Tuesday, May 04, 2010
Thou shalt not pray: Atheists' bid to ban prayers before British council meetings - because they breach 'human rights' of non-believers
Militant atheists are trying to ban the age-old tradition of councils starting their meetings with Christian prayers by claiming it infringes the 'human rights' of non-believers.
The National Secular Society has instructed lawyers to take a town council in North Devon to court for a judicial review of the practice.
If the test case succeeds, Christian prayers - or those of any faith - would become illegal at thousands of councils.
Councils have been starting their meetings with prayers for centuries
Councils have been starting their meetings with prayers for centuries
Religious groups called the legal move an attack by 'aggressive atheists' on Britain's Christian heritage, while one mayor described it as 'religiously correct madness'.
It follows a succession of judicial rulings seen as undermining the Christian faith.
Last week Lord Justice Laws ruled that the sacking of a Christian relationship counsellor who refused to counsel homosexual couples on religious grounds was lawful because religious views cannot be protected by law.
And yesterday the Daily Mail told how preacher Dale Mcalpine was held in a cell for seven hours and charged a public order offence after telling a gay police community support officer that homosexuality was a sin.
The vast majority of councils choose to start meetings with Christian prayers. A handful begin with those of other faiths.
A survey by the Daily Mail of 181 of the 422 largest councils in England and Wales found 118 start their meetings with a prayer - of which nearly all were Christian. Only 63 had no prayers.
The NSS - which says it works to combat the influence of religion on governments - has instructed top legal firm Beachcroft to launch a judicial review against Bideford Town Council for starting its meetings with prayers.
The council has done so since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. But the NSS argues that prayers breach Article 9 of the Human Rights Act which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion for non-believers.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said: 'If members of councils wish to pray before their meeting they can do it, preferably in another room.
'We've no problem with that. We are not infringing anyone's rights to worship. 'It has also been suggested the non-religious should leave the room during prayers. 'But if you are elected to serve a public body, why should you leave the room? It's an old-fashioned and inappropriate thing to do. 'The council is not there to promote religion, but to carry out services for the citizens of this country.'
Bideford's annual budget is a fraction of that of larger councils, making it a soft target unlikely to engage expensive lawyers to fight the NSS.
Town clerk George McLauchlan said: 'The council is aware there is a potential judicial review. 'I don't know why they have singled out Bideford. This is a national matter not just a local matter.'
Andrea Williams, of the Christian Legal Centre, said: 'Religious freedom should be respected. In a free and civilised society, councils and public bodies should be free to open meetings with prayer. 'It's a fundamental freedom. We are not a secular state and society as a whole benefits from Christian precepts.'
Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, said: 'It's a tradition that's gone on for hundreds of years. 'This is really a move by aggressive atheism trying to shove Christianity out of public life. 'The council shouldn't back down. It definitely isn't in breach of human rights law. Parliament has prayers, is Parliament illegal?'
Prayers before meetings vary from an elaborate ceremony at Boston Council in Lincolnshire, to prayers praising the 'creator and sustainer of all things' at Leicester and the three-word Latin prayer, Domine Dirige Nos - meaning 'Lord guide us' - at the City of London.
A spokesman for Boston Council said: 'The mace bearer will knock on the door of the meeting so we all stand to attention, and then we all stand while the Lord's Prayer is read. It is a very old tradition and it would be a terrible shame to end it.'
At Tameside Council, Greater Manchester, a spokesman said: 'We have Christian prayers by a priest. It is a Christian country after all. I can't see why there would be a problem with it.'
Eric Silver, Mayor of Harrow Council, North London, which starts meetings with a prayer read by a rabbi, said: 'All councillors of many different faiths have enjoyed the tradition of prayers at full council meetings. 'To ban this activity just seems like religiously correct madness and to go against common sense.'
The Orwellian logic that's turning the faith Britain was built on into a crime
Terrifying as this may seem, the attempt to stamp out Christianity in Britain appears to be gathering pace.
Dale McAlpine was preaching to shoppers in Workington, Cumbria, that homosexuality is a sin when he found himself carted off by the police, locked up in a cell for seven hours and charged with using abusive or insulting words or behaviour.
It appears that two police community support officers - at least one of whom was gay - claimed he had caused distress to themselves and members of the public. Under our anti-discrimination laws, such distress is not to be permitted.
