Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Defend to the death...

There are many people I disagree with... often quite vehemently. Yet the jailing of a student for offensive tweets concerning the footballer Fabrice Muamba makes me very nervous. Freedom of expression means that we have the right to say anything within the law. The view of the court was that the drunken outpourings of Liam Stacey were illegal. They have been deemed to be not merely offensive but contrary to the law, since they have been deemed to "incite race hatred". As a result Mr. Stacey has now been sent to jail for 56 days. To my mind this is an excessive sentence, given the defendant's previous good character and in my view what has been inflicted by the word should be repaired by the word- that is to say a full and contrite apology. Some would argue that this is too lenient- yet the breach of the law comes less form the unpleasant content of Mr. Stacey's tweets, but from the fact that they were re-tweeted by genuine racists- which Mr. Stacey seems not to be. It strikes me that the law has paid no attention to malice aforethought- Mr. Stacey was simply drunk- and that makes me nervous, particularly in the face of such a severe sentence.

I have also grown more nervous about the increasingly offensive attacks being made against those who oppose gay marriage. The Now Show on Radio 4 has been particularly determined that those who oppose gay marriage must be nothing more than bigots, and that the only right contribution to the debate is to click "like" on the relevant Facebook page. To my mind, to reduce the complications of relationships and the wider issues of society to a simple "like" or tweet is not merely banal, but borders on Orwellian Newspeak. There are serious issues at the heart of the debate, not least the fact that marriage is not merely a legal and moral commitment of individuals to  each other, but also to any children they may produce. 

The religious believe that since it takes a male and female gamete to produce a child, the best way to bring up that child is that the providers of the gametes should be the parents through whole of their lives. Naturally this asks a lot of questions of gay relationships- or indeed hetero but infertile relationships. These are not the majority of relationships, but these together with those parents who break up before their children grow up, provide significant social questions. There is a discussion to have about wider relationships and why they fail. In that debate, the religious have a point of view which is sincerely held: stay faithfully together if at all possible, no matter what- even if, perhaps, the majority disagree with it.

To attack the religious because they disagree with you - particularly to dismiss their positions as mere bigotry- is unfair, and may be dangerous. For myself, having been friends for years with a couple that were amongst the very first to register a civil partnership, which I found very difficult to distinguish from a wedding, I do not oppose gay marriage, I support it. However I will defend those who sincerely believe that they should not be forced to offer religious sanction to something that they profoundly do not believe has that sanction. Forcing churches against their will to offer gay marriages is in any event- I believe- deeply illiberal. The tyranny of the majority over a minority is still tyranny.

In the end it comes down to respect. Liam Stacey did not respect those he attacked- largely it now seems because he was drunk. I am not sure that the Now Show has that excuse. Sincerely believing that children flourish best when they are brought up by their natural parents does not make that person a bigot- it may just show that they have read the scientific literature.

By all means ensure legal equality for gay and straight relationships, but also accept that there are inevitable differences among all relationships and that these should be respected. The reduction of individual people to some limited categories is unhealthy: pro-gay marriage=liberal hero, anti gay marriage= twisted bigot, is neither accurate nor wise.

I may disagree with other people's points of view, but by and large I am prepared to defend to the death their right to hold and express their views. I think people have a complete and total right to express whatever opinions that they have. Where that right is limited by the law, it should only be so limited with the lightest of touches. I don't think churchmen are generally bigots and I don't think Liam Stacey should be in jail.

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