The soft totalitarian crusade being waged against conscience is disturbing & illiberal

Frank Furedi

is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

8 Dec, 2020 14:03
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A British politician has been vilified, forced to resign & made to apologise for daring to suggest that we should respect people’s deeply held views if they don’t wish to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.

As far as the British Labour Party is concerned, having a conscience is something that needs an apology. Poor old Janet Daby, Labour’s shadow faith minister, has been forced to resign for stating that there “needs to be something in place that respects people’s conscience” if they do not wish to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.

As far as Labour is concerned, it only allows one view on gay marriage, which is to celebrate it. Anyone whose conscience leads them to question this recently invented practice is therefore guilty of committing a cultural crime.

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Apparently, Labour regards the freedom of conscience as a distraction from promoting its identity politics driven agenda. That is why Daby had to resign and issue the now-perfunctory apology. She tweeted, “I’m proud to support same-sex marriage”, and “I sincerely apologise for my misguided comments on Friday and I have decided to resign as Shadow Faith Minister”.

It is truly a disturbing development when someone bearing the title of shadow faith minister is forced to resign for upholding the moral status of conscience.

It is also a symptom of a profoundly ungenerous and illiberal ethos when people are not allowed to exercise their conscience in relation to such deeply held views as the meaning of marriage and family life.

Since the 17th century, when John Locke published his famous essay ‘A Letter Concerning Toleration’, it became recognised that the most basic dimension of freedom is that of the freedom of belief and conscience. Those who are forced to live and behave in opposition to what their conscience dictates become deprived of one of the most fundamental attributes of their humanity. Deprived of our right to the freedom of conscience, we lose an essential attribute of who we are.

The aim of seventeenth-century advocates of tolerance such as Locke was to protect religious belief from state coercion. Locke’s advocacy of tolerance represented a call for restraining political authorities from interfering with the workings of individual conscience.

That is why – at least on paper – tolerance has served as a foundational principle for any enlightened society. It was precisely because many people took the principle of tolerance seriously in the first place that homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain and same-sex marriage subsequently legalised. Sadly, today a call for tolerance towards individuals whose conscience leads them to oppose gay marriage leads to an apology!

The ideal of tolerance demands that we accept the right of people to live according to beliefs and opinions that are different, sometimes antithetical, to ours. Tolerance does not invite us to accept or celebrate other people’s sentiments. It demands that we live with them and desist from interfering or forcing others to fall in line with our own views. Tolerance affirms the freedom of conscience and individual autonomy.

Tolerance towards people’s beliefs and conscience serves as the foundation for freedoms like free speech and related political freedoms. If people are denied the freedom of conscience and the right to hold their beliefs, then it follows that voicing them and acting on them is undermined. Intolerance and dogmatism rule, and those who do not follow the new orthodoxy must be called out and punished.

In contemporary Britain, hostility towards tolerance and conscience is mainly driven by the politicisation of identity. Identity culture demands that its outlook, customs, and practices are constantly validated and respected. Those who are estranged from the values promoted by LGBTQI crusaders are immediately and automatically cast into the role of bigots, homophobes, or transphobes. There is no right to act in accordance with your conscience if you regard same-sex marriage as a violation of your faith and belief.

The well-known example of Christian bakers who were punished for refusing to bake a cake celebrating the marriage of a gay couple is illustrative in this respect. Forcing these bakers to act against their conscience was regarded as not a big deal compared to the importance of gay activists having their cake and eating it too. Although the bakers eventually won their appeal at the Supreme Court (at a cost of £500,000), the very point of sanctioning them to act against their beliefs was to send out the message that the UK will soon become a conscience-free zone.

Yet, it is critical that society values conscience, which is why we must not let Daby’s resignation go unremarked upon. When it comes to choosing between acting according to conscience or an unjust court ruling, we need to choose freedom.

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