And so we have the oppressive and sinister situation where a gentle, unaggressive Christian is arrested and charged simply for preaching Christian principles.
It would appear that Christianity, the normative faith of this country on which its morality, values and civilisation are based, is effectively being turned into a crime.
Surreally, this intolerant denial of freedom is being perpetrated under the rubric of promoting tolerance and equality - but only towards approved groups.
Never has George Orwell's famous satirical observation, that some people are more equal than others, appeared more true.
The Cumbrian arrest comes hard on the heels of last week's ruling by Lord Justice Laws in the case of Gary McFarlane, who was dismissed as a Relate counsellor because he refused to give advice to samesex couples on sexual relationships.
The judge not only upheld Relate's case against McFarlane but went even further, saying in terms that the law could provide no legal protection for Christians who wish to live according to their religious principles.
And how did he arrive at this remarkable conclusion that deprives Christians of their rights? By cherry-picking human rights law.
The judge said merely that this conferred upon believers the right to 'hold or express' religious views. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights goes much further, giving people the right to manifest 'freedom of thought, conscience and religion' through 'worship, teaching, practice and observance'.
Yet the judge chose not to mention this right to put religious beliefs into practice. Instead, he stated that giving legal protection to Christian beliefs was 'deeply unprincipled' and 'on the way to a theocracy'.
You really do have to scratch your head at this. The protection of religious conscience is a fundamental principle of a liberal and free society.
To equate this protection with theocracy - or the imposition of religious law upon a society - displays a remarkable intellectual and moral confusion, and has resulted in a ruling that is frighteningly illiberal and intolerant.
Of course, you could say that this is merely the result of human rights law for which Parliament rather than the judges is responsible.
But the courts could interpret that same human rights law very differently.
The problem is that the judges are refusing to strike a proper balance. Instead of arbitrating fairly between competing rights by granting exemptions for religious believers from anti-religious laws, they are choosing to impose secular values and thus destroy the right to live and work Christian principles.
What seems to have particularly offended Lord Justice Laws was the idea of protecting certain beliefs specifically because they were religious.
This was wrong, he said, because religious ideas were not applicable to the whole of society, since they existed only in the hearts of religious believers.
He thus appeared, totally, to miss the point - that freedom of conscience is supposedly a right for all, including minorities. It would seem that either a tin ear or, worse, an animosity towards religion drives all before it.
This was what caused the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, to protest in a statement to the court that judges were effectively damning Christianity itself as discriminatory and, therefore, bigoted.
He was so alarmed by the apparent secular prejudice of the judiciary that he suggested the establishment of a special court to deal with cases of religious discrimination composed of judges with some understanding of religious issues.
As if to prove his point, Lord Justice Laws dismissed all his arguments out of hand with the patronising observation that Lord Carey had not understood the law.
On the contrary, it is surely Lord Justice Laws who does not understand that he and his fellow judges are mistaking secularism for neutrality - confusing the secular onslaught upon religion with the need to hold the ring between competing beliefs.
There is a long and growing list of British Christians who have been harassed by the police, sacked or otherwise fallen foul of authority simply for upholding their religious beliefs.
Pensioners have found the police on their doorstep accusing them of 'hate crime' for objecting to their council about a gay pride march or merely asking if they could distribute Christian leaflets alongside the gay rights literature.
A preacher who went around with a placard denouncing homosexuality was prosecuted even though he was the victim of an assault by onlookers who threw soil and water over him.
In the field of employment, Christians have been suspended or sacked for refusing to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies or place children for adoption with gay couples and for wearing a cross or praying with patients for their recovery.
Many of these cases involve the issue of homosexuality since this is the principal area where orthodox Christian beliefs cannot co-exist with the law.
This is in contrast to other contentious issues such as abortion, where the law specifically provides exemptions for conscience.
This is because unlike the specific and limited issue of abortion, the militant gay rights agenda represents an attack on the entire value system of our society by destroying the very idea that any sexual behaviour is normal.
Anyone who says homosexuality is not normal is, therefore, thrown to the wolves as a bigot.
This is what recently happened to the then Conservative parliamentary candidate Philip Lardner.
He said churches should not be forced to have practising homosexual clergy and Christians should not be penalised for politely saying that homosexuality is 'wrong'.
