Peter Black AM – ‘Freedom of speech is the freedom to offend’

The Guardian reports on the controversy outside the Welsh Assembly yesterday, as 250 Christian activists demonstrated against a reading of poems they described as blasphemous:

Patrick Jones was asked to read from his collection, Darkness Is Where the Stars Are, by Liberal Democrat assembly member Peter Black, after Christian activists prevented Jones from launching the book at Waterstone’s Cardiff branch last month.

“I felt very strongly that no organisation should be able to intimidate and force the cancellation of a reading of this sort,” said Black after the event today. “This is a democratic society, with freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and people shouldn’t be intimidated into giving that up. The Welsh Assembly is the home of Welsh democracy, so it seemed highly appropriate to do a reading here.”

Writing about the episode on his blog, Peter explained further:

This was never about the poems. I did not set out to upset anybody of any religion. However, I could not stand by and allow a small minority to trample over basic rights to freedom of speech and expression. The National Assembly for Wales is the home of Welsh democracy, it has responsibilities for culture and literature, so it is the ideal place to stage a reading.

Freedom of speech is the freedom to offend. Once people are allowed to apply their own subjective values to others then we are on a slippery slope to dictatorship. I very much regret that people were offended but the principles involved in putting on this event were paramount.

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27 Comments

  • Alix Mortimer 12th Dec '08 - 5:36pm

    Can I just highlight this quote of Peter’s from that Graun article too:

    “Patrick did his reading, 250 people sang hymns outside – that’s what democracy is about”

    YAY!

    A lot of your typical illiberal authoritarian types might mistake an event of this sort as an attempt to ban right back at them. So this is an important message.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Dec '08 - 7:39pm

    If some small and unrepresentative group of Muslims advocates violence or something else most people would think unacceptable, Liberals are often found to be shouting from the rooftops that “Islam is a religion of peace”, “these people aren’t typical Muslims” and “It’s Islamophobia to write as if these people are typical Muslims”.

    I note the same qualifications are not observed when some small and unrepresentative group of people answerable only to themselves but claiming to be “Christian” says or does something most people would think unacceptable.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Dec '08 - 12:11am

    Jock, if your last message was meant to be a reply to me, I do not understand the point you are making.

    I am simply suggesting the use of the phrase “Christian activists” to describe some extremist group which has been condemned by most mainstream Christians is misleading.

    Many liberals have experessed concern when the word “Muslim” is used to describe some extremist group which is condemned by most Muslims. They say this is “Islamophobic”, and they suggest that these groups should always be written about in a way which makes clear the writer is not suggesting all Muslims are like that.

    So why isn’t the same line taken with this “Christian Voice” organisation – why the use of language in this article and elsewhere which suggests this is some mainstream organisation of Christians?

  • MatGB wrote:-

    “The hosts and editors are thus absolved of responsibility”

    Actually, they’re not. You can of course indemnify them, but I think Mark, Steve, et al, would want to see you bank account first.

    In reality, you are very probably protected by the defence of fair comment on a matter of public interest, provided you express your comments as an opinion based on fact: (“Mr Green says X, Y and Z; therefore he is an extremist.”)

    I don’t suppose Mr Green can afford to sue you. £30,000 before the trial even starts? If he sues even a fraction of the people who call him an extremist, he’ll be in queer street pretty fast.

    BTW, the list of people I’ve insulted on this site is endless, but I haven’t received a single writ – yet!

    Who is Green, anyway?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Dec '08 - 1:14am

    MatGB, the Guardian would not use just the word “Muslim” when describing something said or done by Hizb ut-Tahrir, indeed such a usage would be considered “Islamophobic”. So why it is acceptable to refer to Christian Voice as just “Christians”? Any Liberal Democrat who just used the word “Muslims” to describe some terrorist organisation would be roundly condemned, possibly even drummed out of the party. So why is it considered acceptable just to use the word “Christian” to describe some extremist organisation whose views most mainstream Christians would regard as repugnant?

    Your argument that “while mainstream Islam generally condemns the politically motivated extremists, very few mainstream Christians condemn Green” is complete rubbish. Are you seriously suggesting that mainstream Catholics and Anglicans aren’t willing to disassociate themselves from this wacky evangelical fundamentalist outfit? No, when you say that you are as insulting as those people who keep saying “all Muslims are terrorists, they never speak out against Islamic terrorism” despite the many occasions when leading Muslims have spoken out against it.

    It is double standards like this which are leading many good mainstream liberal Christians, who in the past would have been natural Liberal Democrat supporters, to think now that the party has an unpleasant anti-Christian bias.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Dec '08 - 1:59am

    Paul Vallely’s London Newman Lecture:

    http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/11307

    raises some of the issues that concern me about the way aggressive atheists and fundamentalist Christians feed off each other.

    It is a problem that whereas mainstream liberal Christians generally attach a denominational label to themselves, extremist, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians will often just use the word “Christian” to describe themselves. This can be a deliberate tactic. I myself remember when I first went to university discovering there was a group called the “Christian Union” which I supposed to be a union of university Christians, but when I went to one of their meeting found out it was an organisation of evangelical protestants. I though this to be extremely dishonest. Many time later during at various universities where I studied or worked, I came across people who weren’t Christians but just assumed that the “Christian Union” must be the union of university Christian organisations, rather than just one orgainisation at the extreme end with an agenda of its own.

