Voltaire anyone?

No doubt, Christians will be accused once again of playing the pity game, but can it really be argued that we have true freedom of speech in this country?

For those who might claim that Mr Smith is not being persecuted for his beliefs in the same way as someone like Pastor Nadarkhani, although his life might not be literally in the balance, this case is extremely chilling. What can be more disempowering or de-humanising than to restrict someone’s ability to work and earn money? Mr Smith is being punished, not because he has done anything wrong; he has broken no law, he has not engaged in bullying, he has simply expressed a point of view, one that he is perfectly entitled to hold.

To some extent, Mr Smith’s Christianity is an irrelevance. He should be perfectly able to express whatever views he likes, no matter how offensive other people might find them, and frankly, you’d have to be pushing it to take issue at his words. They are perfectly logical and contain no malice. Mr Smith was not attacking individuals, he was not extending hate, he was simply expressing an opinion about how the law should be applied. He has broken no law and yet his employers are seeking to punish him for having a point of view which a thin-skinned colleague found offensive.

Earlier this week, I was musing whether or not certain internet ‘personalities’ with thousands of followers bear an additional responsibility in terms of what they express on the internet. The answer was ‘no’. Even though they may write the most irresponsible and offensive garbage, which often gets picked up and repeated verbatim en masse by sheep-like followers who believe that someone’s status automatically lends them an air of authority, we cannot be held responsible for other people’s reactions to our words, so long as we are not inciting criminal acts.

Literary theorists will be familiar with Barthes’ convention of “death of the author”. Whenever something is committed to writing, there is an extent to which authorial intention has no impact upon how that text will be interpreted. We cannot be responsible for every single possible interpretation of our words, and though it might be prudent to avoid causing deliberate offence in work or social situations, we cannot be so frightened that our views may be the cause of undue offence and thus our undoing, that we stay silent.

My husband tells me that he refuses to talk about any moral issues at work for the very reason he is too scared that if he were to engage on any of these issues, it could lose him his job. Though its perfectly legitimate for a ‘professional’ religious person, like a priest or vicar to discuss moral issues in the course of their work or ministry, heaven help anyone else who might have a view.

Having a job now means that not only must one avoiding discussing these topics at the workplace, but what is far more sinister, you can no longer express them publicly from the comfort of your own home. An employer not only has a duty to ensure that their employees are capable and qualified to do the work for which they are paid, but that they must also conform to the norms of “right thinking” and never say anything that might offend anybody; even when they are not on company time or premises or acting for their employer in any way.

Whilst Christians are not being persecuted for their faith, it is the nature of our beliefs that is causing us to come into increasing conflict with the militant secularist agenda. Not wishing to endorse a certain lifestyle does not indicate a desire to persecute those who follow that lifestyle, which is what people on all sides seem to be having difficulty getting to grips with. Sometimes people say things with which you will disagree or find offensive. That is your right, just as it is your right to express annoyance or irritation at perceived injustices or sleights. Just because someone might find something that you have said offensive, doesn’t mean that you have no right to say it, or should be prevented from doing so, as long as you refrain from defamation or slander that can cause palpable damage.

I wonder whether or not Mr Smith would still have faced a disciplinary had he stated “Fat people should go on a diet or face more tax”?  What was so offensive or wrong about his particular statement  vis a vis gay marriage, that meant that he and his family should be punished?

When a personal view, whatever that might be, particularly one that has been politely and inoffensively expressed, jeopardises someone’s job, causes them to be demoted and lose a sizeable chunk of their income, we should all start to worry.

4 thoughts on “Voltaire anyone?

  1. It’s difficult to judge whether appalling cases like this are just inevitable (in a country of 60 million) occasional crass actions by individuals and individual organisations or a symptom of an almost universal malaise. Certainly, they are building up a climate of fear as witnessed by your husband’s reticence (and indeed my anonymity!).

  2. Some caution is in order. Remember this is The Daily Mail, and that the news reports are mainly based on the account given by Adrian’s Smith’s legal team. For legal reasons, Stafford Housing Trust are limited in what they can say at the moment, but it is worth reading their statement here:

    http://www.traffordhousingtrust.co.uk/your-trust/news/trust's-comment-on-mail-on-sunday-article

    Their argument seems to be that he failed to comply with a code of conduct regulating his use of social networking sites. They seem to make a particular issue of the fact that he made the controversial comments on a facebook account which stated his role with the Trust.

    This kind of thing is becoming more and more of an issue these days. The “reputation” of organisation can be affected by the online behaviour of its staff. Some civil liberties issues arise from this, I think. But presumably, from the Trust’s point of view, Smith has violated his employment contract with them.

    I can understand where the managers are coming from. Short Facebook messages are not the best format for carefully articulating Christian theology about same-sex marriage. The phrase “an equality too far” may have given an impression that he did not see gay people as equal to heterosexuals. Maybe Smith would admit that, in retrospect, “equality” was not a great term to use in this context. I would also suggest that his second Facebook comment could have come across as disrespectful to Christian same-sex couples looking for a Christian marriage ceremony. If he had also said something about non-Christian heterosexual couples using church weddings then that would have added more clarity, but he didn’t.

    Nevertheless, if the case here is as it has been presented so far, then I believe the Trust has massively over-reacted. As a gay man concerned about discrimination, I feel this case does us no favours at all. We need to focus on the real discrimination. The coverage of this story in the Pink Paper (part of the gay press) is particularly awful in my opinion:

    http://news.pinkpaper.com/NewsStory/6265/23/10/2011/Manager-escapes-sack-after-anti-gay-marriage-Facebook-rant-.aspx

  3. @ Scout

    You’re quite right to point out that there may be more to the story than the Daily Mail etc is revealing. But the justification put forward by the Trust suggesting that simply identifying yourself on Facebook as an employee entitles the Trust to police your opinions is worrying enough in itself given that most Facebook pages will say something about employment and most employments have some sort of equality policy built into their disciplinary code.

    This is all about how we can conduct discussions on important political and ethical questions without a) emasculating their content or b) harming people through reckless speech. Maybe he has said other things. But the things he has been quoted as saying are fairly mild and politely expressed. It ought to be irrelevant whether or not you can find some slight offence in them: harm, not offence ought to be the guiding principle here.

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