He also said that he would always support the rights of homosexuals to be treated fairly and to live as they wanted in private, but he would not accept that their behaviour was 'normal' or encourage children to indulge in it.
For this expression of traditional Christian - and, indeed, liberal - values, he was not only deselected as a Tory candidate at the speed of light on the grounds that his remarks were 'deeply offensive and unacceptable', but suspended from his job as a primary school teacher.
As Lardner has angrily observed, it appears that Christian views are no longer acceptable within the Conservative party.
Far from their historic role in defending the bedrock values of this society, the Tories have thus put themselves on the side of the illiberal onslaught on freedom of conscience.
Of course, true prejudice and bigotry are wrong, whether towards homosexuals or anyone else.
But the decent impulse to protect the rights of gay people is very different from trying to destroy the bedrock values of our society.
Yet, that is precisely what it has become. As a result, Britain is turning from a liberal Christian country - whose liberalism is rooted in its religious tradition - into an illiberal, oppressive secular state with no room for religious conscience.
Under the camouflage of human rights, this is the way freedom dies.
Christianity still has great power
April 30th, was the "celebration" of the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
My friend, Win, was an officer in South Vietnam's Army... a man of virtuous character... a husband and father of 3 beautiful little girls... in Saigon.
After the progressives in America's congress ensured our defeat in spite of our victory... the American forces were forced to "cut and run" and leave South Vietnam to her fate... the progressives forsook our charge... abandoned our mission... and believe me... the Freedom Fighters of South Vietnam suffered.
Win was immediately imprisoned... his house and property confiscated... his wife and three daughters cast out onto the streets.
Win spent five years in a "re-education" camp... and an additional three years in solitary confinement. His crime? It was not that he fought with the American forces... his crime was that he was a Catholic Believer... a Christian.
The three years in Solitary were laden with torture. Win would be hung upside down in some kind of bag from the ceiling... beaten with rods... and the demand? "Win... renounce this Jesus and the Church and we will let you go!"
Win's response... always the same... through tears... "Sirs, I love you and Jesus loves you."
While in the "re-education" camp the communists would allow Win's wife to see him through the bars once a week. One day she smuggled him a little sugar cube through the bars... a valuable treasure... Win quietly hid the sugar cube in his shirt... One of the other prisoners saw the exchange... and in the middle of the night came to Win demanding the sugar cube for himself.
Win protested but the unknown man then began to beg through tears that he needed that sugar cube. Win... out of compassion gave his little sugar cube to another desperate prisoner.
A couple of years later... Win was released finally... after 8 years... to a shack with his wife and children. One night there was a knock on the door... it was the unknown man who cried for the sugar cube. Win has no idea how the man found him.
The man took Win's hand and placed a small cube of solid gold in his palm... about the size of a sugar cube... through his tears the man said it was all that he had... but it was the only way he could say thanks for that simple sugar cube that night years ago.
Long story shorter... after Win escaped on one of those refugee boats under hail of communist fire... finally making it to California 8 years later through various tests and trials... Win reached into his pocket... alone in LA... and pulled out that lone cube of gold... found a place to sell it... he traded that cube of gold for $300... and with that $300 Win began a new life... in a new nation.
In another 8 years Win was able to secure the freedom of his wife and finally his 3 daughters... a 16 year journey from the day of his escape under fire.
Win is one of my heroes... Win is my friend... he is one of the very few good things that came out of the "Fall of Saigon."
Historic British liberties have been replaced by all-embracing regulation
Leading not to individual responsibility but to irresponsibility. No set of rules can be comprehensive enough or enforceable enough to replace the good judgment and sense of responsibility that comes from being a free citizen
Nothing better illustrates the British political class’s cluelessness about freedom than the fact that they think there is a contradiction between rights and responsibilities. Every contemporary British leader, from Tony Blair to Nick Clegg, has offered some variant of the idea that rights must be carefully balanced with responsibilities, in order that people’s exercise of freedom does not turn them into selfish beings, concerned only with satisfying their own instincts, who forget or discard their responsibility to behave as decent citizens. As one New Labour document puts it, ‘responsibilities provide a balance to those who would take advantage of rights’ (1).
