CCJ held its first public policy seminar in July, bringing together Jewish and Christian policymakers, parliamentarians, researchers, and campaigners to discuss some of the pressing issues of our time. The subject for the seminar was “Faith, Identity and Populist Politics: what is the future for freedom of speech in the UK?” There was wide-ranging discussion on freedom of speech, a complex but vital issue in the current climate, and a participant in the seminar, Intern for the Joint Public Issues Team of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland, Lucy Zwolinska, reflects on the seminar below.
CCJ’s first public policy seminar left everyone in the room with much to think about – as was evident by the discussion and debate throughout, which continued to take place after the event had drawn to a close. As ever, the richness of CCJ’s events was evident; interfaith dialogue provided a platform for the sharing of ideas and grappling with solutions to complex problems.
Keynote speaker Dr James Smith, co-founder of the National Holocaust Centre and co-founder and Chief Executive of the Aegis Trust, began the event with a powerful reminder of the historical precedent of the abuse of freedom of speech. Dr Smith’s career in genocide prevention offers a special insight into the way in which words can create an ‘anxiety’ around a group of people, something he described as sitting on the ‘slippery slope’ that leads towards targeting a group of people. Of course, our freedom of speech is important, but Dr Smith asked us to question at which point we might draw the line; at which point our words might directly insight violence.
Much of the following panel discussion involved grappling with where we might draw this ‘line’. There was a consensus across several panel members who spoke of the legal right to freedom of speech as an important piece of framework, but one which must be accompanied by a moral obligation to use it well; as Prof Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘moral obligation does not end’ with the law.
A discussion about freedom of speech in the 21st Century cannot avoid the platform on which that freedom is exercised most – social media. Arguing for ‘soft-touch’ regulation of social media, Adam Wagner, barrister and founder of RightsInfo, provided an argument that differed from the other panelists. Adam Wagner suggested that freedom of speech should be treated as the free market, that we should allow good ideas to triumph over bad ideas. The audience seemed to push back against this hypothesis, and this debate provided a possible framework for our own work in the Joint Public Issues Team, enabling us to examine how we might regulate freedom of speech on our own social media platforms. When we filmed and produced ‘A Very British Nativity’, a film calling for more comprehensive support for those seeking asylum in the UK, we experienced a substantial amount of social media backlash. Some of this was measured and considered, some of it was xenophobic and often Islamophobic. This seminar provided me with some pointers on how we might – in faith – respond to the abuse of freedom of speech on social media.
Across the panelists’ arguments there was suggested a remedy to this abuse of freedom of speech: healthy discussion and fruitful conversation, especially when we might feel a certain ‘anxiety’ about engaging with particular points of view. Prof Bev Clack, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Oxford Brookes University, spoke of the importance of healthy conversation with the ‘other’ rather than about the ‘other’. In the Joint Public Issues Team, we are currently reworking our ‘Conversation Welcome’ resource which asks our local churches to engage in conversation that is informed and thoughtful.Originally created to provide discussion after the EU referendum, we are currently thinking about how we might rework this for the current political climate.
The interfaith discussion that took place at CCJ’s public policy seminar will certainly help inform our approach.
Intern for the Joint Public Issues Team of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland