..In a society which genuinely prizes freedom and equality, the chief principle of debate and argument must be persuasion rather than coercion. Just as I claim the right to put my point of view ”“ respectfully and without interruption or abuse ”“ so I must be willing to uphold the right of my opponent to the same courtesies. Shouting louder and hurling abuse is no substitute for careful argument and reasoned conclusions. Threatening those who disagree with you with legal or economic sanctions might eventually force them into silence but at what cost to democracy and free speech?
Across the world this debate has been accompanied by the application of a range of strategies to silence dissent. As one of the US Supreme Court justices remarked in the recent judgment on same-sex marriage, there is an emerging new orthodoxy which is relentless in its persecution of those who disagree. The idea of conscientious objection is dismissed with the cavalier suggestion that no one of good conscience or in their right mind could possibly object to what is being proposed.
So anti-discrimination legislation is applied ”“ though only ever in one direction. No one complains when corporations declare they will only do business with those who support the gay agenda but there is a hue and cry when one of 10 bakers in a town refuses to bake a cake with a activist slogan on top. Worst of all, terms like “hateful”, “intolerant”, and “bigoted” are applied before an argument is even heard, and applied in the most aggressive, belligerent and intolerant manner. They are intended to shut down the argument before it even begins. Witness Q&A last week.
Is there a way of reframing the debate, even at this late stage, which abandons coercion for genuine persuasion? Is there any hope that those who dissent on this issue may freely continue to do so without fear of reprisal? Could we get to the point where we will do all in our power to protect the freedom of those with whom we disagree? Can we get beyond the slogans ”“ and full marks to the person who came up with the slogan “marriage equality” ”“ to a considered debate of the issues, the evidence and the consequences? This is the debate behind the debate and one which, for all our sakes, needs to come out into the open.