What is extraordinary and profoundly revealing about this idea is that, in fact, ‘rights and responsibilities’, or better still freedom and morality, are not contradictory at all. On the contrary, one makes the other: it is the exercise of freedom, and the exercise of freedom alone, which makes us truly responsible individuals, conscious of and engaged with the consequences of our actions. It is the freedom to think for ourselves, to speak as we see fit, and to develop lifestyles of our choosing which allows us to develop a true sense of moral responsibility. And it is the curtailment of our liberties by the contemporary political elite which, ironically, both makes us feel irresponsible and, in a very real way, actually makes us irresponsible....
Cameron’s Conservatives have accepted, wholesale, the Blairite idea of using the state to strike a balance between individual liberty and social stability. Herbert says that our response to ‘increasing individualism’, where some people apparently want the freedom to do whatever they please, ‘must surely be the strengthening of society and its bonds and the promotion of responsibility’ (5). This echoes Blair’s attack in 1997 on ‘narrow individualism’ and his promise to counteract it by developing ‘a new balance between the individual and collective in which liberty could coexist with community values’ (6). All our political leaders feel a need to ‘strengthen society’ and they imagine that the best way to do that is by attacking and defeating ‘narrow individualism’ (7).
New Labour brought this debate to a head with the Ministry of Justice’s publication last month of a consultation paper titled People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities. The paper explicitly discusses codifying individuals’ responsibilities to each other, the state and society, and explores how our liberties might sometimes have to be curtailed in order to ensure that we are fulfilling these responsibilities. New Labour is also keen to introduce a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, which, according to the consultation paper, ‘would go some way towards addressing falling standards of behaviour’ and would help ‘entrench the ideal of social responsibility over time’ (8).
What is striking about the ‘rights and responsibilities’ debate is that our leaders clearly recognise that there is a social malaise today, a rupture in collective identities… yet the solutions they have put forward to this problem have only made it worse. In diagnosing the problem of a social malaise caused by ‘narrow individualism’ and individuals seeking to ‘take advantage of rights’, they are effectively projecting the profound, historic social and political crises that have generated contemporary atomisation on to the alleged greed and recklessness of individuals, as if people’s desires to live freely are themselves the cause of social decay.
And more importantly, in seeking to rectify things though problematising the idea of unchecked liberty, and trying to ‘entrench social responsibility’ from above, they fatally fail to realise that only freedom itself can give rise to any meaningful form of moral and social responsibility. They fail to recognise that freedom is not merely a fairly nice thing that people should enjoy in bite-sized morsels called ‘rights’ after they have fulfilled their social duties and obligations. No, freedom is the creator of moral responsibility, it is a social and moral good, it is in fact the only basis on which a Good Society can be created and sustained.
As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty 150 years ago, ‘The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used. He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.’ (9) In short, it is through freely choosing – through acting freely – that we exercise perception and judgement and become truly moral and morally responsible beings. Under New Labour’s tyranny of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’, we are assigned the role, not of morally responsible citizens, but of ape-like imitators of state-decided ‘standards of behaviour’. They have destroyed both liberty and responsibility.
Keeping our freedom in check
There have been two consequences of the decade-long focus on ‘balancing rights and responsibilities’. Firstly, the idea of ‘responsibilities’ has increasingly been used to undermine our freedoms, where we are effectively told that, yes, we have certain freedoms, but we must exercise them responsibly and cautiously in order not to harm other individuals or damage the fragile social fabric.
This is really a new attack on liberty, carried out not by a jealous, jackboot-wearing state that forces us to hand over our liberties, but by a disoriented elite which marshals widespread concerns about social instability as a way of encouraging self-policing and timidity amongst the public. And secondly, our era of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’ has revealed a political elite which can only conceive of responsibility in terms of something which is codified by the authorities and then ‘entrenched’ across society – revealing their spectacular ignorance of what moral responsibility really is.
On the first point, with the promotion of ‘responsibilities’ as a necessary check on ‘rights’, what we really have is a new form of state intervention into our freedoms and choices (indeed, even the term ‘rights’, especially in relation to human rights, is not an unproblematic one – so-called ‘rights’, especially strictly checked and regulated ones, can also be used to undermine true liberty today). In the arena of rights and responsibilities, ‘social responsibility’ really means conformism to custom.
This is clear from the government’s People and Power consultation paper, which names two important British values as ‘freedom of the person’ and ‘freedom of expression’. However, it says these ‘values’ must be set against our ‘responsibilities’ – which in the instance of these two freedoms include: to ‘be non-judgemental, open and encouraging’; to avoid ‘forcing our opinions on others’; and to ‘accept the consequences of being outspoken’ (10).
