Mary Douglas: Defending freedom of speech as a local councillor was a battle worth fighting.

23 Nov

Cllr Mary Douglas represents the Salisbury St Francis and Stratford Division on Wiltshire Council.

Having served as a local councillor for 15 years, I was accused last November of breaching the council’s Code of Conduct because I disagreed publicly with the LGBT ideology promoted by a local Pride march. I explicitly affirmed the dignity and worth of those involved, explaining that it was not the people but their ideology which I opposed. Nonetheless I was accused of discrimination and told that my views were offensive and should not have been expressed.

I contested the accusation with support from the Christian Legal Centre, to whom I would like to express my heartfelt thanks. After enduring considerable personal abuse and a year-long investigation, I was finally exonerated and my right to freedom of speech upheld.

Was it worth it? Yes.

Why? Because freedom of speech matters.

It matters because it is essential for good relationships and good choices. It matters because it enables us to explore together what it is to be human.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech equated my disagreement with disrespect, regarding it as antithetical to good relations. Yet, as we know from our own lives, the respectful expression of disagreement is essential for a healthy relationship.

The community cohesion to which we all aspire is not achieved by imposing one opinion on all, but by all recognising one humanity. It is not achieved by focussing on what makes us different from others, whether class or ethnicity or lifestyle; but by remembering what we have in common.

We are human beings, created in the image of God, of infinite worth, every one. We share a common humanity, a common responsibility to care for one another and a common search for truth and meaning. Remembering that, as we disagree respectfully and listen carefully, we can explore each other’s deepest values. That is the basis for good relationships.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech disagreed strongly with my views and therefore sought to remove them from the public square. Yet, respectful disagreement in the public square is precisely what is required to make good choices. That is one of the strengths of a liberal (from the Latin liber meaning ‘free’) democracy, the essence of which is the free exchange of ideas.

Successful organisations deliberately seek diversity on their Executive Boards, inviting robust debate between different perspectives in order to reach the best decision. In politics, as we face momentous challenges – covid-19, climate change, endemic disinformation – we need every view to be heard.

Similarly, in our personal lives, we do well to listen to those who think differently from us, to imagine the world from their vantage point. Each of us thinks that our view is correct – why else would we hold that view? Yet, we could be wrong. Even if everyone else we know agrees with us, we could all be wrong; group think is notoriously seductive. So, when someone says something with which ‘we all’ disagree, we owe it to ourselves to let them speak.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech felt offended and hurt, and so regard disagreement as harmful to good relationships and want to silence a view with which they strongly disagree. Yet, respectful disagreement is essential for both good relationships and good choices.

So, why do we stifle freedom of speech when it is so clearly beneficial?

I believe it is because we are deeply unsure of who we are. We do not know what it is to be human, so we define ourselves by what differentiates us from each other, such as our beliefs, sexuality, or ethnicity. Yet such things are not up to such a task. They are part of who we are, but they are not us.

We behave like an orphan who feels that they have no choice but to define themself, to fight for their place in the world, to find comfort and meaning wherever they can.

Yet, we are not orphans. We have a Father, who not only created us but has gone to great lengths to make us His children. In Jesus Christ, the Son of God as a human being, all humanity has been adopted, made sons of God, each and every one. An honour not imposed but offered as a gift, no merit required, simply willing receipt.

We are far more than we had realised, we are far greater than we had dared to imagine.

Why is this seldom said in public discourse?

I suspect it is because we are afraid that we might not be permitted to say such a thing.

What a tragedy if we were to miss our very identity because we had lost our freedom of speech.

As I said, freedom of speech matters.