The topic for discussion this month is a big one – free speech and its limits. Recent events have put a severe strain on what we’re allowed to say in public. The tabloids usually dismiss such restrictions as “political correctness gone mad”, but maybe this time they’ve got a point.
I’m beginning to get a little worried myself about the restrictions on opinions that are gradually creeping upon us. And worse still, I’m beginning to wonder whether the gay community is adding to the problem.
The issue flared up anew with the Robert Kilroy-Silk debacle. You will remember that Mr Kilroy-Silk made some comments about Arabs that were adjudged “racist” by some in the Muslim community (and the ever-ready-to-be-offended Trevor Phillips at the Commission for Racial Equality). There was much agitation for the veteran chat show host to be sacked. He apologised and said it had been a mistake. His comments, he claimed, had been directed at Arab states rather than just Arabs, but had somehow become mangled in the journey between his word processor and the pages of The Sunday Express.
As we know, after a nasty controversy, Mr Kilroy-Silk was suitably punished; not by being burned at the stake, as with heretics of old, but by being axed from his TV programme.
All of a sudden, it seems, if you say one word out of place, you risk at best getting your P45, and at worst a court appearance. But is the gay community any better? Are we in danger of falling into the nasty habit of demanding that our critics shut up or else? Have we lost the power to argue our case by rational means?
Now, let’s get the terms of this debate right, to start with. I’m not talking here about inciting violence against people. If a rap singer exhorts his fans to batter a batty boy or stab or shoot him, or an Islamic rabble-rouser encourages his followers to kill, harass or otherwise harm gay people, then that is illegal, and so it should be.
But what if, for instance, a Roman Catholic cardinal says that 90% of gay men are perverts? Should that be illegal? We know it’s stupid, ignorant – laughable even – but should it be against the law for him to say it?
I’m referring here to Cardinal Gustaaf Joos of Belgium, who told a soft-porn magazine: “I’m prepared to sign here in my blood that of all those who say they are lesbian or gay, at most five to 10 per cent are effectively lesbian or gay. All the rest are sexual perverts. I demand you write this down. If they come to protest on my doorstep, I don’t care. I’m just speaking out on what thousands of people are thinking, but never get the chance to say.”
As I say, bonkers and not worth even responding to. And yet instead of simply saying “The Cardinal needs treatment”, a Brussels civil rights group called the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Struggle Against Racism began proceedings against the Cardinal for violating Belgium’s anti-discrimination laws.
Remember the document released by the Pope last year, the one condemning gay marriage? It contained some of the most hateful, spiteful language I’ve ever seen in a Church document. But rather than trying to get the poisonous pontiff’s collar felt, I much prefer the approach of the brave Catholic priests around the US who signed a letter calling the Vatican to account. A group of them in Chicago, and now another lot in New York, sent round robins to Rome deploring the vindictiveness of the phraseology in the Vatican document. They made the case for restraint in compassionate terms that put the Vatican to shame.
Needless to say, the Holy See has ways of silencing these recalcitrant priests and its wrath will no doubt fall upon them in the near future.
There are grey areas, of course. One of these occurred in Canada when a court recently ruled that a teacher in a state-run school had no right to make public his abhorrence of homosexuality. The teacher, a frothy-mouthed Christian by all accounts, wrote condemnatory letters to the local paper saying things like “Homosexuality is not something to be applauded” and “I refuse to be a false teacher, saying that promiscuity is acceptable, perversion is normal, and immorality is simply ‘cultural diversity’ of which we should be proud.” In upholding his sacking, the court ruled he should not be in charge of vulnerable children while spouting such opinions in public. The judge said: “It is entirely appropriate that the teaching profession, like any profession, be held to uphold more stringent standards of conduct than the lay public.”
But I don’t think these caveats apply in the case of the Gay Police Association and Richard Littlejohn.
Mr Littlejohn is not my favourite journalist – or yours either, I would guess. In his aggravating column in The Sun he wrote about plans to introduce a quota system in the police force to ensure proper representation of gay men and lesbians. He doesn’t reckon much to the idea of quotas, whether they be on grounds of race, gender, sexuality or anything else, which is a legitimate line to take.
However, he expressed his opposition in rather immoderate terms, saying that “these days, cottaging is a career move” for gay police officers. He venomously attacked Inspector Paul Cahill, chairman of the Gay Police Association, who had been awarded an MBE. “Good luck to him,” wrote Mr Littlejohn sarcastically, “but what marks him out from hundreds of other inspectors other than his predilection for same-sex sex?”
He also took an unpleasant pop at Brian Paddick and compounded it all by saying that it had to be assumed that all women police officers were lesbians unless otherwise stated.
I can understand these policepersons being outraged by such comments and their anger was widely reported and commented upon. But not happy with simply making a reasoned riposte, they then made a formal complaint to Scotland Yard’s hate crimes unit and wondered whether Sky TV should reconsider Littlejohn’s nightly show.
That’s where I squirm with discomfort. If Mr Littlejohn has told a lie, deliberately brought a person’s reputation into disrepute or otherwise traduced their good name, then there is a libel law to fall back on. Brian Paddick used it successfully against The Daily Mail when it made allegations about him that were false and went far beyond the realms of fair comment, putting his reputation as a policeman on the line.
If any of Littlejohn’s comments fall into that category, the victims can sue. But if it’s just that they don’t like his opinion and feel he should be sacked because he hurt their feelings, then we’re into a whole different ball game. That would amount to a blasphemy law for gay people. It must not happen.
It is not so many decades ago that gay people were ruthlessly silenced (Radclyffe Hall found herself in the dock when she published the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928.) We had to fight long and hard to break that silence. We have been extraordinarily successful but we mustn’t let our new freedom turn us into tyrants, gagging others as we were gagged. It mustn’t be a crime to criticise us – after all, sometimes we deserve it.
We have to accept that there are many people in this country who haven’t come to terms with our new-found visibility and don’t like us. We’re not going to change their mind by sending the Thought Police round every time they challenge us. We have to convince them, and if we can’t convince them, then we at least have to argue our case for the benefit of uncommitted onlookers.
In his classic defence of freedom, John Stuart Mill said there was a difference between offence and harm. We need to think about that and take it on board. We mustn’t stop people doing or saying things just because they offend us. Too many people are offended by too many different things – including homosexuality. We should curb the freedom of others only if what they say or do causes harm – and being insulted is not the same as being beaten up.
Instead of trying to muzzle our critics, we should be defending their right to make their views known, and we should defend our right to argue.
Remember, one day the pendulum may swing back and our turn to be silenced might come again. There are many people who would love that. Only last month the Pope said the media portrayed homosexuality with too much sympathy and such a thing was, in his opinion, “inimical to the common good of society”.
So watch out boys: if you censor others they might well come round one day with the gag for you.