In short, yes we have the freedom to be left alone and to speak our minds, but we must self-regulate these freedoms in order to avoid antagonising or even simply offending other people. We are graciously given the right to free speech, but on the condition that we do not say anything too controversial or intemperate. Here, we can see how the interplay between ‘rights and responsibilities’ is one where state-defined responsibilities pretty much eradicate our rights.
The consultation paper even floats the idea of making our enjoyment of liberty conditional on our adherence to state-defined social obligations, suggesting that perhaps ‘certain rights should be conditional on responsibilities’ (11). However, the authorities do not need to list our ‘social responsibilities’ in a new legal instrument – because the idea that we have certain responsibilities, and that these responsibilities will inevitably impact on our ability to act and speak freely, is now broadly accepted and institutionalised in all but name.
Many of New Labour’s most insidious attacks on our freedoms – to think, to speak, to gather in public spaces, to drink or smoke what we like – have been justified on the basis that we cannot have unfettered freedom and be socially responsible, and that there comes a point when we exercise our freedoms to such ‘extremes’ that our behaviour becomes irresponsible and thus damaging to society.
In the arena of speech, the authorities argue that we can have free speech so long as we do not use it irresponsibly. As a 2009 government document on rights and responsibilities put it, we have the ‘responsibility’ not to indulge in ‘abuses of the right of freedom of expression, for example extreme forms of hate speech’ (12). In the arena of ‘anti-social behaviour’, the government has justified its vast system of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders – which involve the use of semi-criminal instruments to curtail the behaviour of specific individuals or groups of individuals – on the basis of ‘restoring civic responsibility’ (13).
The ban on smoking in public places is justified by the ‘social responsibility’ not to harm others with our passive smoke. We still have the ‘right to smoke’, says one government document (in our homes, anyway), but we must also ‘accept our responsibilities to other people who do not wish to be affected by passive smoking’ (14). Even worse, in some instances the government implicitly assumes responsibility, not for protecting the social fabric, but for protecting individuals from their own behaviour. In their smoking ban, drinking restrictions and censorship of junk-food advertising, the authorities exercise ‘individual responsibility’ on individuals’ behalf, on the basis that we are too stupid or greedy to do it ourselves.
In every case, we are assured that we still have all our rights – the right to speak, gather, smoke and stuff our faces – but are told that in some instances our responsibilities to society must override our ability to exercise those rights.
Far from criticising this subtle yet far-reaching watering down of our freedoms, the government’s critics accept that ‘rights’ must occasionally be checked by ‘responsibilities’, only they make the case in slightly different language – more duplicitously still, they use the language of rights to attack our rights.
Shami Chakrabarti, the head of the civil rights campaign group Liberty, says Britain doesn’t need a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities… because the Human Rights Act of 1998 already keeps our freedoms in check (15). This is true. For example, the Act grants us freedom of expression, but it says that since this freedom ‘carries with it duties and responsibilities’, it ‘may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society’ (16).
In other words, we don’t really have freedom of expression. The government’s critics in the human-rights lobby also accept that elite-defined ‘duties and responsibilities’ can and should impede on our liberties.
The curtailment of our rights through the idea of ‘social responsibilities’ is really a new form of state denigration of liberty, and one which is well suited to our times. In earlier eras, when there was often a clearer dividing line between sections of the public demanding freedom and a confident state determined to defend its power, the denigration of liberty tended to be executed in a more explicit fashion: through a police state, brute censorship, or new laws restricting movement and association.
Today, when there is neither a widespread demand for freedom nor an elite possessed of the wherewithal or even the need to dismantle liberty root and branch, our freedoms can be bargained off in a more informal fashion. The balancing of rights with responsibilities really represents the exploitation of the fear of social instability, of a widespread perception that we are living through, in Tony Blair’s words, a period of ‘social disintegration’ (17), as a way of blackmailing people into self-policing their speech, behaviour and lifestyles in the name of preserving the status quo.
It is the atomisation of the public, and the elite’s instinct for social control as a way of offsetting ‘social disintegration’, which has given rise to this tyranny of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’.
