This week a Christian post-graduate student was expelled from his university course for making a private facebook comment about same sex marriage.
Felix Ngole was found guilty of 'bringing the profession into disrepute' because he quoted a biblical text in a facebook comment about same-sex marriage. It was claimed by a University of Sheffield committee that his comments could have offended someone, and therefore he would be unable to practice as a social worker.
As Christians we must stand up to these bullies who are making a mockery of our right to free speech. Jesus himself was intentionally provocative and used his speech to challenge the status quo of his day. Whether you are a Christian or not, free-speech must be defended. If you keep quiet when those you disagree with are censured or fired it, isn’t free speech you are defending but merely your own opinions.
As we take this stand, we should be encouraged that most people actually agree with the right to free-speech even if they may disagree with us on certain issues. We must stand up to the bullies and be willing to support those who are silenced, threatened or fired and demonstrate that we really do love our neighbours. Cultures can change significantly for better or worse in a short period of time and if we don’t speak up we will lose our voice.
Here are 3 principles which can help us stand up to free-speech bullies and have better conversations.
1. Define your terms
In any debate it is vital that you explain what you mean by the key terms you are using. A common tactic used by opponents of free-speech is to misrepresent the terms they use.
Take the term ‘diversity’, it sounds like a concept that should just be embraced without argument. But when opponents of free-speech use it, what they really mean is ‘uniformity’. They want you to believe what they do and if you don’t, you’ll be silenced or removed from your job.
Opponents of free-speech want the monopoly on the direction our culture takes, so if you won’t play ball they'll kick you out of the party.
It’s crucial that Christians challenge those who use 'diversity' when what they mean is 'uniformity'. If Christians are going to be removed from the public square and unable to work in certain jobs let's at least admit that it’s not because diversity is being encouraged. They don’t want a marketplace of ideas, they want a monopoly on ideas.
2. Prepare to be offended
Western civilization is special and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that fact. One of the greatest values of the West is the right to free speech: the right to voice our opinions without being censored.
But this isn’t a value that appeared out of a vacuum and if we take it for granted it could be easily lost. We are already seeing it chipped away one case at a time. There is a vocal minority who want to silence those who disagree with them instead of engaging in rational discourse. This is often seen in the now common complaint of being 'offended'. (What this really means is that they just think you’re wrong).
You can’t cherish free-speech while also believing you have a right to not hear views that you don’t like. A necessary implication of free-speech is that you may have to listen to views that you disagree with and may even find offensive.
Human beings have minds and are able to use logic, reason and argumentation. We are not snowflakes that must be handled delicately and protected from dissenting views. The world isn’t an echo chamber. It ought to be a place where debate and uncomfortable discussions can take place in the pursuit of truth.
There are at least two good reasons to hear views you disagree with. Firstly, you will properly understand the view you disagree with and be better equipped to critique it free from misrepresentation. Secondly, you might hear or read something that challenges you and realise that you were mistaken and change your views accordingly. As Christians we must be willing to offend and be offended, celebrating our right to free-speech.
3. Speak the language of your culture
The vast majority of what everyone believes is based upon an authority, whether a parent, teacher, comedian, lecturer or author. There is no shame in that, we can’t and don’t have the time to study everything ourselves and so we must decide which authority to trust.
As Christians we believe that the Bible is an authority that can be trusted. But when talking to those who aren't Christians, quoting a biblical text often won't hold any weight. I’m not saying that we should never quote the Bible. I am saying that in a biblically illiterate culture it may be more effective to use secular language that can be more easily understood.
Paul did this at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He communicated his Christian views to his audience without compromise but recognising his audience listened better under different terms to his usual listeners. Because all truth is God's truth, anything God says can be communicated reasonably and persuasively in secular terms. So let's start doing it.