People should be allowed to get on with living their own lives without interference unless they are doing something that harms others. After decades of struggle we have managed to get the majority of voters in the UK to be strong supporters of that principle. That is the main reason why the vast majority now readily accepts the idea that anyone has the right to live in a gay relationship without being persecuted. It is also behind a growing realisation that a person also has the right to be treated with full respect and consideration if they happen to be transgender.
This does not, of course, mean that we should extend this right to the point where we grant it to those who want to be free to persecute others. So in my view it isn't acceptable for someone running a B&B to say that they only want to house straight people even if that is what their version of religious truth tells them is necessary to avoid hellfire. Nor is it acceptable to inflict permanent bodily damage on a teenager in order to copy the practices common in one particular part of our complex multi-cultural community. Genetic mutilation isn't a cultural choice which causes no consequences for others - even if a young girl says at the time that she actively wants it. The choice isn't free and equal and every time the practice is carried out it is an attack on the rights of all other women to live their lives the way that they choose. It is an attempt to oppress women not to grant them freedom of choice and if we regard every women in our society as equally important then we cannot excuse it or turn a blind eye to it on the grounds that it is a part of someone else's culture.
I would go further than that and argue that forcing a woman to cover her face behind a full veil is also deeply harmful to others. Women have the right to their own identity every bit as much as men. When a woman accepts that she should be modest and must cover her face in public whilst a man can walk around freely and show off his own beauty she is actively putting pressure on other women to keep to 'their' place. It is an acceptance of her own oppression that adds to the burden of oppression of every other women and no amount of smokescreen protests about it being better than over sexualisation of women can cover up the real aim of the practice. It is not a practice that is there to enable women to be protected from rapacious men. It is there to insist that women can only be what men allow them to be even to the point where they cannot enjoy the right to show their own face in public.
Those are a set of views that are controversial and not everyone will agree with them. I believe I have a right to express even them even if they annoy other people. I also happen to think that anyone who disagrees with that view should have the right to voice that disagreement and we should argue it out freely and openly. Freedom of speech is another principle that I happen to think is incredibly important to protect. The rich and the powerful will always have more tools at their disposal to ban and outlaw ideas than the poor and the oppressed. It is therefore always wise to think long and hard before calling on authorities to ban ideas from being voiced. A great deal of harm can, of course, be done by allowing people to say unpleasant and hurtful things from a public platform. A great deal more harm can be done by allowing authorities to tell us what we are or are not allowed to do, or say. Especially when those people are trying to use the full force of religious dogma to tell us how we should live our lives.
Allow others to control what we can and cannot hear and it can quickly turn very oppressive indeed. If I am allowed to ban someone else from offending me then why can't others ban me from offending them? A religious person might reasonably argue that it is not fair or right for a person to show a movie that cracks jokes over something as sacred to them as the crucifixion of Christ. So they would be entitled to ban Monty Python and the Life of Brian from ever being screened again. Let them do that and their next step might well be to declare that the sight of gay people kissing in public offends their God and that also needs to be stamped out.
Attacks on the right to speak your own mind always start out sounding so very reasonable and then end up becoming dangerously oppressive. It may not be terribly nice that a French satirical magazine publishes a picture of someone's prophet and makes a joke at the expense of their religion. Allow it to be banned and the demand to limit what we are allowed to read and do won't stop there. Before long we'll be back in the days of the 1960s where the government told you that you weren't allowed to read Lady Chatterley's Lover because it might upset the serving classes. Or living in a country where it is deemed reasonable to stone people for adultery or falling in love with someone of the same sex.
Even denying racists a platform because their horrible views offend and upset the rest of us rarely works out well. The ban usually plays straight into their hands by increasing publicity for their ideas and making it look like we have no good arguments to put forward against them. The best way to deny them a platform is to ignore them, laugh them out of court and surround the communities they wish to assault with a protective cordon of bodies that shows that they are not alone. I have happily stood in massed ranks of people in near riot situations in places like Lewisham and Southall trying to demonstrate that ethnic minority communities are not alone. But I have also always tried to win the argument with racists face to face and only resorted to physical force when it was absolutely clear that it was a necessary protective measure against deliberate violent intimidation.
I don't like apartheid in Israel and I hate the apologists for it. But I'd rather beat Jewish fascists in argument than play up to their self image of being the injured party by backing a ban on their right to speak. I don't like what Germaine Greer is saying about transgender folk. It seems to me petty, sour and hurtful and that they have the right to get on with their lives without having to listen to such hurtful rubbish. But I also think we'll see it off a lot quicker by letting a normally intelligent woman make a fool of herself and get argued down by clearer thinkers than we will by trying to ban a woman who had the guts to stand up and speak out for women's rights at serious risk of physical violence.
Turning those we disagree with into the enemy who must be shouted down at all costs can quickly turn into ludicrous accusations that those who hold marginally different views to our own are siding with the enemy and must also be denied the right to speak. The saddest illustration of this is the recent attacks on Peter Tatchell. After decades of fighting for the rights of LGBT people he is now being pilloried. Not for giving up on campaigning for those rights but for saying things that some fellow campaigners disagree with.
Tatchell has taken the view, for example, that it might not be in the best interests of toleration to insist that bakers should be forced to make cakes displaying political slogans that they actively disagree with. Even if those slogans are in support of ideals he has fought on behalf of for years. I happen to think he is right. I don't know about you but if I ran a printing business I would want the right to turn down work from the National Front. If I want that choice then I think I need to grant the same choice to others who disagree with my politics. So I think a printing firm has the right to refuse to print leaflets for the Green Party. And a baker should have the right to refuse to bake a us a cake decorated with slogans for gay rights even when I agree with the slogan.
It is possible of course that I am getting in a terrible muddle and getting my views on this all wrong. If so then surely I shouldn't lose the right to put my argument openly and freely. If I'm wrong then I'll learn something from the discussion and change my mind. If I'm wrong but forced to shut up then I'll probably get a lot more stubborn and stupid about any errors in my ways.
Interestingly this habit of denying others freedom is also spreading rapidly through the Conservative Party. There was a stage when the vast majority of honest Conservatives would have argued that it is really important that people and organisations have the right to choose for themselves how to spend their own money. Provided of course that what they wanted to do with it was legal decent and honest.
Those days are now rapidly going. I want the freedom to tell my council via the ballot box not to invest in apartheid Israel. I want the freedom to persuade the fellow contributors to my pension fund that fossil fuels are a stupid dead end investment and unprincipled. I want the freedom to persuade my local supermarket not to use my money to buy their supplies from oppressive regimes that I detest.
Conservatives who are supposed to be such keen supporters of freedom of choice are now taking away my right to make those choices. Just as surely as back in the 1970s they tried to take away the right of school teachers to be openly gay. These oppressive measures need opposing. When our best campaigners give up on their libertarian principles as easily as they are doing right now then what arguments are we going to use when a Conservative and authoritarian government becomes increasingly intolerant of our individuality?