Saturday, 10 January 2015

Doing the right thing

Doing the right thing

The awful events in France this week raised again the question of what constitutes freedom of speech in a democratic society. Most in the west are of the opinion that freedom of thought and speech are pillars of our democracies without which we may slip into dictatorship. There was a time when these evolving ideas of personal freedom were consider very dangerous to the ruling elites. Historian Tom Holland recounts one such case from pre-revolutionary France…

‘On 1 July, 1766, in Abbeville in northern France, a young nobleman named Lefebvre de la Barre was found guilty of blasphemy. The charges against him were numerous - that he had defecated on a crucifix, spat on religious images, and refused to remove his hat as a Church procession went past. These crimes, together with the vandalising of a wooden cross on the main bridge of Abbeville, were sufficient to see him sentenced to death. Once La Barre's tongue had been cut out and his head chopped off, his mortal remains were burned by the public executioner, and dumped into the river Somme. Mingled among the ashes were those of a book that had been found in La Barre's study, and consigned to the flames alongside his corpse - the Philosophical Dictionary of the notorious philosopher, Voltaire.’

Europe has come a long way since people were executed for criticising religion and modern France is among the most secular societies in the world. Most people here now accept that freedom to criticise religion, political parties, or any other group is a healthy part of a democratic society.

There was an understandable wave of sympathy and outrage after the appalling massacre in Paris, people who are not prepared to stand and argue their ideas out, portrayed themselves by their actions as medieval and intolerant murderers. The battle of ideas should be fought with words and argument not Kalashnikovs. Amid the discussions which took place in the wake of the Paris attack, Politicians of all hues could be heard lauding the freedoms of western democracies and vowing to protect the right to free expression, even if those expressions may offend others. As the internet in the west showed understandable solidarity towards the magazine Charlie Hebdo, a few pointed out that the very freedoms our politicians spouted about were in some countries being quietly eroded by the same politicians.

Here in Scotland some raised the issue of the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act.’ How can it be right, they argued, that Politicians defend the right to freedom of expression even up to the point where it offends others and yet they will not extend the same right to Football fans?  In the case of Celtic fans, we have seen prosecutions, by no means always successful, of fans who have sung songs such as the ‘Roll of Honour.’ The Act relies on the judgement of others, usually Police Officers that the words may lead to a breach of the peace. This leap from thoughts and words to deeds and actions is far from proven. We can all recall times when the air was turned blue by offensive or bigoted songs from opposing fans at football matches which we disapproved of but few of us reacted violently to it. We jeered, whistled or sung over it. The Act was and remains unnecessary as existing laws covered most of what it seeks to eradicate with the possible exception of hate speech online. The problem seemed to be the lack of will among the Police to physically go into the crowd and arrest those spouting the bile. The Act is also an attack on the same freedom of speech and expression our Politicians defended so stoutly in the wake of this week’s events.

That is not to say that there should be carte blanche on what is acceptable at football matches or anywhere else. It would be hypocritical decry the singing of anti-Catholic or anti-Irish songs by one group and then sing equally offensive songs about another target group? The point being that different things offend different people and if any group of football supporters aspires to be progressive and inclusive then it’s incumbent on them to act in a manner which welcomes all. As with racism, sectarianism can’t be legislated out of existence. It is only by a process of education and peer pressure that such attitudes can be challenged and made to retreat. The football terraces have always been earthy places where colourful language and strong passions are aroused but the best placed people to set limits on such things are the clubs and fans themselves not ill advised politicians looking for some cheap publicity.

There has been huge change in the social and footballing environment in Scotland over the past 50 years. Entrenched bigotry still exists in our country but it is greatly diminished and in retreat. Just as in the past society turned its face against drink-driving and what was once common became socially unacceptable, so it can and will be with petty prejudice. When enough of us hold it in the disdain and contempt it deserves it will wilt and recede. Morality can’t be legislated for in Parliament, it is a process of education and perhaps even subtle peer pressure. Lawrence Kohlberg in his famous work on the stages of moral development noted that at the lowest stage we do what is right out of fear of punishment. At the highest level, we do what is right out of the sincerely held principle that it is the right thing to do. The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act aims at the lowest stage when in fact any decent society should be educating its citizens to a standard where they act in a socially aware and acceptable manner because it’s the right thing to do.

Events in Paris remind us of the existence of people so intolerant of others opinions that they would kill to shut them up. Such people are thankfully a tiny minority but equally we can’t ignore the global power games which helped form them. Some of the Politicians who expressed horror at events in Paris helped create the context from which the killers emerged. If our freedom of expression is worth anything, it should also be aimed at world leaders who continue to play their bloody power games.


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