Silencing Others

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.

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9 thoughts on “Silencing Others

  1. There is a terrible arrogance and underlying threat of unpleasantness to come (even violence) when we silence others. People seem to have decided that alongside blocking racist/homophobic opinions that it is acceptable to silence others because they offend you in any way. Thus if I don’t like what you say you have no right to express the thought in person or online or through written media. A slippery slope. While freedom of the press and expression has been an excuse to get away with some questionable behaviour even this is better than having people silenced by governments/media outlets/public forums/universities. Where will it end? We have to learn to listen and engage with those we do not agree with/like or yesterday’s post about war/Syria takes an even darker turn.

  2. Sister you set forward a good argument. Still I can’t help feel compassion for the troubled women who must run the gauntlet past protestors into abortion clinics. These women are sick at heart and have not made their decisions lightly. Who are we to sit in judgement?

    • I must emphasize, yet again, that my post was about the undermining of civil lberties and used the example of Ealing Council’s decision as an illustration. I can’t speak for those protesting outside the clinic, but I would imagine that they are deeply concerned for the women having abortions as well as for the children being aborted. The two things go together. The only photographs I have seen show a placard offering help and information about alternatives, with three people praying the rosary behind it.

  3. You make some very important points Dane Catherine, especially that of the right to peaceful protest. We at our parish church are regularly at the receiving end of the opposite to the scenario you identify. At least twice yearly we have a small group of women gather on the church steps with banners protesting their right to choose and in retaliation to Catholics protesting outside the local abortion clinic.

    This is an interesting and quite unsettling tactic. Like you I disagree with abortion and do not see how an individual’s right to decide about their own body supersedes the right of the unborn child to life. I have never however stood on the steps of an abortion clinic as I believe that is confrontational and not a constructive pr persiasive way of addressing the issue.

    Being confronted in this way on my way to mass on my parish steps demonstrates to me just how confrontational this is and how destructive for dialogue and persuasion.

    • As I said, I myself have never, as far as I know, taken part in a protest of the kind I described nor am I happy about them. The point of my post was, however, the undermining of civil liberties that Ealing Council’s decision portends. And that means, I’m afraid, that a peaceful, silent protest outside the church must also be accepted, though I would query the protesters’ right to occupy the church steps as that is surely trespass?

  4. I have had similar issues with friends who cannot understand how I can possibly vehemently oppose abortion, while believing that the option to choose to have one safely, and with support, should be available to all women. Is it possible to be pro-choice and pro-life at the same time? – That is how I would describe myself.

    Before it is even possible to explain the complexities surrounding these views, I have been shouted down, criticised – effectively silenced for not holding the conventional standpoint – and yet at the same time finding myself ascribed views, opinions and perspectives I do not hold. It is rather frustrating!

  5. Thank you for a great post, pointing out the risk to our civil liberties implied in the Ealing verdict.

    Having spent 43 years in the services, where our ability to freely voice our opinions on public policy was curtailed by Queens Regulations, I value the freedom that I have to contact my MP, to support petitions openly and to if necessary demonstrate peacefully against what my conscience sees and injustice and unfair treatment, by government or those who put themselves forwards as guardians of our morals, values or standards.

    My understanding of the Ealing verdict was that some women felt intimidated by the silent vigil when entering the clinic, which meant that their choices were being endangered. I don’t believe that I would be intimidated, but I can’t answer for those who have complained.

    I have been troubled by the issue of abortion since it was first proposed and that has not changed. I understand that life starts at conception and life is precious and in God’s gift to start or end it. Not in ours. I also appreciate that many others don’t share my view, and I can only pray for those troubled persons, who see no other choice, than abortion to resolve the issues that they face.

    I am sad that this has gone to court and judgement was made in the way it has been. I hope that it isn’t the start of a slippery slope, where our civil liberties are so curtailed that we live in a Police State, where our thinking is decided by the government or a noisy minority.

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