S.G. Tallentyre, writing under the pseudonym Evelyn Beatrice Hall, famously described the french philosopher Voltaire‘s attitude to free speech as,

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!

They were not his exact words, but nevertheless a fair representation of what he thought and have been the moniker of champions of free speech ever since. Voltaire himself was no fan of religion, spreading his sarcastic fire around a wealth of targets. But he defended the right of the stupid and evil (as he understood them) to speak out. Notably, he was scathing about religious belief while steadfastly defending religious freedom. Their freedom to practise nonsense was his freedom to criticise it. And criticise he did.

In many ways this kind of attitude has been the underpinning of more modern notions of freedom of speech.

But Voltaire is long dead, and now it seems his highly cherished virtue of free speech has died with him.

Here in Australia there is a classic example.

A Hobart school chaplain has been sacked for re-posting a comment on Facebook that described homosexuality as “not normal”.

Troy Williams reposted a comment on Facebook describing homosexuality as "not normal".Troy Williams was employed by the Scripture Union, Tasmania’s main provider of school chaplaincy services which appoints and trains state and private school chaplains.

Mr Williams was stood down from his role at the Hobart College over the post, which also makes the claim that “no-one is born gay”.

Mr Williams issued an apology after his Facebook post drew widespread condemnation earlier this month.

He told the ABC: “I’ve made a mistake and learnt from it. I’m deeply sorry for any offence I’ve caused. I was very careless in posting that image for discussion. I will work with my employers to ensure there is no repeat.”

Following a meeting with the Kingborough Council general manager this morning, Mr Williams was also stood down from his role as a youth outreach worker there.

The council said it acted based on comments he made on a post by a Melbourne-based blogger [Bill Muehlenberg] who used sarcasm to defend Mr Williams.

“…crucify him already … his crime? Horrific child abuse? Multiple murders? Horrific KKK-type activities? No …” the blog post read.

“… he told the truth about homosexuality …”

When you read the comments in Muehlenberg’s post it’s hard to find anything from Williams that is offensive. But I guess one person’s gentle thanks for the support is another person’s homophobic terrorist.

Now let’s slow down and think this whole thing through. First, the post itself. Here’s a larger copy of it,

Troy Williams reposted a comment on Facebook describing homosexuality as "not normal".

The first thing to note (and a fact which is conspicuously ignored by just about every mainstream media outlet reporting on this) is that the comment is, in fact, a quote from a lesbian activist Camille Paglia. The ABC describe the post as “anti-gay” without a shred of awareness of the irony that it was made originally by someone who self-identifies as “gay”.

The argument itself is a fascinating one that deserves working through.

  1. Paglia (the lesbian) describes homosexuality as “not normal”.
  2. She further explains what she means by “not normal”:
    1. in “nature” heterosexual procreation is “normal” – this is the way our bodies were “designed”
    2. moreover procreation is a “single relentless rule”, i.e. this pattern of “normal” is repeated generation after generation, each new generation is made up of “normal” procreating male and female.
  3. Thus it can be said that “no one is born gay”. In the context I think it’s clear that she means in respect to the “relentless rule” of heterosexual procreation. Put another way, according to Paglia (the lesbian) heterosexual procreation produces more men and women capable of heterosexual procreation and homosexuality is a divergence from this “normal”.
  4. Thus when Paglia (the lesbian) describes homosexuality as “not normal” she means something like “different to the way our bodies were designed and replicate”.
  5. Finally Paglia (the lesbian) describes the idea that homosexuality is “normal” as “ridiculous”.

Now what to do with this? Well first I think it needs to be said that this is probably not the most helpful thing for a school chaplain to be posting up. Like it or not the topic of human sexuality is one that we will have to address as Christians but seeking out the fight (especially given the context in which he works) was not the wisest of moves. Williams understands this, releasing a statement, I’m deeply sorry for any offence I’ve caused. I was very careless in posting that image for discussion.”. My own current media engagement on this issue came about as a result of being invited to contribute to the debate – a slightly different situation.

Nevertheless, the argument raised by Paglia and repeated by Williams has some merit. But it was always going to get shot down. My own experience in filming “Living with the Enemy” was exactly this on this topic. I tried to introduce a discussion on the concept of what is “natural” biologically and the resulting discussion was not an engagement with the issue itself but, frankly, just an increasingly loud assertion of the right to behave in whatever manner my conversation partner wanted to.

