Many of you may well have heard about the recent assault on a same sex couple travelling on a London bus. They were attacked because they wouldn’t ‘make-out’ for some youths’ entertainment. Last week I witnessed some subtle (not very) racism/sexism towards one of the other speakers at an event I was speaking at. In the USA several states have passed laws aimed at prohibiting abortion, and Jeremy Hunt (Prime Ministerial contestant) wants to almost halve the number of weeks at which a pregnancy can be aborted in the UK too.
In the West the rise of personal freedoms we have seen over the last 50 years only came about because of the dedication and courage of campaigners. Today we are seeing a resurgence of intolerance, including but not limited to racism, sexism, and homophobia. It doesn’t matter how you choose to label intolerance, it simply means that some people are not willing to allow others to be who they really are. If we do not allow people the freedom to fully express who they are, then what gives us the right to be who we are.
But how far do we take this freedom? Does freedom of speech mean that you can say anything you like even if it is offensive to others? And who gets to say what is offensive and what is acceptable? There was a 19th century court case where a defendant was charged with assault. In his defence he said “I was just swinging my arm.” To which the judge replied “Your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”
In secular, democratic countries we do have a mechanism to explore, debate, and then enforce people’s rights. These can, and do change over time. In the world today this is an on-going debate, and I do not think that I have the definitive view. However, what I would like to contribute to this debate is, that I think life is a learning experience. And that part of the nature of this learning experience is that it reflects back to us who we are, just like a mirror. If you are intolerant and hate on others, then someway, at some time, and somehow you will get this attitude reflected back to you. This may well not just come to you in a like-for-like manner either, reality is a little smarter than that. And if you feel like you are the unjust victim of the intolerance of others, then become an example to them by how you re-act. Also start from a place of understanding that we all have our own built in biases, because we have our own preferences. In the world that we live in today, very few people can honestly say that they are free of all negative judgements. Afterall even calling someone intolerant is still a judgement.
If we want to live in a world that is a better reflection of our true nature, then we must start to see the common humanity in all people. Human genetic variability is very low. It is even much less varied than the DNA in chimpanzee and gorilla populations. The differences that we like to focus on so much in terms of skin colour and facial shape are only controlled by a handful of our genes. Under the surface, we really are all one family. One of the challenges of our time is that we are being asked to make choices about what we do and what we do not prefer. Do we want to believe that we are better than other people simply due to the colour of our skin, the country we were born in, our own choices of sexual partner, our own gender, or how much money we have? Or do we want to behave in a manner that demonstrates that we know that we are all equally allowed to express who we are? At the end of the day our truest freedom is our ability to choose. Choose wisely.
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – Martin Luther King.