    Now, I am sure as hardly anyone knows who Stephen Green might be – it may surprise you, but he is not a constant topic of conversation in church pews – many innocent Christians might easily be misled into supposing his organisation is just a general Christian organisation, and not one with its own agenda which is way removed from mainstream British Christianity. In just the same way I can easily imagine a naive Muslim being suckered into giving support to some extremist Muslim group.

    Returning to Paul Vallely’s point, I do feel that liberal Christians need some recognition, and that the growing hostility to Christianity in liberal circles is tending to push moderate Christians away into alliance with more conservative and illiberal elements. Again, we can see similar happening with Islam – moderate Muslims undermined by Islamophobia lose out to their more extreme co-religionists who say “look, we were right, it’s no good trying to suck up to those people, they hate us, so you had better join us in fighting them”.

  • Matthew, I think you are mistaken in believing that university Evangelical groups are dishonest in calling themselves the “Christian Union” (something they have always done in almost all places). They believe, quite genuinely, the following to be true:

    (1) Denominations don’t matter. It’s what one believes and does that counts.

    (2) Only those who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God are accurately described as “Christians”.

    I dislike their ideology and I think they are deluded. But the rank-and-file people at least are totally sincere.

  • This whole debacle has worried me from the off. Patrick Jones has benefited enormously from this controversy, but Mr Jones has also acknowledged that he sent his poems to Christian Voice (and other extreme groups) to drum up a row ahead of scheduled readings. Peter Black has acknowledged this, but he still argues that it was worth taking up Mr Jones’s cause in the interests of freedom of speech. But Mr Jones chose to try and curtail his chance to speak freely, by seeking out those who might be offended, and then by living off the publicity of readings which were disrupted and cancelled.

    Somewhere in the midst of this embarrassment are some poems, which Peter Black freely concedes not to have read in much quantity. They suck, big time, and it offends me that dire poets with good publicity machines get the implicit endorsement of the Welsh Assembly. Peter Black has shown himself to be hopelessly naive, again.

  • Thank you for responding, Peter. I believe that public readings are a poet’s bread and butter – it’s a fantastic way to communicate work to an audience. My argument is that Patrick Jones seemingly wanted not to read his work that night at Waterstone’s. The publicity was worth more to him than the chance to air his work, which is an OK choice until he complains about not having the chance to air his work!

    On reflection, I think you’re right that his essential freedom of speech isn’t affected by this. I would also remind readers, though, that the poster advertising the Assembly reading referred to THE READING THEY TRIED TO BAN (or very similar wording). Could we not call it THE READING PATRICK JONES TRIED TO BAN?

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Dec '08 - 10:31pm

    Jock

    I’m not clear what you mean by “innocent Christians”, but I think you’re being too easy on them. My mother is in training to be a priest in the Anglican Church, her faculties and training should be enough one would have thought to allow her to be critically analytical about what they are asked to get involved in.

    Yes, one would have thought so, but I have often found religious people can be very naive on a political level. My mother, who some years ago went from RC to Anglican, recently switched parishes because her then (very High Church) parish started an Alpha course and couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Actually, a lot of RCs, who ought to know better, have been very positive about the Church of Gumbel as well. To be honest, I was surprised to find a High Church vicar lining up behind Gumbel, since the Anglo-Catholics, coming from a background where they have to fight their corner tend to be fairly astute politically. As my mother put it, why get so worked up about women priests, and then let Gumbel introduce Toronto blessing shamanism as “Christianity”.

    However, I think we know that whipping people up over some issue, even partly manufactured, getting them to sign up to some petition or otherwise get involved on the fringes of an organisation which if they looked closer they’d see using them, is a classic extremist way of operating. Suckering them in by having an air of secrecy, gradually introducing what their real aims are, having an over-warm atmosphere so one feels part of the group, and asking for new commitments at each step so it’s very difficult to back out, is classic mind-manipulation territory. My mother, having done a bit of pyschology at university, could see from the start what Gumbel as up to, most of her fellow parishioners could not.

    Christian Voice doesn’t have quite the deviousness of Gumbel, if you check its website you can see what Green is up to, but I suspect many mainstream people who are mentioning Christian Voice campaigns simply haven’t actually looked. That is why it is all the more important for all of us who are appalled by what can be found there if you look, whether we are Christians or not, should be careful when mentioning his group to make clear that it has its own agenda which is not that of mainstream Christian denominations. Anyone who refers to “Christian Voice” as just “Christians” is furthering the aims of this vile organisation. Why do that?

    “Evangelical” does not itself mean “extreme”.

    Yes, point accepted, and when I wrote “extremist, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians” I was in part thinking of “and” in its English usage which as a computer scientist I’d write as “or”. But seeing how Protestantism so easily morphs into Evangelicalism and that so easily morphs into extremist fundamentalism was a big factor in reconciling me to Catholicism.

    Of course, Catholics can easily get signed up to people with their own extreme agenda without realising how they’re being, quite often this happens with some claiming some Marian vision or the like. At this time, the Church hierarchy coming along with the big stick and saying “No, not authorised by us” can be a good thing.

    My own experience of all these things enables me to see how Muslim extremist/terrorist organisation work and get support. As with the Christian evangelicals, the issue is the lack of a central authority which can say “No, you are interpreting things wrongly, this is not an acceptable way of practising our religion”.

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