by Ermal Kirby.
I have a confession to make: I’ve struggled for a long time with the notion of free speech. There; I have said it! And now I will duck down behind my defensive wall, while the missiles are fired, and seek to explain this unorthodox view.
My unease is due partly to an awareness that speech is never truly unfettered. (For example, the law forbids utterances that incite racial hatred or violence.) More fundamentally, I see ‘free speech’ being widely presented as one of the foundational values of civilised, democratic societies – some people would want to regard it as an ‘absolute’ value – and I find myself wondering why this particular freedom should have been accorded this status, privileging it above other values.
While I believe that there are ‘absolutes’ in our world, I find that in practice we run the risk of leading distorted and unreal lives if we begin to treat any value or principle, apart from one, as absolute. We acknowledge the fundamental role of gravity in our universe, but we do not treat it as ‘absolute’, as we have discovered that it can be countered by other forces and principles that are equally valid. We take to the air and fly, seemingly unconstrained by gravity, while never forgetting its power, or the devastating consequences if countervailing forces fail.
So ‘free speech’ has to be qualified; and the necessary countervailing force (which I would argue is universally applicable) is found in the formula, “Speaking the truth in love.” It is a formula that is found in the Christian Scriptures (Ephesians 4:15), but there is no proprietorial right to be asserted, and the formula should not be dismissed solely on the grounds of its source.
According to this formula, speech that is truly free has the effect of liberating the speaker and the hearers, setting them free from constraints that make them less able to experience the wholeness and well-being that is their rightful inheritance as human beings. Christians believe that ‘Love’ (unconquerable benevolence) is the foundational principle of life; it is absolute. Love should be, therefore, both the motivation and the goal of ‘free speech’.
Comedians and politicians, columnists and poets, with all the rest of humanity, have the responsibility of ensuring that their speech is freeing as well as free. One quick way of testing whether speech meets these criteria would be to ask, If my audience was made up primarily of the people about whom I am speaking, would it be for them a liberating, life-giving experience, and would I be at ease sharing a meal with them after making these comments?
Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, is an educated man, and an astute politician. We can believe, therefore, that he was fully aware of the effect that his writing about the burqa in his column in the Daily Telegraph in August would have on his readers, and that he could anticipate the intense debate that would follow.
The arguments became so widespread, and so heated, that an investigation had to be launched, to determine whether or not Mr Johnson breached the Code of Conduct of the Conservative Party. I want to suggest that the test that needs to be applied is not the Code of a political party, but rather, the test of common humanity. What might be the adjudication if the charge were seen to be, in essence, one of bullying – using one’s power, influence or authority to intimidate, humiliate, denigrate, or deny rights to someone who does not have the same influence or power?
‘Confession’, admitting and turning away from fault in the context of worship, is practised less and less in our world. How refreshing, how liberating, it would be to hear an admission from Mr Johnson that on this occasion he had ‘missed the mark’ – or perhaps, given that Classics was his field of study, he might prefer to render it in Latin: ‘Mea culpa; mea maxima culpa.’ And then he would find that he is in the company of many others who recognise that they too keep failing as they try to learn what it means to ‘speak the truth in love’ – but we don’t give up, because we believe that love is the road that leads to Truth, absolute and whole.