In a preview of the way things will soon be in the US, a Huguenot Calvinist evangelical preacher got dragged in by the local police for questioning and potential hate speech charges. The alleged offense was sending some pamphlets on Christian doctrine to the organization that put together a Gay Pride parade in Norwich, England. If he didn’t want to be questioned, he had the option to pay a 90 pound ($180) fine directly to the police officer (creepy when you think about it and bound to make peculation problems), which of course meant acknowledging his own guilt and declining to defend himself. “I’m a hate crime offender.” Yup, that’s exactly what you want to say about yourself. So he went with the questioning, and found out that there was more Kafka to come.
First off, this is just one of those guys who sends topical pamphlets to everybody he thinks could use one. Apparently his church has a whole line of perfectly nice evangelical pamphlets, on a variety of evangelical topics. The particular ones he sent this time (as email attachments) were a generic “Jesus Christ – the Saviour we all need” and a specific “Christ Can Cure – Good News for Gays.” He sends Muslim groups that show up in the paper some kind of “Good News for Muslims” pamphlets, and so on to every other group in Creation that isn’t Huguenot Calvinist Christian. It sounds pretty harmless, though one has to admire the boring doggedness of it. For some reason, it’s especially a thing in England, where people just like to send letters of comment to the newspapers and every other organization.
Second off, they must have trusted the man really, because THEY OPENED HIS EMAIL ATTACHMENTS! Seriously, who opens attachments from people you don’t know? Sure, there’s ways to do it safely, but why would you bother?
Third off, the only thing that needs proving is that somebody somewhere in the UK felt offended by something. You don’t have to have intended offense. There’s no specific determination about what makes something a certain level of unacceptable offensiveness. Somebody just has to complain about something, and the police can come pick you up. (As the reporter notes dryly, this isn’t true of things like theft or violent crimes. England has a fairly high crime rate, but most thefts are never even investigated. People know this, and thus often don’t even bother to report thefts to anybody but their insurance company.)
The curious thing is that the reporter can reassure us that “I have read these tracts, and there isn’t a word of hate in them,” but his editors dare not print quotes from the tracts or even link to them. Because they too could be charged with hate speech if they just post information relevant to the story, or informational links. I’m going to try to see if I can find out what the big deal is.
(Not that I’m anxious to spread Calvinism, much less the Norwich Reformed Church’s brand of Huguenot Calvinism, whatever it may be! But it’s shameful not to let people see and decide for themselves what the big deal is.)
Like most people who post anything about religion, I get emails inviting me to convert to all sorts of things. I get the Jehovah’s Witnesses dropping by. I get invitations to join churches and megachurches. Like most Catholics, I get tracts and pamphlets pushed on me. I’ve gone to non-denominational events that turned out to not include Catholics in the Christian category, and I’ve attended “parties” and “discussions” that were actually conversion attempts under false pretenses. Heck, I’ve even been given Chick Tracts, many of which really do cross the line into anti-Catholicism (as well as anti-gamerism, anti-fantasy novelism, anti-….). You haven’t lived until you’ve had a holy Sacrament denounced as “death cookie” necromancy ritual, in a convenient comics panel format.
Did this stuff make me feel angry or frustrated sometimes? Sure! Did I feel misunderstood? Sure! Did I sometimes even feel hated? Yes!
That happens in a free society. People are allowed to have their own ideas and to talk about them, even if they’re stupid, nasty ideas.
But did I write my congressman and ask that Chick Tracts be obliterated from the earth, or that kids who try to collect Catholic-dragged-to-Protestant-church points should be sent for questioning, jail time, and reeducation?
Even though I never mean to do anything similar myself, and would argue vehemently against anyone trying to produce the Catholic equivalent of Chick Tracts or a points-for-prizes program, these crappy and offensive ideas are crappy and offensive ideas protected (here in the US) by freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. And I will defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights with all my might.
Having people argue with you, persuade you, and attempt to use weird tactics to change your mind is all part of life in a free society, particularly if I ever mean to speak out and try to convince other people myself. Freedom of religion isn’t just about private life and private worship, just like freedom of speech isn’t something only preserved by official speakers on official platforms, and freedom of the press isn’t just about officially approved publishers of sufficient size, and freedom of association isn’t just about official clubs. We all have to defend these rights for everyone, and not make them only for certain special protected classes or elite people, or just nice suggestions and ideals instead of things practiced every day by everybody.
Unfortunately, the UK doesn’t have a written Bill of Rights (bar the Magna Carta), and apparently the police routinely ignore both the unwritten UK constitution and the written EU list of rights as something above their paygrade.
But still, the police didn’t make the first complaint this time. Unidentified members speaking for the Norwich Gay Pride organization did. Whoever they were, they obviously were not thinking ahead toward the day when hate crime laws are used against them by some other victim group. (Say, if they complain publicly about Muslims harassing their members, and the Muslims contend that the gay group is just racist and intolerant and hateful and offensive.) In a free society, we have to be thickskinned about mutual attempts at persuasion that might cause a little annoyance, so that we can protect our own freedoms in similar situations.
But it’s not just a defensive thing. Arguing our own positions, and occasionally being forced to listen to a few lines of somebody else’s, is a vital part of the marketplace of ideas. “Metal sharpens metal,” and the play of ideas against each other sharpens and refines thought and belief. By disagreeing with each other, we train each other to improve, and webroaden each other’s perspective.
There are plenty of real criminals doing really bad things out there; criminalizing ordinary life is stupid. But when the threshold for prosecution and the standard of proof of crime are both nothing more than “somebody somewhere in the UK felt offended,” you put the entire UK population in jeopardy of being arrested at any moment.
UPDATE: Apparently this news came out at the same time as the Greenwald detainment at Heathrow thing, which is why we didn’t hear about it last week.
But here’s an official comment from the UK’s Libertarian Alliance, pointing out that the group that funds the group that does Norwich Gay Pride is 94% funded by UK government grants. Innnnnteresting.
Huffington Post UK actually quotes some of the minister’s email, the only UK news source that does. Funnily enough, the minister seems to have been complaining more about the local council’s “display of decadence” by showing up to cheer the parade in official robes, than about anything else.