I am socially liberal. This means I value freedom of thought, expression and action for everyone. Unless you’re some hideous racist, of course. We don’t want to have to listen to that. Or a misogynist, or homophobe, or…hang on. Let me start again.
I am socially liberal. This means I value freedom of thought, expression and action for everyone, as long as you’re not going to be offensive and right wing, or if the centre ground shifts to the right, or…no. That doesn’t work either. Let me have one more go.
I am socially liberal. This means that, in principle, I promote freedom of thought, expression and action, but in practice I seek to challenge those whose behaviour threatens the freedoms of others, while acknowledging that such behaviour is another’s right, as long as it’s not violent, although if they want to be violent then who am I to…oh, heck. Can’t we all just try and be nice?
Working in education, it’s my duty to simultaneously promote the ‘fundamental British values’, while also ‘Prevent’ fundamentalism. It’s my responsibility to not only support but also actively endorse the importance of ‘individual liberty’ and ‘mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and those without faith’. However, I also need to safeguard my students and protect them from radicalisation. In summary, they can believe what they want, as long as it’s not too extreme or threatening to the abstract principles of true Britishness no-one can really specify, let alone agree on. Thankfully they don’t have to sit a test on this.
Like many, therefore, I am perpetually faced with contradiction. But thankfully, I embrace paradoxes as if they’re boxed cats in ethically-flawed science experiments. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ Coffee also helps.
So this is why I’m willing to tolerate a level of intolerance, recognising that the only way I can expect my own tolerance to be respected by the intolerant is to tolerate their intolerance of it. Simple, really. Just not always in practice.
Those who seem most passionate in arguing for free speech are often those on the margins of society, claiming their voice isn’t heard. Therefore, the most dangerous thing those of us on the left of the political spectrum could do is allow right-of-centre voices to claim they’re being marginalised and denied, despite how openly vocal they might be about it. Indeed, not a day goes by when the right don’t shout out in the mainstream media about being silenced. Personally, I’d rather highlight that irony than fan the flames of paranoia that underlie it.
Yet, there is a degree of truth in the notion that more socially conservative voices are being oppressed. I might call them bigoted voices but in the pursuit of fair mindedness let’s agree to call them ‘conservative’ with a small ‘c’, (or how about ‘People with a small “c”’?).
I have one very dear friend who, for religious reasons, believes very firmly in traditional values. He’s kind, compassionate and thoughtful, and is also opposed to gay marriage. In private company he can express his views openly, and I can vigorously debate them. However, because of his work in the public sector, he’s very guarded about his beliefs among colleagues. So much so, in fact, that he once had to decline an offer of wedding cake with the white lie that he ‘doesn’t like cake’. He loves cake. (He’s right wing, not a lunatic.)
But now he’s never offered cake at work. Tragedy. Had he given the real reason, he might never have been offered any more cake anyway, but he chose not to. Why? Partly to protect a colleague from the harsh truth of his disapproval; partly to protect himself from perpetual disapproval thereafter. No-one wants to be a Billy-no-cakes AND have no mates.
As a liberal I can enjoy all cakes, whether they’re gay or not. And I don’t have to hide my love for cake. However, just as homosexuals had to hide their love for centuries, so traditionalists may have to hide their feelings once in a while. You could call it karma, poetic justice, or…replacing one form of intolerance with another. And surely that’s not what we want either.
To quote Dirty Harry, ‘Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.’ And everyone thinks everyone else’s stinks. Therefore, there’s perhaps a time and a place to share them. (I’m just talking about opinions now, not bums. Although…) So if we’re to have genuine discussion and meaningful debate, then ‘shutting down’ the perspectives that we may find unpleasant cannot be the solution. This is why I’m inclined to agree with the Institute of Ideas’ Claire Fox in her criticism of ‘no platforming’. It is also why I have no desire to see certain writers/broadcasters (who I shan’t name, because this is my point) banned from spreading their hate. Instead, there’s a delicate balance to be struck between challenging ignorance/prejudice and not giving it the oxygen of attention. Indeed, it’s far more preferable that those whose views we find abhorrent be seen as irrelevant than infamous. (Apart from with this article. Please, if you don’t like it, then share it. Let everyone know how wrong I am!)
Tolerance may well be a paradox if true tolerance means tolerating intolerance, but tolerance is not the same as approval. I am (just about) prepared to allow others to not only put pineapple on their pizza, but also express the merits of doing so. However, when I feel it’s appropriate, I’d also expect the opportunity to speak out about this incredible evil. That way we can surely find a way forward through the darkness together.