and me only. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t be offended by certain speech or expression.  No, citizens must be given the liberty to say what is not only true for them, but what might be true for fellow citizens too, and we must be prepared for the fact that this might upset us. This however mustn’t drive us toward censorship and sanction, but towards openness and engagement.

Some may agree with everything said so far, save for the fact that it depends on who is being offended and what exactly is being said which is deemed offensive. This I believe is a red herring. For apart from expression that incites violence or murder, it cannot be right to arbiterally define what is and what isn’t offensive. Why should offensive expression of conscience in one category be more likely to face prosecution than hurtful speech in another? Taken to its most logical conclusion, anyone could be offended by anything; is this really the sort of society we want to live in?

Going back to my main assertion made at the beginning of the piece, the liberty to express one’s conscience is not something to be pursued as an end in itself but in order to ensure and promote a progressive and open society. Being exposed to other views expands our own understanding of other people’s culture and way of doing things, whist also having the potential to refine and perhaps even change our own point of view on a particular subject. Further, tolerating other opinions need not force us to accept other points of view as truth; robust dialogue also enables us to bolster our own views and challenge others. If we really believe that no individual, group or organisation has a monopoly on truth or the right to force their views on others then the potential to offend must not be seen as the last word. If we really believe in tolerance and diversity then learning to openly live with one another despite our differences is essential.

Don’t let anyone tell that ensuring freedom of conscience means the equality project (however you define it) has to be abandoned. It doesn’t. What it does mean though is that once a law has been made, provisions, as much as possible must be made for those that disagree to be able to express as such without any sanction. This then is how the virtues of equality and liberty can be bedfellows. Our society has functioned on this basis for generations, and there is no reason why it cannot continue to do so.

Bakers who don’t want to write messages on cakes or printers who don’t want to print certain posters should not be forced to do so, however much we think they should be. This is what freedom of conscience is about. The alternative is a creeping absolutism that undermines our basic freedoms and democracy and excludes, marginalises and sanctions unfavoured minorities. This absolutism cannot win the day and true tolerance, openness and diversity must be upheld more than ever.

[1] This is not to say the Equality Act is an entirely bad piece of legislation, more that it can sometimes be applied in an unhelpful way

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