Now by all means, one can live their life however they choose to – but it’s a long way from actually having the mature and important discussions that we need to have about nature and ethics. We might disagree on the relationship between “is” and “ought” (i.e. what we are like and the the implications that has for ethics) but let’s at least have the discussion rather than the current situtation of shouting down those that disagree with or challenge the new morality.

The argument put forward by Paglia is an important one. She has shown how, in one particular sense, homosexuality is not “normal”. It needs engaging with, not blowing away with a megaphone. It could be that she is wrong and that there is a vital missing link in the logic, but let’s have the conversation rather than calling in the thought police.

What is particularly concerning for Christians is the way that Scripture Union Tasmania appear to have left Williams to hang out to dry. He was removed from his chaplaincy position and I understand is currently consulting lawyers. But where does this leave Scripture Union? The Biblical position on same-sex behaviour is abundantly clear and at some point they’re going to be asked the question directly. Yes, Williams may have acted inappropriately but the issue still remains. If SU is to maintain the confidence of Christians then at some point they will have to clarify where they stand on this issue. They’ll be forced into it. Tasmania has some very vocal activists, beginning with Rodney Croome who is all over this like a rash. They also rely on government funding for their programmes and will find themselves in a really dificult situation. The word of God says one thing, the loudest noises in their environment and many of those who bankroll them are saying another. They need our prayers and not a little bit of encouragement to stand firm when the tornado which so rapidly blew Williams away turns in their direction. We are so very quickly silenced when we feel public opinion is against us, and all the more when our livelihoods seem to be at stake. And we ought to be under no illusions, there are many who want for those livelihoods to be destroyed.

So what does the Christian do? First, we ought to expect opposition. I am regularly dismayed by Christians who assume that their lives will be trouble-free. Nothing could be further than the truth. In every generation there has been particular points of friction between the truth of the Gospel and the world in which that life-giving gospel is proclaimed. The Apostle Paul recognised that the same message would be seen as a sweet fragrance by some but like the stink of a rotting corpse by others (2Cor. 2:16). This is just the reality of our lives but it ought to guard us against the temptation to compromise.

The gospel itself will be offensive to some but so, also, is the way that Christians live their lives and communicate what they think about ethics. The Apostle Peter saw this clearly when he wrote,

1Peter 4:3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you;

The point here should be seen clearly. We are maligned because we do not agree with the immorality that we see around us. From the Christian perspective it looks like a torrent of flood water sweeping many way and yet those being carried past us in the deluge mock us for not jumping in. The Christian stands on the bank of the river and sees the deadly cataracts downstream, but the derision coming from those in the water itself is often loud enough to persuade us to give up our loving duty of care to those we think are in deadly danger. On the contrary, Peter urges us to look for opportunities to throw out lifelines,

1Peter 3:14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,15 but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame.17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

So the Christian is called to a gentle respectful defence of our gospel hope – honouring Christ as Lord and trusting God even in the suffering that may come about. We should always want to simply talk about the gospel but the fact is that the world around us wants to draw us into the conversations they want to have. When that happens we’re called to respond graciously but truthfully. It’s a very hard call and we ought to pray for Williams and Scripture Union Tasmania that they can live up to it.

And we ought to pray the same for ourselves. Particularly since the Apostle’s call here is to speak out – to use words to explain what we believe and why we believe it. To articulate those things that many will slander and revile us for. It will, quitely literally, be a war of words.
And now we’re being called to speak up into a culture that increasingly wants to silence dissent.
Voltaire was massively critical of Christian belief,

In a letter to Frederick IIKing of Prussia, dated 5 January 1767, he wrote about Christianity:

La nôtre [religion] est sans contredit la plus ridicule, la plus absurde, et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecté le monde.[96]
“[Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. … My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out..”[97][98]

Voltaire’s view on the Bible was negative. In La bible enfin expliquee, he wrote:

It is characteristic of fanatics who read the holy scriptures to tell themselves: God killed, so I must kill; Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, Rachel stole: so I must steal, deceive, lie. But, wretch, you are neither Rachel, nor Jacob, nor Abraham, nor God; you are just a mad fool, and the popes who forbade the reading of the Bible were extremely wise.[99]

But Votaire never sought to silence Christian voices. He recognised that the best way to test (and seek to overcome) what he saw as dangerously erroneous belief was to debate it in the public forum. What a long way we’ve come. Now the answer from our opponents is to seek to gag us at every turn.
For the Christian this means an enormous choice. Be silenced and (for a time) be safe. Or open our mouths and speak words of eternal hope. Voltaire’s legacy may finally be truly in the grave along with his body, but we still have life to tell others about. The events surrounding Troy Williams are perhaps a lesson in how not to go about making a point, but they also function as another strong indication of the pressures on free speech we currently struggle under.

