Ethics - The right to free speech #1
The TOK Team's recent participation in the BBC 1 program, 'The Big Questions' yielded some interesting lessons on ethics - both on and off the television screen! You can watch the debate on the BBC i-player (it lasts for a week or so) and judge for yourself - our contribution is (if you want to skip the main debate) for a mere 56 seconds starting at 23 mins and 45 secs:
Of the three main debates, the first is of main interest to us here: 'Does the British National Party (BNP) have the right to be heard?'
A recently elected MEP for the BNP, Andrew Brons and his colleague, Reverend Robert West, came to defend their right to freedom of expression and had to put up with numerous attacks on their party line and their personalities (and why not? many of you will be asking). And as you'll no doubt observe, one of the TOK Team (who happens to be brown-skinned, at least when he last checked) had the nerve to agree with the Reverend and bring the discussion back from the emotive digressions of the panellists and audience to the Big Question at hand. Of course, the manner in which he told off the presenter, Nicky Campbell, and the audience for 'picking on' the poor Reverend and his colleague will not have passed you by - he's the same, is he not, with students who are not fully awake during TOK classes? Consistency is of the essence, we might reflect!
Just to focus you on the issue: if democracy is important to us, then at least two things follow in the context of the BNP's claim to the right of freedom of speech.
1. The election of the two MEPs from the BNP reflect the beliefs of a great number of people (check the statistics), however unpalatable and racist these might be; their election surely proves that the democratic process is working well - so let's celebrate that process. If we don't, then we have to admit that the process is somehow flawed and this would imply the need for a radical overhaul, which might not be a bad thing anyway.
2. Of course the BNP should have the right to freedom of speech, how absurd not to give them the right, if this means that their beliefs and policies and behaviour are kept in the open for scrutiny. To stifle their voice and to deny them the right to free speech would only force their ideas underground and we know from bitter experience what secrecy and deceit in politics can lead to.
Once the BNP's right to free speech is acknowledged, then we can begin to unpick their policies and see the flaws and absurdities in their arguments and beliefs by means of rational discourse instead of emotional outbursts, even though these emotions have their place - but if we pre-judge the BNP's beliefs, as the Anti Fascist League have done (they refused to attend the BBC show on the grounds that they would not 'share a platform with racists' - were they right?), then aren't we in danger of being exclusionist - the very thing of which people are accusing the BNP?
While discussing this in a Year 7 class, an eleven year old student of mine said (she had to say it three times, because some of her classmates weren't listening!!), 'If you don't allow people to speak, they just bottle things up and then it builds and builds until there's an explosion.' Almost prophetic words on the global political situation.
Returning to the issue: by pre-judging the BNP, there can never be discussion, and without discussion, surely their can never be peace. Just look at how things were in Northern Ireland and are now in the Middle East.
So: can we be morally outraged at the BNP's approach to politics and yet simultaneously grant them the right to freely express their beliefs? Is this a rational position to take?
We'd like to suggest, yes...