Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Confusion over “rights”

The head of MI5 says we have to choose between the “right to security” and what he sees as a more amorphous “right to privacy”.

Two terrorists say that we have to choose between the right to  “freedom of speech” (if it involves mocking their prophet) and the “right to security”.

Public opinion says that Gordon Taylor (head of the PFA) has to choose between “freedom of speech” (if it involves citing the Hillsborough tragedy / scandal in support of his member Ched Evans) and Mr Taylor’s continuing “right to his job”.

We seem confused!

The only conclusions that I can draw from this is that making rights “absolute” is very difficult and that rights come at a price.

The price is in terms of compromises in respect of other rights and a recognition that just perhaps rights have to come with responsibilities.

Refusing to recognise that price (or the responsibilities) can only lead to what is being called a “clash of civilisations”.

So what are these prices?

Many are saying following the Charlie Hebdo we should republish all that publication’s “offending” articles and cartoons to stick two fingers up to the extremists and show that we will not be cowed and that we will “stand up for freedom of speech”.

This is all very well and might be thought of as “brave” (in a sort of Humphrey Appleby way) if the material was only offensive to those extremists and to no one else.

People (even quite reasonable people) can easily be offended – as the reaction to Gordon Taylor’s rather clumsy comparison shows.

When I (an agnostic) visit friends who are devote (but not fundamentalist) Christians, I try to restrain my language which, even when mild, can cause offence due to obscure references to that which they hold sacred.

When free-speech activists republish cartoons depicting the prophet (to show that something must be done to show that “we will not be cowed”) they cause offence to a a group that is far wider than just Islamist extremists.

Gratuitously offending a community wider than the Islamist extremists responsible for the Charlie Hebdo outrage is short-sighted.

  • It gratuitously offends those with whom we have no gripe
    • Those offended may be less inclined to support a society that they see as offensive to that which they hold sacred
    • Some of those may become more liable to radicalisation – that something must be done to show that they will not be cowed.
  • The extremists feel that they are even more justified in what they do, believing
    • That it is their “divine duty” to respond
    • That they have support in a wider community.

Just because many of us in “modern society” have little feeling for the divine or the sacred does not mean we should mock or ridicule those who have such feelings. Such feelings in themselves are not a threat to our society. Most who have such feelings appreciate that they need to show some level of restraint – and barring occasional door-step evangelising (much like political canvassing) they do not “force” their views on us*. Restraint has a lot to be said for it.

* The privileged position of the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords, whilst an anachronism I would like to see changed, rarely if ever has a critical impact.

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