The second impact of the doctrine of ‘rights and responsibilities’ has been the denigration of the meaning of moral responsibility. In both their belief that rights and responsibilities are potentially antagonistic elements that must be mediated, and their notion of a conflict between individual liberty (Blair’s ‘narrow individualism’) and social stability (Blair’s ‘community values’), the political classes demonstrate that they have no idea what freedom is, far less why it is the most important value in society.
The truth is that, far from being conflicting categories, it is only freedom that can give rise to meaningful responsibility. And far from individuals pursuing their liberties posing some kind of threat to bigger, more important ‘social interests’, it is only free individuals – engaged, choice-making individuals – who can create the basis for a stable, happy and Good society.
One of the most striking things about the contemporary elite is the way it understands responsibility. It cannot conceive of responsibility as anything other than a contractual thing, fashioned and imposed upon communities and individuals by external third parties. It doesn’t understand that responsibility – real, worth-its-name responsibility – comes from experience and engagement, from making choices and learning from the consequences, not from lists of duties drawn up in committee rooms.
New Labour has fashioned numerous ‘responsibility contracts’ to govern relations and duties between individuals and public bodies. It has sought to ‘build responsibilities into policy development’ (18). ‘Neighbourhood agreements’ are contracts ‘designed and agreed by the residents and the providers of services in an area’, which cover everything from individuals’ responsibilities in relation to their neighbourhoods (for example, to report any crime they witness) to public bodies’ responsibilities to respond to problems quickly and efficiently (19).
‘Home-school agreements’ outline both a school’s and parents’ ‘respective responsibilities with regard to pupil attendance, behaviour and homework’; here, even parents’ relationships with aspects of their children’s lives become codified (20). There are also contracts outlining individuals’ ‘responsibility to find work’, where in return for improved services from the welfare state, jobseekers agree to ‘make greater efforts to gain employment’ (21).
The government has considered further expanding these contract-style lists of responsibilities. In People and Power, it proposed, under the banner of ‘Patriotism’, codifying people’s responsibility to ‘protect important heritage sites’ and to ‘promote a positive image of Britain abroad’. Under the banner of ‘Respect for laws and institutions’, it considered codifying people’s responsibility to ‘better understand British institutions’. And under the banner of ‘Manners/politeness’, it floated the idea of introducing some form of contractual stipulation that we should all ‘treat others with respect, kindness and empathy’ and ‘employ politeness/courtesy’ (22).
(Such patronising official reminders of our social responsibilities are already at work in London, where mayoral propaganda posters on public transport remind us to avoid eating smelly food, turn down our iPods, smile at people, and use polite language such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’).
The political elite’s attempt to magic up a sense of social responsibility through contracts is a product of two things: first, its instinctive recognition that there has been a fraying of collective, social outlooks in recent years; and second, its belief that ordinary people, left to their own devices, are incapable of negotiating their relationships and interactions with public bodies, communities, each other and even their own children.
The creeping codification of responsibilities becomes a kind of crutch for society, for a real public realm, and the only way the political elite believes it is possible to create social dynamism and community interaction, so that everything from respecting the National Gallery to reporting crimes to being polite to reading to your child becomes an explicitly spelled-out responsibility. What the elite doesn’t recognise is that its codification of responsibilities, and its corresponding denigration of the ‘narrow individualism’ of liberty, is doing nothing to mend society and a great deal to damage it further.
As John Stuart Mill understood very well, we only become fully responsible beings, fully human indeed, when we make decisions and take actions freely rather than under pressure of censure, shame, or of doing ‘the expected thing’. ‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing’, said Mill.
Mill argued that our moral faculties – our ability to exercise reason, to learn from experience, and to assume greater responsibility both for ourselves and in relation to society – can only work properly when we are free. ‘The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it… [However], he who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.’ (23) In short, it is only a free man who can assume true responsibility, precisely because he is free and is exercising his moral judgement rather than adhering to the pre-decided ‘standards of behaviour’ of an external force.
Yes, in exercising their moral faculties people will sometimes make mistakes. Yet Mill argued that it is better to be a free man who makes errors than a cosseted man who always does what is customarily expected of him and is considered to be ‘the right thing’: ‘[T]hough individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education – a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal.’ (24) Today’s elite could never countenance such a thing – leaving people to organise their lives and relationships as they and their communities see fit, in the interests of expanding their own ‘mental education’ and ‘active faculties’ – and instead draws up codes for every social possibility and interaction.
