Monday, 16 April 2012

Burning, Heresy, Free Speech and Censorship

Yesterday was, apparently, the 400th anniversary of the last time someone in England was burned at the stake for heresy.

He denied Heaven, Hell, the immortality of the soul, and claimed he was the Son of God.

Last week we also saw the banning of some advertisements on the sides of London buses.

All of which set me thinking about censorship.  It’s one of those boo-words.  Most people will say they approve of free speech, and disapprove of censorship (or certainly most who get anywhere near a public platform on the media.)

However, I think that is not true. Most of us would deny the right of a pornographer to tell lewd stories to children, for example. Many would agree, in the circumstances, with Germany’s prohibition of Holocaust denial. 

Then there is speech which aims to incite others to break the law or hate their fellows; verbal abuse of various kinds; and so on.  And there’s the classic example of shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre.

So in practice, much as we may laud the principle of Free Speech, we know that reality is more complex and we cannot make an absolute out of this principle.  As Elvis Costello observed: ‘There are some words that don’t allow to be spoken!

The Church, in former times, held this view about heresy, and held it strongly.  Given the fall out from heresy since those days, I think it was onto something, even if I may not agree with burning as the right way of censoring heresy.

For me, the really interesting questions are:

  • What principles do we apply to limit free speech?
  • Who decides?

2 comments:

Peter Denshaw said...

The Stonewall advert state a plain fact: ‘Some People are Gay – get over it...’

The Anglicanmainstream sponsored advert is reliant on claims that don’t have independent verification and there are no long term studies to prove the validity of these ‘cures’. I well remember visiting True Freedom Trust in Liverpool in the mid-80s and I was introduced to one of Martin Hallett’s assistants – himself and ‘ex-gay’, married with two children. Six or so years later I happened to be visiting a friend of mine in Lancashire who attended a large house church in Manchester – and who happened to be one of her friends at this church? The same ex-gay’s ex-wife – the ‘cure’ had been a dud and four lives were ruined.

Whatever, I am rather pleased that Boris Johnson has decided to ban the advert. And I think Boris has good reason to distrust what Christians say... Although you don’t live in London, you may remember that much was made of Boris’ choice of deputy in the Christian media. The Revd Ray Lewis was Boris’ running mate and took office, until it was revealed he had lied on his CV, claiming to have been magistrate when he hadn’t and also that his diocese was investigating him for financial and sexual misconduct. Just because something has the appellation ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean it is either wholesome or true... As Boris Johnson knows all too well! Hence perhaps he is showing some wisdom in not allowing a group of tin pot, sex obsessed activists the opportunity of polluting London with their half-truths and self-righteous smugness.

A pity Christians don’t run advertisements pushing some of Jesus commandments – washing feet, not judging others and avoiding self-righteousness. Now that would be a refreshing change!

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks for your comment, Peter. It made me laugh...