Freedom of thought and freedom of speech must include the offensive, the irritating, the contentious and the heretical, otherwise it’s not worth having, says Ben Rochelle.
The Lib Dem leader Tim Farron was recenlty hauled over the coals for his beliefs about homosexuality. Apparently Farron once suggested that homosexual sex is a sin which led to five days of intense pressure from the media, politicians and celebrities, to clarify his stance on the issue. “The true sinner is Farron himself” said David Walliams: “You are definitely a sinner for your continued intolerance and prejudice.” Meanwhile David Baddiel branded Farron “a fundamentalist Christian homophobe” which is surely as bad as anything Tim Farron asserted in the first place. Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said it’s “appalling” if Farron thinks homosexual sex is sinful.
Eventually the Lib Dem leader declared to the BBC that homosexual sex is not a sin. But should it really matter if Farron does hold a private view that is contrary to what is mainstream in 21st century Britain? This is a personal conviction that is clearly not impacting on his policies – he has voted in favour of LGBT rights and freedoms on a regular basis.
Even if Farron announced in public that in his mind homosexual sex is a sin he should have the freedom to continue to say it, not to be silenced, humiliated publically and hounded out of office. Yes, many people will find such views distasteful and deeply offensive perhaps, but the answer to this is open debate and a robust exchange of ideas, not censorship. As the philosopher, JS Miller said: if we silence the expression of an opinion we “rob the human race” either by depriving the opportunity of exchanging error for truth or, if the opinion is wrong, losing the clearer perception of truth.
Freedom of thought and freedom of speech, if it is any freedom at all, must encompass the freedom to disagree and to challenge received wisdom. As part of this it must accommodate for the dissenting opinion and what many perceive to be the unpleasant belief.
Lord Justice Sedley, in his landmark ruling in the case of Richmond-Bate, put it better than anybody. He said that free thought and flowing from this free speech includes “not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.” True liberalism and an enlightened and progressive approach to politics must recognise and embrace this.