As to the idea that too much individual liberty is a threat to social solidarity, Mill argued that in fact society is vastly improved by being made up of strong-willed, determined, even self-interested members. The prejudice against what Blair called ‘narrow individualism’ is widespread today, amongst both the elite and its critics.
Human rights activists look down their noses at people who complain about not being able to smoke in pubs or drink on trains or eat what they want without feeling guilty, accusing them of having ‘petty’ demands. One human-rights campaigner says, ‘You may have the right to do whatever you want to your body – like continue drinking even when you’re drunk, for example – but what if that makes you violent towards someone else? Rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand and should not be used and abused for trivial, petty wants.’ (25)
But these ‘trivial, petty wants’ are a key part of what it means to be free – and society ultimately benefits from allowing us to decide for ourselves how to live our lives. As Mill said: ‘Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself must maintain that society has no need of strong natures – is not the better for containing many persons who have much character – and that a high general average of energy is not desirable.’ (26)
Society should not fear strong individual impulses, but allow them to flourish, said Mill: ‘The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue… It is through the cultivation of these, that society both does its duty and protects its interests: not by rejecting the stuff of which heroes are made, because it knows not how to make them.’ (27)
In contrast, today the political elite seeks to neuter the individual in the name of protecting society, not realising that a society composed of weak, cosseted individuals – where ‘the mind itself is bowed to the yoke’, as Mill put it – is a society that will almost certainly lack spirit and dynamism and which few people will be interested in signing up to. ‘The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it’, said Mill.
Amongst both the political elite and its influential critics, there’s a powerful disdain today for true liberty, for the exercise of individual subjectivity, for the right of individuals to think and speak and associate in ways that they and their social networks find agreeable, useful, enlightening or simply fun. And it is this elite disdain for people’s free exercise of their moral faculties which is itself degrading society and robbing people of any semblance of moral authority and responsibility.
In many different ways, New Labour’s creation of an insidious culture of unfreedom, of external intervention into almost every area of our lives, has diminished our ability to take moral responsibility.
The system of anti-social behaviour orders actually discourages individuals and communities from resolving problems of bad behaviour and taking responsibility for their neighbourhoods. In creating a new form of punishment designed to target specific out-of-control or simply naughty individuals, the authorities implicitly invite individuals to seek external arbitration of local problems. Individual and community initiative come to be replaced by the watchful eye and heavy hand of the external arbiter.
The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, New Labour’s Stalinist piece of legislation requiring every adult who works with children to submit to a criminal records background check, diminishes adult responsibility in relation to the care and education of the next generation.
Today we get to work with children, not on the basis of our pluck, knowledge or determination to lead and enthuse youth, but on the grounds that we have been okayed – effectively licensed – by the authorities. Our responsibility towards, and authority over, young people is no longer based on our experience or internal drive, but on a nod from the bureaucratic arbiters of adult interaction with young people.
Even in relation to something like alcohol consumption, officialdom’s illiberalism appears to have had an impact on people’s ability to assume meaningful responsibility. It is frequently commented on that young Britons seem to drink in a more reckless and ostentatiously drunken fashion than earlier generations did. This is likely to be a result of the fact that, thanks to New Labour’s various anti-drinking initiatives, new rules and regulations in pubs, and its treatment of any young person found drinking in public as a criminal, there are fewer and fewer ways for young people to be socialised into the world of adult drinking.
Effectively excluded from the adult world of pubs, and continually warned that drinking anything more than three pints will turn them into complete and utter wrecks, it is not surprising that young people lack the moral and intellectual means through which to negotiate the world of booze today.
And on it goes. Again and again, from the home to the workplace to the public realm, our responsibility is undermined precisely because our liberties are curtailed. The more constraints that are put on our thought and behaviour, the more difficult it becomes for people to take full and proper and satisfying responsibility for their lives and their experiences.
Not a single one of the political parties in the running for our votes on 6 May understands what freedom means or why it is so important. They don’t understand that freedom is good for individuals, allowing us to live more independently and less burdensomely, and is also good for society, tying individuals together through free association, shared experience, and having to work out for ourselves what we want our society to look like.
This means that whoever gets into Downing Street, the first thing we should demand of them is that they completely withdraw the state from our personal lives, homes and pubs and reverse every single attack on freedom made by the New Labour government. Because as we know from the past 13 years, to live by their petty rules is no life at all.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
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