CONTEXT is all. In a very helpful Theos lecture given in the Inner Temple in London on Monday evening, Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve teased out a workable interpretation of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Among the points she made was that proscribing words or phrases that are offensive has been proved to fail under attacks from parody, satire, and the like, and all the more so now in the chaotically unregulated world of the internet. She advocates, instead, concentrating the law’s attention on “speech acts”, occasions when words, possibly innocuous ones, are used to defraud, intimidate, abuse, or incite violence. Were, for example, a newly elected member of the General Synod to warn other members that they risked hellfire and damnation for the views they held on a particular topic, it might be deemed a tad unsynodical, but little more than part of the cut-and-thrust of the debate. The same warning given to a co-worker, or a patient, however, might be considered actionable if it were thought to carry the threat of intimidation. Christians ought to be free to share their faith, provided it is done in an honest, non-threatening way — and provided that the Christians are similarly open to the sharing of other beliefs and ideas. This remains the norm in the UK, despite the odd court case (in which contributory factors are seldom brought out by those who publicise them).
Lady O’Neill spent time on the balance of rights. This is something that the law will do, but it is complicated (and therefore expensive): “What is actually required is in the first place an interpretation of each right that adjusts it to the other rights of the same individual, to the fact that all others are to have like rights, and thirdly takes into account the need to ensure that the action needed to secure respect for and realise that right or other rights not be obstructed or made impossible.”
Perhaps her most important point, then, was regarding the “duty of tolerance”. A glance at the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa, and countries such as Pakistan, shows how sorely this is needed. Communities that have co-existed for centuries have been shattered by a new intolerance, and the experience of Christians, accelerating over the past decade, has been close to ethnic cleansing. The destruction of classical temples by Islamic State terrorists in Syria can be equated with the destruction of the Christian heritage which has taken place routinely for many years in countries such as Turkey, or in and around Jerusalem. This should act as a warning to the developed world, but should also inject a sense of proportion into some of the disputes that blow up here from time to time. Lady O’Neill counsels against the slack use of the term “martyrdom”, and states: “The most effective action to take if one feels offended, and there is no breach of one’s rights, is nearly always not to take offence. . . It is to speak to those whose speech offended. They may not have wished to offend. Even if they aimed to offend, speaking to them may educate them, or make them more cautious, and may allow those who were offended to reaffirm a reasonable feeling of self-respect.”