Don’t ban it. Get over it!

The banning of silly Christian bus adverts reveals the contempt in which the mayor holds ordinary Londoners.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos

Topics Politics

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Last week, Boris Johnson, the perennially silly mayor of London, announced that he would ban a planned series of posters on London buses which shouted: ‘NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT!’ The message was penned by the Christian campaign group, the Core Issues Trust, which believes that homosexuality is curable through therapy and religious teaching.

It is a little bizarre that London buses have become the preferred forum for society’s culture wars. This spate of religious bus-side bickering kicked off in 2008, when the British Humanist Association (BHA) ran adverts on the side of London’s buses that read: ‘There is probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ This led the lobby group Christian Voice to report the poster to the Advertising Standards Agency on the basis that the BHA had no evidence that there was no god. Unsurprisingly the complaint went nowhere. The Core Issues Trust campaign is an implicit response to another billowing bus-poster campaign which was run by gay-rights campaign group Stonewall earlier this year. This one read: ‘SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT!’ The fact that these organisations think they can win arguments with the public simply by shouting shrill, one-line campaign slogans at us betrays their lack of faith in the public’s intelligence. In reality, people take a bit more convincing than being told to ‘stop worrying’ or ‘get over it’.

That said, the Core Issues Trust is undoubtedly a bit nutty. It reminded me of the hilarious anti-homosexual, yet overtly camp ‘True Directions’ programme in Jamie Babbit’s brilliant 1999 movie But I’m A Cheerleader, in which a suspected lesbian is dispatched to undertake 12 steps of therapeutic conversion away from the ‘unhealthy homosexual lifestyle’. Like the anti-gay ‘boot camp’ in the movie, the Core Issues Trust says in its vision statement that it establishes networks with local churches to assist with ‘sexually damaged and wounded adults’ through engagement with ‘professionally trained individuals’ and ‘expertise’ to bring Christians back from the homosexual brink. It hosted a conference in January entitled, ‘The Leper Among Us: Homosexuality and the Life of the Church’. While this was seized on by the Guardian as evidence of the organisation’s overt bigotry, the conference was in fact designed to ‘lift the stigma’ around homosexuality in the church so that ‘homosexuals are no longer treated like lepers’. This was more an example of the group’s guitar-jangling therapeutic outlook than its hateful homophobia.

Yet while the Core Issues Trust is a bit weird, the more offensive and dangerous idea that emerged in the course of the discussion around the posters was the elite’s belief that this act of censorship was justifiable in the name of ‘tolerance’. Following Johnson’s decision, ‘tolerance’ became the virtue of the hour. Johnson himself said that ‘London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance’. Ken Livingstone said the adverts were ‘damaging for anyone who believes that London is the greatest city in the world because of its tolerance’. A spokesperson for Transport for London said ‘we do not believe that these specific ads are consistent with TfL’s commitment to a tolerant and inclusive London’.

Appealing to tolerance to justify the ban shows how debased the elite’s understanding of this important liberal virtue has become. A truly tolerant society is one in which people are free to make up their own minds about challenging ideas. John Stuart Mill recognised the importance of tolerance in his essay On Liberty. He argued that ‘though the silenced opinion be an error… it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied’. In other words, it is only through the free engagement with ideas that people arrive at sure convictions. No matter how often politicians attempt to defer to ‘tolerance’, Livingstone’s suggestion that people may be damaged through their exposure to this ‘collision of adverse opinions’ shows that the elite impulse driving the ban is anything but tolerant. In fact, it appears that Johnson et al have in fact become ‘intolerant of tolerance’ – they would much rather make up our minds for us.

This bastardisation of tolerance is particularly worrying at a time when the law is frequently used to restrict religious expression. The provisions of the Equalities Act 2010 have allowed for Christians to be sued for expressing their religious belief. The most famous example is the case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull, two Christians who were forced to pay £3,600 to two homosexuals for refusing them entry to the bed and breakfast which they ran from their home. In Scotland, performing a religious gesture at, or on the way to, a football match could now land you with a criminal conviction under the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act (Scotland) Act 2012. There are numerous cases of religious preachers being prosecuted for harassment where their views have strayed outside what the police deem to be acceptable. Taken on its own, banning a silly poster may seem trifling. It is more worrying at a time when legal interference with religious belief is becoming routine.

True tolerance demands robust engagement with challenging ideas. It requires us, as thinking people, to be sure enough in our own arguments that we are able to win intellectual battles with our opponents, rather than feeling it necessary to silence them. The Core Issues Trust may be wacky, objectionable and even wrong. But if we want a truly tolerant society, we should ignore the bastardised conception of tolerance emerging from our confused mayoral candidates, and remember the words of Mill: ‘Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.’

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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Topics Politics


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