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Tolerance a two-way street that must allow dissent

Published 17/06/2015

THE recent resignation of Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel Laureate and honorary professor with University College London's faculty of life sciences, should disturb us all far more than the remnants of sexism in society.

Aoife McLysaght, professor in genetics at Trinity College Dublin, told the BBC: "It's very unsatisfactory when someone apologises for causing offence rather than for the view they hold." Is that where we are, that people must apologise for holding views that others disapprove of? While Professor Hunt's comments were controversial, if they genuinely reflect his experience, why should he not be allowed to say so? Imperial College was the first university in England to admit women on equal terms to men. Is it also the first to employ thought police?

Many people have suffered discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender and a host of other reasons and, of course, it is wrong. But do we really want to live in a society where even the mildest dissent is forbidden and where we need legislation to protect eccentrics?

It seems the more we espouse tolerance, the less tolerant we are; the more we celebrate difference, the less we permit it; and the more rights that are achieved by special interest groups, the less rights they are prepared to allow others.

For example, I refer to the recent Ashers bakery case, about which even some gay rights activists have expressed concern.

The silence of the majority may lead institutions like Imperial College to believe they must march to the step of highly vocal minorities.

The groundswell of response to the murders at Charlie Hebdo may suggest they got this one badly wrong; that, when push comes to shove, most people hold freedom of expression very dear - even if that includes material highly offensive and hurtful to a religious minority.

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