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Welby: Freedom of speech must be protected — even on social media

11 December 2021

The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in the House of Lords

The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in the House of Lords

FREE speech is the only means to the end of a just and generous society, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the House of Lords on Friday. It was a necessary condition to the building of good communities healthy enough to disagree well and challenge when power was misused.

The four-hour debate on freedom of speech was enabled by an Advent tradition that allows the incumbent archbishop to call a debate of his own choosing.

Archbishop Justin Welby identified “the fear of reprisal, the distortion of truth, and the dehumanisation of those with whom we disagree” as three of the major threats to freedom of speech. He paid tribute to those around the globe and in the UK for whom the issue was “genuinely something to die for”.

Regulation alone could not be the answer: “I welcome the Government’s move to tackle online harms; but while we can protect those most at risk, we cannot — and should not try to — legislate ourselves to good behaviour,” he said.

And he cautioned against those who dismissed social media. Its vehemence was “often the voice of those previously unheard, and for that reason it is resented by those who have always been heard”.

The Archbishop reflected on how to foster “those habits of the heart and mind that encourage a society that listens, reflects, and responds with generosity and grace”. He asked: “Just as importantly, how might we ensure that, in our desire to curb the extremes, we do not silence the prophetic, all those who challenge injustice and speak uncomfortable truths, so that we do not push them to the margins?”

The BBC was one of the important means, he suggested. “It gets things wrong; but its continual history of being abandoned by tyrants, which goes on to this day, demonstrates the fear that impartial reporting — true freedom of speech — generates in those who seek to stifle all liberty. The BBC usually speaks frankly but also fittingly.”

Faith communities were increasingly seen in many places as proponents of freedom, “living out the Reformation truth that free speech opens the way to communities that challenge injustice,” he said. “I think today of a senior Anglican overseas, whom I speak to very regularly but cannot name for his own security, who constantly speaks for free speech in a place of great insecurity.”

The anticipation of being “howled down” on social media was a constraint of speaking freely. “It is fear — not of being argued with — but of the abusive and threatening hecklers in their thousands and tens of thousands.

“The setting up of fake websites, the use of hacking, and the effectiveness of bots all bring the heckler’s veto from a point of irritation to a threat to sanity and stability, even to the threat of social chaos. Algorithms reinforce choices. At the same time, we must bear in mind that, in many countries, social media has been the main bulwark of struggles for freedom.”

Privacy was as much a choice as it used to be a given. All legislation and social pressure must stand against the commodification of speech. When it became a tradeable commodity, it ceased to be a freedom-building community, he said, suggesting: “The struggle in a connected world is to distinguish what is morally reprehensible from that which is criminally punishable.”

Efforts must be focused on “a culture that is permissive rather than prohibitive, by which I mean encouraging of fitting speech rather than attempting to ban ‘bad’. Freedom of speech also requires respect for truth. The spread of misinformation by conspiracy theorists, political agitators, or hostile actors is a serious problem that big tech companies and governments must do more to tackle.”

Archbishop Welby identified as a further threat “the dehumanisation of those with whom we disagree; the devaluation of others to diminish their arguments. . .

“Much of what is problematic with the online world is that it is not conducive to seeking truth, but that it gives equal opportunity to deliberate and dangerous misinformation designed to cloud the truth. . . When people are too scared to express their genuinely held and legally protected beliefs, that is very dangerous for democracy.”

He concluded: “I believe that God’s purpose for humanity is to have not fearful slaves but loving children. We are called to treat each other as we would ourselves like to be treated, with recognition of our flawedness, space for forgiveness and support of our freedom. In so doing, we are able to create good communities of justice, truth, and generosity.”

The Revd Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, a Methodist minister and a member of the communications-and-digital select committee, said that, as far as was humanly possible, civil society and the public and private sectors together should envisage “maintaining the possibility of open discussion, even when offensive views are uttered”.

Faith communities had not proved to be exemplary in these matters, he acknowledged. “From the very beginning of Christianity, ‘heresy’ was the word used to describe those whose freedom of speech was to be denied: those who held divergent views from the ‘orthodox’ mainstream. There is ample illustration of the way that Christians have fought bitter battles which have ended in fragmentation and division.

“The notions of excommunication, heresy and blasphemy — polar opposites of free speech — are only too evident in the history of the Christian Church. It seems indeed to be part of our DNA.”

The Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, drew attention to laws around the world that, he said, needed to be challenged and changed, such as blasphemy laws in Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, and other countries. He spoke of the need to “soften and remove the inhibitions on speaking up or speaking out, to allay the fear of exclusion or reprisal, and to give new confidence in conversation.

“This is where civil society and faiths can create and convene safe spaces, where difference can be spoken with care, and understanding can be deepened, truth revealed, and progress made towards a common good.”

He referred to the “pastoral principles” developed by the Church of England as a prelude to discussions about the Living in Love and Faith programme about sexuality and identity. It was important, he said, to be aware of elements that turn conversation into disagreement: “ignorance, power, fear, prejudice, silence, and hypocrisy — we keep these in mind when trying to face up to disagreeing well on hard-won social issues.”

Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, said that the primacy of truth provided the moral background to the debate. With reference to universities, he said: “We have to accept that a view might be legal but still hurtful for someone to hear it. It is fundamental to good debate to recognise that some people are very vulnerable and can, understandably, be hurt.

“This this is obviously the case with people who are in the process of changing or have already changed their gender. They are vulnerable, and need to be treated with respect and sensitivity. Nevertheless, there is a real and serious debate here between feminists about the social and political implications of someone being transgender, and it needs to be heard.

“The way J. K. Rowling was treated for expressing one side of this debate was quite disgraceful. The way Professor Kathleen Stock was treated at Sussex University is even more shaming, for universities, above all, should be places where the truth is sought by rational discussion. . .

“Rowan Atkinson has described cancel culture on social media as a place where a mediaeval mob is ‘roaming the streets looking for someone to burn’.”

The law was quite right, he said, to forbid any kind of stirring up of hatred because of a person’s race, religion, gender, or sexuality. “But if an opinion, however disagreeable and however wrong, does not do this, it has to be heard and combated only by rational means.

“For example, I have long supported gay rights, and argued that the Church should have accepted permanent, stable, loving relationships and offered a service of blessing. But I accept that a conservative Evangelical can still treat someone who is gay with respect and sensitivity while holding views that are mistaken and hurtful. Their views are hurtful to gay and lesbian people, but it is as wrong to label such people as in principle ‘homophobic’, as it is to label others ‘transphobic’.”

The present Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said that the big tech companies at present largely set their own rules and evaluated their own compliance. Development of ethical guidance for new technologies was “not about the invention of new moral codes or principles. It is largely about the sensible translation and application of existing moral standards to the online world, especially in the protection of children, minorities, and the most vulnerable.”

Major corporations needed to plough back a greater share of the immense profits realised in advertising into protection of the vulnerable. Algorithms must be subject to scrutiny, “especially when they are shown to amplify hatred and to target those already at risk”, and there must urgently be robust protection for the young through careful age verification.

“Anger, hatred, and vitriol are all around us because the social media companies have discovered that this is where the greatest profits lie. . . Honest argument and exchange of ideas is one thing; but, at present, opaque micro-targeting sold to the highest bidder distorts the societal context of freedom, challenging the very nature of democracy.”

Lord Wallace of Tankerness, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and a former MP and MSP, observed: “During my time in frontline politics, I was spared much of today’s vituperation and abusive language. There is a trend today towards ever greater bitterness, anger, slander and malice, which, I fear, risks being normalised on social media.”

Anticipating the committee report on draft legislation, he said: “I have come to realise that laws do not necessarily change hearts, so we should not kid ourselves that legislation can or will fully solve the many manifest problems associated with online abuse.

“Some laws are worthwhile. . . In the sphere of social media, some of the big tech giants need some prodding to ensure that customers comply with user agreements, which include rules on standards and codes of conduct.

“From a Christian perspective, however, I would claim that changing hearts requires something more than laws: it requires love. . . I believe that there is a role for churches to play in trying to bring about a much improved public debate on a host of issues.”

Lord Sentamu declared: “Justice goes beyond the simple administration of laws. Justice is possible only when law, religion, and morals are intermingled.”

Baroness Fox of Buckley commended Archbishop Welby for initiating the debate. “Many of us who raised concerns about attacks on free speech have sometimes been accused, including recently, of confecting the problem in order to stir up culture wars, or even to cover up our own bigotry.”

The subjective label of “hate speech” could be used to delegitimise a wide range of opinions and discredit political opponents, she suggested. “We should note that religious freedom, the bedrock of a secular society, is very much at risk under the auspices of ‘hate speech’. Nottingham University recently initially blocked the appointment of a Catholic chaplain for explaining his, well, Catholic views on social media, which were depicted as hate-fuelled. Hate speech, I would say, is often the free speech of those views that we hate.”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, said that without freedom of speech and open debate, no other question could be adequately settled.

“Anyone with an opinion, however crass or simplistic, can express it, and anyone can engage with it. Those with fringe opinions can find like-minded people and caucus to amplify their voices. The powerful and mighty can be challenged and mocked in full public view,” he said.

“I have tried to state these changes neutrally, for they have both good and bad consequences, but they have changed the way we engage in public discourse, as have the algorithms which funnel us into silos and echo chambers and the fiat of online platforms over the content they do and do not allow.”

The Online Safety Bill would tackle abuse while upholding the right to free speech, and usher in an era of accountability for tech companies, he said. The strongest protections would be for children: “Our aim is to make the United Kingdom the safest place in the world to be a child online.”

He concluded: “If there is any institution that knows the difficulties and the importance of championing the orthodox and the unorthodox, it is the Christian Church.” And he reminded peers that the present debate was part of an Advent tradition: “the season in which we await the arrival of that great disruptor, the child who would go on to rebuke the Pharisees, draw the ire of the Roman Empire, and inspire the devotion of new followers for more than two millennia.”

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

More events

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