Belfast Telegraph

Humanist Association: Tolerance a two-way street

By Brian McClinton

In defending Ashers Bakery (DebateNI, November 11), Peter Lynas, director of the Evangelical Alliance NI, wants the courts to protect the civil and religious liberties we all cherish.

But he fails to see that this is precisely what the bakery failed to do in refusing the request to put a message with which they disagreed on a cake.

Freedom is meaningless unless it implies protecting our opponent's opinions as well as our own. To quote the words attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

A good working definition of tolerance is giving other human beings the right you claim for yourself; arguably, the bakery failed in this regard.

Tolerance is, indeed, nothing less that an awareness of our common, flawed humanity and is thus a basic principle of any pluralist society.

As such, it may be defined as the deliberate choice not to interfere with or prohibit beliefs and behaviour of which we disapprove.

Intolerance, by contrast, is the deliberate attempt to eliminate or censor disapproved opinions and conduct.

There are, of course, limits to tolerance. Clearly, we should not tolerate the intolerable. Threatening or insulting words intended to stir up hatred against other people on grounds of race or religion should not be tolerated, but opinions should not be protected from criticism.

In other words, the bakery's owners have every right to disagree with the idea of gay marriage, but, arguably, they do not have the right to try to censor that idea by refusing custom in the open marketplace.

Peter Lynas says that Ashers were discriminating against an idea, not a person, and that the law allows the first, while rightly preventing the second.

But the law does not allow censorship of that idea and, in their own small way, this is what the bakery tried to do.

So what we have in the cake row is an issue of discrimination by censorship and intolerance. And let us be absolutely clear: it was the bakery that displayed it.

  • Brian McClinton is director of the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland

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