Same Sex Marriage and the Power of Free Speech

Changed mindFree speech is vital for the speaker but it’s just as vital for the listener.

We often analyse free speech from the perspective of the speaker, and this is hardly surprising given this is the person who is physically exercising the right.

It’s natural to examine free speech like this because it goes to the very heart of what free speech represents, which is the right of every human to express their opinion on any subject they want, even if it causes offence. Or rather, especially if it causes offence, because a right to speak freely on the condition no-one is offended is to free speech what solar-powered torches are to nocturnal survival kits. (I mean solar-powered torches which only work when it’s sunny, rather than ones which charge during the day for later use at night – I can see some merit in those).

We rarely analyse the importance of free speech from the perspective of the recipient of the speech, and in failing to do so we overlook one of the key arguments in favour of this fundamental building block for other human rights.

A few weeks ago the Conservative MP Pauline Latham OBE wrote a very moving and honest piece on her website explaining why she had voted in favour of same sex marriage, having previously been opposed to it.

In many ways the underlying subject matter – same sex marriage – was neither here nor there. The crucial point was that this Member of Parliament was persuaded to change her strongly-held view by nothing more than open debate. No threats, no intimidation, no infringement of her rights. Just calm public discourse, and all perfectly compatible with the rule of law. And given that same sex marriage is such a high-octane and emotive issue which tends to polarise opinion and lead to dogmatically entrenched positions, Latham’s U-turn was all the more inspiring – to advocates of free speech and same sex marriage. I like telling people that the greatest compliment they can pay me is that I’ve changed their opinion on something.

Here’s the opening paragraph of Latham’s piece:

“As many of you may know, I had intended to vote against this Bill which is something many constituents urged me to do, however, after long deliberation and analysis of the debate and searching my conscience, you may now be aware that I did vote in favour of the Bill on the Third Reading. I had up until that point voted against the Bill and for the amendments which were put before us on Monday 20th May.”

 And here are some other relevant snippets:

“Prior to the debate on the topic, I was totally opposed to the concept of Same Sex Marriage. During the second and third readings I sat in on the debate and listened to all the arguments, both for and against the Bill. I discussed with many of my colleagues the idea of Same Sex Marriage and of course listened to all of my constituents who contacted me, whether for or against.”

“I was particularly touched by two speakers who were in favour of the changes during the Second Reading debate. They were Iain Stewart MP and Margot James MP. There were others but these two in particular, made me realise that my stance was discriminatory.”

This MP’s eventual enlightenment would have been impossible if her fellow parliamentarians, her constituents and the public at large were deprived of the right to argue their case openly and safely, or if the very notion of people of the same gender wanting to marry was considered so terrible to be completely off-limits. Through no fault of her own, without the existence of free speech Latham would have been left in happy ignorance of the powerful counter-arguments which finally proved so effective.

There’s nothing wrong in arguing for free speech from the perspective of the speaker. It might sound selfish, but who cares. We’re entitled to jealously and selfishly guard our human rights because they’ve been very difficult to obtain. But by articulating the importance of free speech from the perspective of listeners we can hopefully challenge what seems to be a worryingly disturbing assumption today: that free speech is somehow a bad thing; a problem that needs to be fixed or managed.

The passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has provided some rare good news for secularists, and I have written about it here and here. However, I don’t think it’s the most important issue for secularists. In practice – and I’m sure I will incur the wrath of some fellow secularists as well as LGBT activists when I say this – civil partnerships “almost” do the job of creating legal equality. That is the strongest argument against same sex marriage that I can think of. All the other arguments against it – that it infringes religious freedom, that it redefines marriage, that it encourages widespread incest and bestiality, or that it leads to the break-up of society generally as we know it, Jim – are complete bollocks. And that’s me being polite.

The same sex marriage legislation is crucial because it sends a crystal clear message to people in this country and beyond. It says firmly and unequivocally that this once legally inferior group of humans are now completely equal in front of the law. Not almost equal, or sort of equal, but very equal. If the United Kingdom has the slightest difference of treatment for LGBT people then other countries will argue they can as well. And rest assured, those differences will be far more significant than the difference between having a civil partnership and having a marriage.

Same sex marriage also puts religion firmly in its place, legally and symbolically, and it hopefully sows a few seeds for disestablishment at some point in the future. It also encourages people to think very carefully about the role of religion in a democracy. That’s important because too many people don’t do enough thinking generally, and on religion they often do absolutely no thinking at all.

People should think. They should think very carefully indeed about religion. Because if you don’t use your brain, someone else probably will.