Picking Sides: Free v Popular Speech

13/12/2011 21:13 GMT | Updated 12/02/2012 10:12 GMT

Hating Clarkson for the right reasons and loving free speech because it's good for us: Christians need to wake up.

It is so important to hate Jeremy Clarkson for the right reasons. Doing so on ridiculous grounds just spoils it for the rest of us. I say this assuming you do hate him, which I don't recommend. It only encourages him.

When Jeremy said recently, after some surprisingly sympathetic comments about strikers, that in the interests of balance they should be executed in front of their families, the correct response was not to warm the tar and start plucking the chickens of wrath. It was to laugh. Or not laugh. You know: the two reactions available to normal people when we hear a joke.

Let me be clear: I dislike anti-striker sentiments, because I believe in the real big society that has long existed in the form of unions and collective bargaining. And I oppose all executions because I am pro-life. But I thought the joke was amusing.

Jokes can be analysed and they can be objectionable. But if we are to analyse a joke, we need to analyse what it is saying, rather than what it talks about. A novel that talks about gangsters in '30s Brighton might really be saying something about the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God. A poem that talks about a car might be saying something about the experience of sex. And a joke about strikers could conceivably be saying something about excessive emphasis on balance in the BBC. Talking about something terrible is not the same as condoning it. The Bible is not filthy or violent because it contains sex and murder. If we can understand that the Bible can talk about rape without condoning it (or even focusing on it), why do we find it so hard to apply the same analyses to a boxer when he does the same?

We may not find it funny. But then, we don't have to. What is not okay is to assume that because you don't find it funny, or because you disagree with the sentiment, that someone should lose their job or be otherwise punished for it. Irritation is the price of free speech. What I find interesting, though, is that when poppies are burned or rioting glorified online, the 'perpetrators' go to jail. There are no legions of fans to defend them as Clarkson has been defended, though the actual harm done is at least comparable. The difference comes down to popularity.

But freedom of expression is not, nor has it ever been, there to defend popular ideas and accepted views. Much less one of several popular, competing positions. Free speech means defending the right of people with whom you disagree to say things that vex, infuriate and upset you. It seems altruistic, but really it is rationally selfish.

Why Christians still do not understand this baffles me. After all, our holy book, when read by people with no respect for context (Richard Dawkins, a large number of fundamentalist preachers), seems to advocate actions and attitudes both unpopular and illegal. We get away with reading from it by virtue of our theology, our numbers and the familiarity and traditions of what was once a 'Christian country'. Do you think they will be respected forever?

We cannot campaign for free speech when it involves wearing crosses, but not when it involves Muslim women wearing whatever they choose on their heads. We can't support the right of Syrians to oppose their troops (without having to arbitrate the reasons) and lock up those who despise our own. Apart from anything else, it makes us look stupid. And that is hardly helping the Kingdom.

Choosing real freedom of speech, not a faux-freedom based on popularity, is good from the point of view of rational self-interest, but it serves an even higher purpose for the Christian: doing for others what we would have them do for us. God will be the ultimate judge of what we say, but every human being needs the freedom to say it. Whether others find it amusing or not.

This piece first appeared in The Baptist Times. Despite the fact some Baptists probably disagree with it. Isn't that lovely?