News of a particularly confronting piece of performance art was circulating in the media and community discussion. Many people were outraged by the proposed performance and were calling for it to be banned.
The journalist sat in front of me and asked if I thought it should be stopped. My immediate reaction was to say “no”, even though I knew many people in my own community were deeply offended by it, and wished that it would be forced off the public stage. I took a deep breath, because I knew my “no” would upset them.
I then said to the journalist: “ ‘Do I want this performance to happen?’, ‘No I don’t’. ‘Do I think it should be banned?’, ‘No, I don’t’.” I then went on to say “I want to be able to speak about Jesus freely in the public square, and his message is sometimes quite offensive, so it is only right that others should be able to speak freely as well”.
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Here is the “double-edged” sword of freedom of speech. We want Australian society to be a free society, where ideas can be freely exchanged. We especially want a society where ideas around faith and values, whether from our traditional Christians perspective, or from the newer religious philosophies or none, can be exchanged without fear of retribution.
I see it as a sign of a mature Australian society, that we can discuss ideas and beliefs that matter deeply to us in freedom. But this maturity will also require a tolerance to hear things that might not align with our own values or point of view. Sometimes we will even find them offensive.
But the alternative is an unbearable thought: That only one authorized position, determined by the majority, or a particular religion, or even political correctness, seems to attack the very heart of a free thinking modern democracy.
Of course there is no room ever for hate speech, or for vilification of people on the grounds of their beliefs or non-beliefs. When we express our views we should do so with mutual respect and good manners.
THE NEED FOR DEEP CIVILITY
I for one, am committed to “convicted civility” in the public square. That is, encouraging all people to speak their minds with deep conviction, while all the time holding to a deep civility as we do it. Too many times the most convicted are often the most uncivil, and the sometimes the most civil, lack firm convictions.
Surely the goal of a mature democracy is being able to discuss and debate, even the most contentious of issues, without resorting to slander and name calling. I have always been so proud to live in a country that can change its government through a democratic process without resorting to coercion or violence of any kind.
May this also be the hallmark of our civil engagement in free speech about things that matter to us deeply. May we be civil enough to hear our opponents and consider what they are saying. The so-called golden rule from the lips of Jesus seems to sum it up, “do to others as you would have them do to you“.
The Right Reverend Dr Richard Condie
Bishop of Tasmania