Freedom of Expression

Northern Ireland at the forefront of the free speech debate

This is a cross-post from MoreMediaNonsense

The increasingly strange media and legal environment we have arrived at in the UK regarding free speech means expressing fundamentalist religious beliefs, making off colour jokes and inadvertently offending groups of people is now a crime and/or a career and potentially business threatening move. Three recent cases from that hotbed of PC politics and hand wringing liberalism Northern Ireland perhaps bring things into focus.

1. Far-Left comic Frankie Boyle (who thinks Israel is a terrorist state) faced protests when he recently played at the West Belfast Feile festival about sundry “offensive” jokes he’s made in the past about eg Downs syndrome children.

Various groups including parents of disabled children protested about his invite and called for the gig to be cancelled. (In the end however it appears very few people were actually so bothered that they turned up at the gig to protest – perhaps it was raining even harder than usual that night).

It was interesting to hear on TV some of the protesters, one of whom said she would not be able to go out in public with her disabled son if Frankie Boyle played in Belfast. This kind of personalising of remote offence, the idea that if someone somewhere is saying something subjectively offensive to me, therefore I should feel very upset is surely bizarre in the extreme. The encouragement of this kind of nonsense by our idiotic media in the pursuit of “controversies” is a social and political disaster.

2. In the “you really couldn’t make it up” category the airline Easyjetwas a) forced to apologise for calling Orange parades “colourful” and “great to watch” in their inflight magazine then b) asked to apologise to Unionist politicians and Orangemen for apologising (aka “demonising the Orange Order”).

Now hilarious as this nonsense is it just shows what hoops businesses and organisations now have to go through in order to keep up with the perpetually offended particularly those on either side of partisan conflicts.

3. Perhaps more to the heart of the problem we have the case of Evangelical Protestant Pastor James McConnell who last week appeared in court accused of  “sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.” See here and here (where you can see the sermon) :

An evangelical pastor in Northern Ireland is under fire and will be prosecuted after calling Islam “satanic” and claiming that its doctrine was “spawned in hell”  during a controversial 2014 sermon that streamed over the Internet.

Now no doubt some of his words were offensive to Islam and Muslims but surely that is the point. Whenever fundamentalist religious dogmas come up against each other on basic points of doctrine about which is the right path there are bound to be clear incompatibilities and clashes. Fundamentalist Protestantism in its essence is of course antipathetic to other doctrines, not just Islam but also Catholicism. If you think unbelievers are going to hell for all eternity then you’re not going to be happy until all those unbelievers are saved, which means you’re going to very anti “false prophets” and other religions in general.

How far can a secular society go in allowing extremist preaching in the name of freedom of religion while ensuring the violence that can ensue does not fracture society ? The question of course has become far more important this century with the very real threat of Islamic terrorism whipped up by fundamentalist preachers but it could also be argued eg that Ian Paisley’s anti-Catholic ranting in NI in the 1960’s and 70’s had very negative results.

Interestingly there has been an intervention in the McConnell case by a Muslim cleric from London Dr Al-Hussaini who claims he will go to jail with McConnell if he is found guilty :

“While those of us who hold clerical office as Christian pastors and priests, Jewish rabbis or Muslim imams, should rightly have due care and regard to the leadership role we exercise when we make public speeches, nevertheless our foremost duty remains to express theological ideas in good conscience before God.

“For these reasons, I strongly uphold the moral right of Pastor McConnell and myself, as Christian and Muslim, to disagree about matters of doctrine and belief, and further I express my deep dismay that my fellow citizen is being subject to criminal proceedings, when at no time have any of the statements he has made incited to physical harm or hatred against anyone.

“I therefore wish to place on the record my deep concern and opposition to the criminalising of theological disagreement, at a time when our society should in fact be fostering better quality disagreement and, in that spirit, I further undertake that if Pastor McConnell is convicted and sent to prison, I shall go to prison with him.”

That’s all very well but if the “theological idea” that is being expressed is a direct threat to eg gays or apostates is it OK to allow such free expression ?  And who clears up after extremist doctrinaires when their disciples have finished fighting each other ? There is a real free speech dilemma there I think but as for Pastor McConnell professing extreme opposition to Islam that is surely not something he should be in court for.