A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
13th September 2007
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Civilisation is somewhere between difficult and impossible in a sinful world.
Freedom of speech is one of the great privileges of a civilised nation. There are very few times in history when such civilisation has been attempted let alone achieved.
Governments usually feel threatened by freedom of information. Those in office wish to conduct their business with a degree of covert privacy. National security is a real issue. In a time of war it is critical. Loose lips sink ships. King Hezekiah was foolish when he showed off his wealth to some Babylonian envoys.
But governments usually feel more threatened by their own citizens than by other nations. They generally want to retain control over the flow of information within their nation.
This is to be expected in a totalitarian regime. It is also true in a democratic system. For within a democracy it is the citizens that can remove the government. Citizens are thus not to be trusted. And within a democracy the mastery of politics is the way to power. Politicians who have mastered the art of compromise and coalition will not normally become open and transparent when in government.
Yet it is not only governments that wish to censor. The journalists, who are so vocal in fighting against censorship, are even more vocal in their protection of the sources. In the media view of ethics governments must reveal all their conversations but journalists are allowed to retain secrets.
Big business is also notorious famous in their attempt to censor. The asbestos, tobacco, gambling and alcohol industries have been notorious in covering up information.
Yet censorship is not always considered a bad thing. There are some forms of speech that nearly all people agree are harmful and should be censored. