Becoming like our idols “When we make free speech an idol”

This morning the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party tweeted a claim that SAGE had produced new models showing that it would be safer for schools to return a fortnight later than suggested. As it turned out, the tweet was false. SAGE had not said this at all. I hope that the miscommunication was an error on the part of Angela Rayner.[1]

What in fact had happened was that a group has been set up by a former Chief Scientific Officer and is now calling itself “The Independent SAGE” The reason for doing this is that its organiser believes that SAGE has been politicised.  It is worth noting a couple of things at this stage. First of all, that  there should be freedom for different experts outside of Government bodies to research, comment and advise. Indeed, the greater availability of such research the better. The group claim that their aim is to provide independent advice to the Government. That’s great. The Government is free to listen to their advice and accept or reject it just as they can take advice from anyone. However the assumption that either SAGE itself is ever going to be completely neutral or that any other body is truly neutral either is a bit of a red herring. Scientists just like anyone else come to their research with a world-view or hermeneutic.

This is important because when it comes to transparency, the assumption that this body is more independent and offering better advice is challengeable. It is too easy for someone to set up a group and select its members to suit their own agenda. 

However more importantly is that this organisation has been set up with a name that is deliberately and wilfully misleading. Given that SAGE is meant to independent from political control and influence, it would be easy to mistake something calling itself “Independent SAGE” for the real thing.  It would be like someone setting up “The Real Bearwood Chapel” next door to our church building or your local Supermarket selling bottles of pop with red and white labelling called “Caco Cola” For a group claiming to offer better transparency and independence, it is not a good look.

But we live in a society where truth doesn’t seem to matter. Before Conservative politicians start to announce righteous indignation at this, it might be worth reminding them of the difficulties their own party has had with the truth in the past. Boris might do well to remember the dodgy claim that Brexit would mean £350 million extra per week for the NHS.  Then there was the point in the  election campaign in 2019 when CCHQ relabelled its twitter account as a fact checking site.

Our journalists don’t come off too well when it comes to scrutiny either. Take this tweet from Adam Boulton of Sky News.

When challenged, Adam said that it wasn’t untrue because he had used the same reliable source for the data and yet he had intentionally put side by side data about different things to try and encourage comparison. His tweet was about as truthful as a Liberal Democrat bar chart!

Here’s the point. Politicians, journalists and other public figures happily share information on a daily basis that is simply not true. Sometimes it doesn’t matter too much, sometimes it is obviously ludicrous, sometimes it is potentially dangerous. In a past age such falsehoods would have been cause for resignations. Today we accept it without even batting an eye lid. Why? Well that’s where our idols come in.

Psalm 115:8 says that we become like our idols. The Psalmist says that idols are deaf, dumb and blind. Isaiah 6 picks up on this to show how the people of Israel had become like their idols, listening but unable to hear God’s word.  Individuals and societies become like their idols in the same way that owners start to resemble their pets.

One of the things our society has worshipped has been free speech. Now freedom of speech is a good thing. Freedom of Speech protects us from tyrannical governments and institutions. Freedom of Speech is important if we are to hold those institutions to account. It helps with the growth of knowledge and wisdom. Freedom of Speech is also a useful way of challenging and correcting wrong ideas in debate and discussion.

However, what happens when we idolise it? Well, first of all, I think it leads to a confusion between a legal right to protect me from tyranny and control the power of others and a moral right to do and say what I like.  It forgets two things.

First of all, it forgets that there is a difference between saying that governments can not censor people in most circumstance and saying that this means private entities cannot determine what can be said from the platforms they provide. I have every right to say that I believe that Leeds United are the worst football team ever. Leeds United have every right to stop me turning up in their building and holding a press conference to announce this.  You have the right to hold to Arian theology. We have the right to insist that you do not preach it from the pulpit at Bearwood Chapel. It is perfectly permissible and morally right for private organisations like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to take down content they are not happy with. We may not like their choices but we are also free to go and watch or share our preferred content elsewhere. 

Secondly it misses the point that because I can say something does not mean that I should say it.  I may have a level of freedom to say things that are offensive and even untrue but that doesn’t mean I should.[2] I may have the right to say things but that does not mean that I won’t face consequences. If I say things that are mean and hurtful to others, I cannot complain when that leads to me no longer being invited to social events. If I tell jokes that are rude rather than funny, I cannot complain if it results in boos instead of laughs. If I choose to tell lies, I cannot complain if I am not listened to or trusted. 

If a healthy respect for freedom of speech is replaced with an idolatrous worship of being allowed to say what you want, it will have consequences for society and I think we are seeing that. Here are some ways we are seeing it in our society.

  • There is a breakdown of trust between people and a loss of ability to have meaningful debate and dialogue
  • Society is more divided and tribal as we choose only to listen to those we want to within our own echo chambers.
  • Clear communication becomes practically impossible leading to confusion and chaos.
  • Hurt is caused by constant gossip and slander.

What if we replaced the idol of saying what you want with worship of Christ?

  • It would mean that we would seek to say what is truthful
  • It would also mean that we would be loving and kind in what we say
  • It would mean that we would know when to speak and when to be silent.

Now, that sounds like a much better prospect. Our churches should be like that as an alternative society. Are they?


[1] It seems that following challenge the tweet was withdrawn.

[2] And note that my ability to say things that are untrue is restricted by libel law.

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