If I say: “Suicide is selfish”, or “abortion is wicked” or “most fat people should try to be less greedy”, I shall be widely upbraided and censured. People might concede that I can hold such an opinion, if I must, but they think I should restrict my expression of such views to private discussions with my friends and family. If, in the wrong context, I say: “Marrying someone of another skin colour is betraying your race”, or “a woman’s place is in the home” or “practicing homosexuality is sinful”, I could well find myself at an employment disciplinary hearing and might even be visited by a policeman investigating my alleged hate-crime.
One might think the reason such statements are treated by our society with such disapprobation is because they involve an attack, of some sort, on an aspect or practice of people that those people hold central to their nature. So society reacts vigorously to the expression of such opinions as a means to protect those thus attacked.
But if that were really the reason, why would other kinds of controversial opinion be treated so differently. If someone says “Smacking should be illegal”, then they are proposing an assault on a deep aspect of many people’s nature. I could no more comply with a law that forbade me from smacking my children than I could obey a law that forbade me from kissing them. Smacking children is all of a piece with cuddling, rough-and-tumble, kissing, sleeping together, rubbing hurt limbs better, and so on. Yet saying “Smacking should be illegal” will not engender remotely the same degree of aggressive disapprobation as someone saying, say, “Suicide should be re-criminalised” or “practicing homosexuality should be re-criminalised”. (And if you say “That’s because those affected by suicide are more upset” or “For homosexuals, the ability to give physical expression to their love is central to their nature” then you are simply not grasping how as a parent I feel about the ability to touch my children.)
An odd case would be a statement such as “Islam is wicked”. In that case, the level of disapprobation would be rather less than if I said “Mr X’s suicide was a wicked thing to do”, but the likelihood of a visit from a policeman rather greater. We’re on safer ground with “Christianity is wicked”. If I say that, no-one will disapprove and no policeman will call. Indeed, I could even, with not much more than a few raised eyebrows, say “Christianity should be illegal”. Doubtless some people would think me eccentric, but I wouldn’t be attacked for the claim in anything like the same way I would in the case of the illegality of suicide or homosexuality. And that despite the fact that most people would understand that a Christian’s faith is an absolutely central and non-negotiable part of her nature.
There are many other such examples of comments one could make about fundamental aspects of people’s nature, or other such issues on which people would feel deeply, where it is considered largely okay or harmlessly eccentric to express an opinion, even in public.
Perhaps you feel I’ve pointed at an inconsistency, or at least a tension of some sort. So, what to do about it? Perhaps we should be more aggressive about anti-Christian or anti-smacking or other such comments? Maybe we should all try to be much more sensitive about most things? Perhaps we should be wary of expressing any politico-ethical opinions in public at all – just stick to saying whom we think should win the X Factor or Big Brother, or who should be in the England team? Indeed, that last is precisely where our society has been going for some time. We fear giving offence and being attacked for doing so, so we try to stick to universal topics. (That’s not even a particularly new thought — remember the old chestnut about avoiding talking about sex, religion, politics or death?)
But I think that’s sad and impoverishing. I don’t want people to so fear that they will offend me and I will strike back that they are frightened to reveal their beliefs. I don’t want people whose tongues sometimes run ahead of their minds to be automatically social pariahs. I don’t want people to be unable to say they disapprove of smacking or they consider Christianity wicked. But if others are to tolerate such “attacks” on me (which they should), that will only be fair and sustainable if they also tolerate people saying: “Islam is wicked”, “practicing homosexuality is sinful”, “marrying outside your colour is betrayal”, or “suicide is selfish” — and of course those affected by such remarks to be prepared to put up with some offence and (just as with "Christianity should be illegal") regard, say, those believing that "Practicising homosexuality is sinful" as the eccentric minority they doubtless are.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel able to disagree with such sentiments. Neither does it mean we should be unable to point out the feelings of those affected by them. But if we are to operate in a tolerant society, then smackers, homosexuals, relatives of suicides, Christians, Muslims, interracial spouses and others will have to have thick enough skins.
Otherwise, if things are to be fair, we’ll all end up walking on eggshells, and be unable to discuss anything except who should win Big Brother. And I trust that no readers here really want that…