Illiberal liberals and the narrowing sphere of acceptable values

Tolerance is a word that is often bandied about by liberals the world over. Being tolerant towards divergent viewpoints and ways of life is supposedly a cornerstone of liberal democracies like the United Kingdom. It is also a key tenet of free expression; respecting a person’s right to say – or not to say – what they think, even if you viscerally disagree with their point of view.

Yet, to what extent do we, as a society, really adhere to real tolerance? How often do we provide the space for those we disagree with to put forward their views? Further, has the state started mandating on matters of conscience, and if it has, what are the implications for free expression?

I would argue that in Britain and elsewhere, the value of tolerance is under threat. Lets take as an example the recent so-called ‘Gay cake’ case, where the Christian owners of a bakery in Northern Ireland were taken to court by a gay rights campaigner – Gareth Lee – over their refusal to produce a cake with the words ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on it.

As so often happens with cases like this, the facts were misrepresented, and there was little reporting about what was really at stake here.

Fundamentally, this case was about free expression, not about discrimination on the basis of sexuality. Ashers bakery were asked by a customer, Gareth Lee, to produce an iced cake with the message, ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on it.

They refused to print the message, on the basis that doing so would be to essentially write something that contravened their deeply held beliefs about traditional marriage.

Lee took them to court, and won the case, despite the fact that Ashers were simply refusing to endorse an idea – gay marriage – and were not refusing to serve him because of  his sexuality.

So, how did the judges justify their verdict ? Well, they ruled that Ashers had acted in contravention of the Equality Act, which mandates that: ‘A person (A) discriminates against another person (B) if – on grounds of sexual orientation – A treats B less favourably than he treats or would treat other persons’.

As explained above, the owners of the bakery did not discriminate on the basis of sexuality, and nor did they treat the customer less favorably than any other: they would have turned away a heterosexual customer asking for the same message.

Peter Tatchell, the prominent gay-rights campaigner, was one of the few people to speak out against this judgement. Writing in The Independent, he said, ‘Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong and is rightly unlawful.’

‘But in a democratic society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas they disagree with. I am saddened that the court did not reach the same conclusion.’

The worrying implication of this ruling is that it sets a precedent. The state has mandated that the owner of a business must print a message asked for by a customer, even if they disagree with that message.

On this point, Tatchell writes, ‘This verdict is a defeat for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers can be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage against their wishes, it also implies that gay bakers could be forced by law to decorate cakes with homophobic slogans.’

Indeed, what if someone asked a  bakery run by a Muslim family for a cake adorned with a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (depictions of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam)? Could they be plausibly punished for refusing to produce the cake? This case says they could be.

Or what if a Jewish-run commercial printers were approached by neo-Nazis who wanted to knock-up 500 propaganda leaflets? Its the same principle.

Somehow, I don’t think either of the last two examples – deployed to illustrate a point – would ever result in a court judgement.

That’s because the collective ideology of the State wouldn’t allow it, no-one likes neo-Nazis, and everyone agrees that it would be wrong to punish Muslims for refusing to depict the Prophet Muhammad in print.

Yet on the flip side, the judges in this case adhered to a very strange and unjustifiable reading of the Equality Act, and one can’t help wondering if it was because they themselves agreed with gay marriage, which should of course have been irrelevant.

Further, there are plenty of heterosexuals who agree with gay marriage, and some homosexuals who disagree with it, and this again illustrates the point that so few commentators failed to make: the sexuality of the customer was irrelevant.

The fundamental issue here is that we are failing to uphold our own values; toleration isn’t about agreeing with an expressed viewpoint, it is instead about allowing said view to be aired.

Instead, tolerance seems to be being disregarded when views, values and beliefs do not fall within an acceptable sphere that appears to be getting narrower.

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