The silencing of people whose views we do not share seems to be becoming more prevalent in Britain today, and it has some troubling aspects. We all agree, I trust, that many of the attitudes that were once current among some sections of society are now completely unacceptable. We condemn, and rightly, every form of anti-semitism and racism, for example, but we are on much more uncertain ground when it comes to the expression of deeply-held opinions and beliefs regarding right conduct that go against the current norm. Take abortion, for instance.
In common with many others, I believe that abortion is wrong. Before I became a nun, I was active in the Life movement. We did not campaign against abortion so much as try to provide realistic alternatives — a safe house, help with costs, support through pregnancy and, crucially, after birth. I do not remember ever taking part in a prayer vigil outside an abortion clinic — I have never liked the idea and have always preferred to pray away from the area — but the recent decision to prohibit silent protesters gathering outside the Marie Stopes Clinic in Ealing worries me because it has much wider implications than a protest against abortion. It potentially undermines the legitimacy of peaceful protest of any kind.
Many of the activities in which we engage are perfectly legal, but they are not always viewed as morally neutral by others. We may have a legal right to cut down a tree, but others may see our act as destructive and protest against it. Would we think of curtailing their protest on the grounds that one party’s legal right to cut down the tree outweighs any objections others may have and, importantly, their right to express their objection peacefully? Again, we may have a legal right to drive through a village in our lorry, but if villagers wish to protest against our doing so, should they be stopped, provided they do nothing to hinder our progress? I am sure you can think of many other examples.
We have already had a number of judgements in the courts that have effectively curtailed an individual’s right to live and act in accordance with their conscience. It is a difficult area, and I am certainly not advocating the kind of free-for-all that would result in the weakest and most vulnerable being terrorised by those who have the most clout. But the decision in Ealing is one we all need to think about. Silencing others, refusing them the right to make a peaceful objection or protest, whether we agree with them or not, is a first step on the road to tyranny.