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11 comments on “The Death of Voltaire. But don’t you dare talk about it.

  1. How things have changed. If Troy Williams had said this 40 years ago there would have been a resounding “Here Here” from the employer and the mass populous. Political correctness is also another term that was unheard of and l am glad l refuse to comply with it. When the truth has to be told….it just has to be told without fear or favour. My fear for the world is that when my generation die off, all the politically correct brainwashed that are left will “just comply”.
    As a result of political correctness and the promotion of homosexuality being normal and being preached in schools l know of a young girl who is now openly lesbian and dressing like a boy, something else that wouldn’t have happened 40 years ago, why? Because in those days we taught and said what was right and normal.
    Now we fear terms like homophobic, islamaphobic etc which is used against those who dare to say different. Political correctness is just a way for the establishment in charge to get us to conform.
    How much longer before we have fataphobic, cigarettaphobic etc?
    And if we are not supposed to make a stand on what is right, how much longer before Bibles are a banned book and withdrawn because of what God speaks out about?
    I support Troy Williams and anyone else who speaks the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
    We have to be very scared if we all turn into a bunch of scaredy cats.
    How l so admire the Christians fleeing ISIS who refuse to renounce their faith, and there are parallels here when we too must not renounce our beliefs for fear of the political correctness enemy.

  2. David, I agree with you regarding Voltaire’s quote to a certain point. ‘Freedom of speech’ can never be treated in isolation. The issue here is not so much ‘freedom of speech’ as ‘appropriateness of speech,’ ‘truth of speech,’and ‘harm of speech.’ There are times where we weigh up all of these factors and we either remove someone’s platform for speech or we shut down free speech altogether.

    • Thanks Alan,

      I fear your approach isn’t actually a defence of free speech at all. Don’t get me wrong – we have a responsibility to be wise about how we speak and the effects our words have but when we say it’s necessary to remove free speech then the big question is “who decides?”

      It will always be the most vocal, the effective majority who wish to silence dissent. That is, of course, exactly what we are seeing culturally right now.

      • Absolutely David. It was far from an impassioned defense of free speech and that was never its intention.
        I think the key question to ask is “who are you answerable to for the way you speak and act?” We’re probably not going to get anywhere near consensus because we would both answer that question very differently.
        I can understand your frustrations at trying to speak up against a vocal and sometimes belligerent majority position. I can also understand why a comment such as the one in question might be harmful to a lot of young people under this guy’s influence.

        • it’s a good question. I think the Christian would say “to Jesus”. The problem with making ourselves fully accountable to the public at large is that many of us have little confidence that the “accountability” and it’s execution would be done in a way that genuinely protects the rights of minorities to express difficult and challenging things.

          I guess when it comes to the particular comments made here, there ought to be some discussion about what we mean by “harmful to a lot of young people under this guy’s influence”. Would his comments challenge the prevailing paradigm that we ought not to in any way say negative things about people’s sexual self-identity? Almost certainly. That might be experienced in a negative way (because who likes being challenged about things personal to them) but that doesn’t mean it’s actually harmful. I think Williams’ argument that by putting these sorts of thoughts into the public domain we are actually doing good by promoting the possibility of other ways of understanding sexuality deserves some consideration, and not least for those young men and women who it impacts upon the most. As Williams note, there is an almost relentless rush to tell them that their sexuality is locked in and nothing to cause them concern. The reality is that sexuality is far more fluid, that many many people who have early homosexual experiences and emotions no longer have them even 5 years later and that there is a large correlation between same-sex attraction and mental health issues that defies simplistic attempts to attribute it solely to stigmatisation.

          In all these respects Williams’ “free speech” (however poorly executed) really needs to be thought through some more.

  3. What should have happened:
    – His employers have a quiet word, asking him if he’d thought through the consequences of posting the picture.
    – He, ideally, would either have removed the post or clarified why he originally posted what he did.
    – Clarification, from both the individual and the organisations involved, should have spoken very clearly that regardless of the post they are all in favour of supporting “service users” regardless of sexuality or opinion on issues of sexuality.
    – All involved should have then responded to any critics, affirming the notion of free speech.

    Sadly I don’t see this process happening in many places any time soon.

  4. It has been a hard few weeks for Troy, myself and our three young children. We feel that the forum was most certainly the wrong choice. We however never expected the back lash and hate that poured our way. It has had a devastating effect on our family. Troy is unemployed – where do we go from here? I welcome words of encouragement and support as they are a breath of fresh air.

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