Civil Liberties

The Paris attacks are a reminder of our unwillingness to accept uncomfortable truths


Do you remember the story of Rachel Dolezal, the black US civil rights activist, who was outed by her parents earlier this year as actually being white? Five months on she’s now finally admitted that she was “biologically born white to white parents,” but continues to maintain that she still self-identifies as black.

The media furore following the initial revelations revealed the extent of the anger surrounding her supposed deception. Included in the voices of indignation was that of her black adopted brother. He was quoted as saying “It’s kind of a slap in the face to African-Americans because she doesn’t know what it’s like to be black. She’s only been African-American when it benefited her. She hasn’t been through all the struggles.”

Now can you imagine a feminist who’s been through decades of activism railing against the inequalities between the sexes suggesting that transgender male-to-females can never appreciate what it’s like to be fully female? But of course that’s exactly the opinion Germaine Greer was expressing a few weeks ago. She’s got a point. Take Caitlyn (previously Bruce) Jenner. No matter how much we accept her as a ‘her’ and no matter how much surgery she goes through, her body is still packed full of Y chromosomes, her skeletal structure and voice is undoubtedly male and if she was still young enough, she’d never be allowed to repeat her Olympic gold medal feats as a woman.

For those who disagree with Dolezal’s or Greer’s views there are three options available: ignore them hoping everyone will lose interest in time, attempt to present a more powerful and valid counter argument or finally do your best to discredit them and suppress their voice. For Greer, the result has been an effective ban from speaking at Cardiff University, being branded a misogynist and Elton John dismissing her as an attention seeker. Her views may be well considered, but that counts for nothing to those who take offence at her apparent transphobia.

Just because Greer’s words are upsetting to some, does that make them unacceptable? Are we unwilling to engage with the truth, to the point of suppressing it just because it stirs up some unwelcome questions and feelings? The 19th century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill wrote that:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Truth is the real issue here, not insensitivities shown towards LGBT people, or any other group. Once upon a time, not so long ago, truth in this country was held in high esteem. That value inherited largely from a Christian worldview, was intimately tied to justice and righteousness. One of the signs in the Bible of a fallen society is that truth perishes. It is not conincidental that as the Christian faith has faded considerably from our public conscience, we see the perverse concept of the right not to be offended becoming increasingly commonplace. Our universities, once hotbeds of debate and promoters of reason and factual analysis, are turning away perfectly legitimate speakers because some students are now considered so thin-skinned and in need of protecting that the discussion on campus of some subjects that may possibly upset them is to be avoided even if they are not being forced to participate in it. We rebrand Christmas as a winter festival and remove religious symbols from chapels in hospitals because of the belief that some group of unspecified people might be offended because it isn’t all inclusive enough.

When we fail to allow open and honest conversation or refuse to accept that truth has more value than superficially keeping everyone comfortable in their views and beliefs, then rather than making our world a more happy and tolerant place the opposite is more likely to occur. It becomes a place where groups compete to work their way to the top of the pecking order, not through the value of what they offer, but according to who shouts the loudest. Once there they will happily attack those who are in disagreement. Inconvenient truths are brushed under the carpet, fear of being reprimanded leads to the internal censorship of ideas and thoughts, which in turn leads to resentment and mistrust, and knowledge is slowly replaced by ignorance. Intellectual laziness and moral cowardice win the day.

All of this has relevance to what we have seen on the streets of Paris on Friday and back in January when the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked.  These were murderous acts of terrorism carried out by wicked men who deserve no sympathy for their atrocities. No actions carried out by the French can justify such a response, nor can any of those who took part and died in the process be awarded the title of martyr. As Baroness O’Neill, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said in her recent Theos Annual Lecture:

There are clear limits on what it is permissible to do if one is offended: Any unlawful act of retaliation for offensive speech is just that: unlawful. In particular, killing a person whose speech offends is not martyrdom: it is just killing, and may be murder. Killing a person whose speech offends and oneself (e.g. by suicide bombing) is also not martyrdom: it may be murder and is certainly suicide… Martyrdom is a matter of suffering for one’s beliefs, or being killed for one’s beliefs, —and there are good reasons to use the term correctly and carefully.

Truth alone will not protect us from Islamic State’s evil drive to wipe out all those who will not bow to its strict interpretation of Wahhabism. But unless our politicians and leaders start embracing the truth behind it, we will continue to fail to deal with the poison that continues to spread both here and abroad.

The truth is that the majority of Muslims are law abiding people who are horrified by the slaughter of innocents in Paris as much as anyone else. The truth though is also that all religions are not the same. We cannot separate Islam from the current crisis we face. We might like to think that it is possible to shoehorn all Islamic practice and theology into a culture of Judeo-Christian human rights, but it is not that simple. A poll earlier this year found that 3 in 10 Muslims think that their faith is incompatible with British values. Other surveys in recent years have found large minorities in favour of introducing Sharia law to the UK or that killing in the name of religion is justified. Our government is spending £40m a year on its Prevent strategy trying to stop the radicalisation of some of our Muslims in a way that our mosques are unable to do.

In an open and genuinely tolerant society, we should be able to ask the difficult questions of others with different views and beliefs and expect a productive dialogue that builds understanding and agreement. Instead we pussyfoot around too scared to criticise aspects of the Islamic faith in a way that we freely do with Christianity, for fear of being accused of Islamaphobia or racism or both. As Roger Scruton puts it in an article for the BBC:

Muslims in our society are often victims of prejudice, abuse and assault, and this is a distressing situation that the law strives to remedy. But when people invent a phobia to explain all criticism of Islam it is not that kind of abuse that they have in mind…

None of the real difficulties are to be discussed. And yet it is just now, in Islam’s encounter with Western democracy, that discussion is most needed. Muslims must adapt, just as we all must adapt, to the changed circumstances in which we live. And we adapt by putting things in question, by asking whether this or that belief is true or binding, and in general by opening our hearts to other people’s arguments and attempting to meet them with arguments of our own.

We have made all of this harder by ignoring our differences under the auspices of multiculturalism and put far too little energy into building bridges between different faiths and communities. How can we begin to reach an understanding of where others are coming from when we don’t know how to engage with our neighbour? But this is what we must do with some urgency. The more we open up the channels of conversation and see how much we have in common, the harder it becomes to be offended when we challenge each other’s differences. If we are to avoid our society tearing itself apart and appreciate the true battles that need to be fought, we have no choice. Bombing the Islamic State to oblivion will never fully destroy its underlying lifeblood. It is a war for hearts and minds that is as relevant in this country as it is in France, Germany, Syria or Iraq. And until we can openly discuss the nature of radicalisation unhindered by the concerns of who might take offence, we will make little if any progress.

Jesus said that the truth will set us free. We’re learning the hard way that ultimately no one wins if instead we choose to suppress it.