The Simon Heng column

The home secretary’s plans to introduce a bill to outlaw incitement
to religious hatred bring into focus the uncomfortable conundrum of
liberal British social conscience: freedom of speech versus freedom
from oppression.

Few things define what it is to be British in a positive way, but
one is a developing acceptance of personal belief – political,
social or religious – and the freedom to express those beliefs in
public. Whether it be Enoch Powell predicting violent racial
conflict, Bernie Grant celebrating violence against the police, or
Salman Rushdie railing against Islam, one of the features of this
society is allowing people to express these opinions, and let
everyone else debate them.

Another facet of Britishness is a growing acceptance of diversity,
not only in religion, gender, sexuality, culture and ethnicity, but
also – albeit recently – in disability. Oppression and
discrimination in each of these areas have become better understood
and less tolerated, to the point that implicit discrimination in
government policy – towards asylum-seekers, for example – can be
challenged vigorously, without censorship or imprisonment.

It seems to me that this second feature, acceptance of diversity
and intolerance of oppression, is the point of the political
correctness movement. That there is a link between the language we
use and the attitudes we have towards someone or something is
undeniable. That certain words have universally understood
derogatory connotations, and that language can be used to
discriminate and oppress, means that, to genuinely respect someone,
I need to be conscious of the effect of my choice of words.

But what if I don’t respect someone’s beliefs or practices? What if
I think that someone’s religion is oppressive in itself, or that
their cultural practices are discriminatory? What if their core
religious beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with my own? What
if someone else’s beliefs are actually contrary to the idea of

If we don’t have the right to speak out against these, then we’ve
lost the rights to both freedom from oppression and freedom of

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