Thursday, 5 December 2013

Free Speech & Offence, Horse and Carriage of Rights

Perils of a Catholic boyhood. As a child I was puzzled by what I thought was the rather risqué compliment offered the Blessed Virgin Mary by the prayer The Divine Praises in the line "....and blessed be St Joseph, her most chaste spouse."

Allow for it was mainly heard, not read and I was even less literate than now, but the fact that the women of Nazereth spent their time hunting and luring St Joseph seemed to be a puzzling tribute to his spouse, her serene holiness and her ability to keep her man. The seven year old me that did not know the difference between "chaste" and " chased" formed a peculiar view of the social life of Roman era Nazereth....

Now that I am older and more knowledgeable, I am not wise enough to even attempt chastity, a virtue to which the Catholic Church holds all believers, gay, straight or confused, are called.
Yesterday University College Galway disbanded a Catholic student society, The Legion Of Mary, for advertising a religious group that works/prays with what they delicately call "people with a same sex attraction" to achieve chastity. Not even conversion to straightness, mass murder or the end of academic bureauracracy, just chastity, standard Catholic teaching.

The A4 posters on College notice boards are deemed to have offended gay people and indeed the college claimed to have received over  seventy complaints ( seventy one?). In a world which elevates offence to secular mortal sin, this was enough for the academic bureaucrats to take action against the LoM which was banned. You don't need to be a chaste Catholic to find this heavy handed censorship disturbing. As a very unchaste, and not often enough chased gay man, I find it intellectually deviant.

Universiities should be in the business of exposing people to ideas ( and vice-versa!), that NUIG is not and believes students need protection from an idea as harmelss as chastity advice should worry any one considering it as a college.

That Free Speech is vital to democracy, to public and intellectual life should not need to be said. Once we decide that offence trumps the right to say (and say includes publish, let's heed Derrida on the privileging of the spoken) that with which someone disagrees, we have decided to limit what may be discussed, thought, or considered. If I am offended by what you say that is my problem, if I can enforce my dislike of your speech by silencing you that is everyone's problem.

That I should be defending free speech for the second time in four months says we have have that problem, Galway.

If free speech does not include the right to offend then it is not free. Freedom only to say the agreed and the uncontentious is not freedom at all. By establishing the right of anybody to silence speech with which they disagree NUIG are creating a campus not, as the academic bureaucrats claim, safe for all students, but dangerous for students, ideas and debate. Banning the Legion of Mary because their poster offended gays means claiming the power of censoring any group or individual whose ideas offend. The gaystabo may be happy now but woe betide the physics department when the Flat Earth society wake up to the power offence gives them.

Of course the Flat Earthers have not the cachet and cool of us gays, and lack the organisational ability to create the outrage necessary to move the bureaucrats to action. Posting the "offensive" poster on Facebook meant complaints came from at least as far as Aberdeen. (fact courtesy of the plaintiff there)

Given that I have had death threats from "LGBT" activists in the last month I find the explanation of the complaints given me  by one ex NUIG student a little ironic : "My concern was that a society shouldn't be making lgbt students feel targeted".  The poster advertised a voluntary activity. Banning such "targeting" because you disagree with the message means waging war on almost any sectorally aimed message. Offence is an open door, not a limited chink in the wall.  

If offence draws retribution then we learn to avoid offence to survive, we think less, say less, hear less because we learn to fear the sucked in breath, the wagged head. Censoring for offence is a charter for bullies not a protection for the powerless. Other Catholic groups in NUIG will now feel that chill wind and will learn circumspection. Many more will learn the power of offence.

The bien pensant despite for Christians is not enormously different from the dislike and abhorrance gays once faced. Gays may not always be cool or on top of the victim heap. When we are not, we would be better served by real freedom than by a corrupt system of offence censorship. NUIG and its students would be much better served by a vibrant, free, market place of ideas than by imposing what must eventually turn into a system of self censorship. The academic bureaucrats have shamed the college and started themselves down a dangerous road. Apologising for drastic, bureaucratic overreach and re-instating the Legion of Mary as a student society would be a good first step back to sanity and freedom.

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