Thought unrevealed can do no ill
But words past out turn not again
King James VI of Scotland
The various reactions on social media to today’s news about the guidelines from Universities UK advising gender segregation on UK campuses to avoid offending some Muslims, has got me thinking about what we mean by the right to hold and express opinions.
Various tweets and Facebook postings say things like; “the people who want segregation are wrong but they have a right to their opinion”. The people tweeting such opinions seem to be claiming that people should have the right to express their opinions without fear of public approbation – i.e. without fear of having your opinions publicly challenged or ridiculed but this is to entirely miss the point.
Having ‘a right to express an opinion’ is not the same as ‘the right to never have your opinions challenged’ or ‘the right to have your opinions universally respected’.
The right to ‘hold’ an opinion is neither here nor there. An individual might have all sorts of dubious opinions that many of us might find objectionable – but we would never know unless they publicly expressed those opinions. If they expressed those opinions privately to another individual or small group, like to the members of their own family, then that remains their private business.
So the issue is about the right to publicly express opinions, and I personally would defend that right absolutely. For example I personally would not ban pedophiles, religious extremists, homophobes, racists or fascists from publicly expressing their opinions – not because I have any respect for their views but because I have an equal right to ridicule and disrespect those views, and indeed those who express them, because I have an equal right to my opinion, and in my opinion the views of such groups are both offensive and ludicrous.
Thus when people publicly express their opinions they must expect, indeed welcome, others expressing opposing opinions even when those expressions are intentionally hurtful or humiliating.
The idea that we have to respect all opinions equally is frankly ridiculous and entirely undermines the logic and social value of free speech – which is that new ideas get rigorously interrogated and only those that can bear such scrutiny will survive, thus we all benefit from the development of robust cultural, political and aesthetic paradigms.
It is not any persons individual opinion we need to respect, or indeed the people who hold them, what we have to respect is a persons right to publicly express their political and religious opinions without fear of State or Corporate sanction. (i.e. without fear of a visit from the thought police but equally without fear of being sacked or disciplined at work.)
Social sanction however is different. Human beings are social animals and belonging to the group is far more important to most of us than being an individual – because being an individual risks becoming an outsider. This fear of social exclusion is embedded deep within us and can, and often does, lead to ‘group think’ and the ‘tyranny of the majority’… which is exactly why the freedom to publicly express minority opinions free from the fear of official sanction is so important.
But because of our social nature expressing controversial minority opinions is inevitably going to lead to conflict and often public approbation, but so what? To express a controversial minority opinion in any human situation, social or political, requires courage because to do so risks alienating oneself from the group and being ostracised. And this has been true throughout human history and it always will.
Those who wish to express controversial minority opinions must have the absolute right to do so, no exceptions, no caveats, but they must also understand that to do so is to enter a dialogic process and that others will disagree with them and in a free society should have the right to publicly express that disagreement – including the right to ridicule and demonise those opinions and to offend those who express them.
Many political and religious opinions are mutually exclusive, i.e. If Opinion A is true than Opinion B cannot be true. For example the Christian world view cannot be ‘true’ if the Islamic world view is true, they are incompatible, they both can’t be true. The 2 religions are expressed through vastly different narratives that contradict each other. If Capitalism is good then Communism must be false – and vice versa. In these examples and indeed with regard to most political, religious and philosophical disputes, consensus is simply not possible because people hold views that cannot be reconciled. Thus the best we can hope for is that we can agree to disagree without killing each other, while recognising that without dissent there is no democracy, and that without rigorous debate that allows for, nay encourages, principled but impassioned disagreement there can be no freedom.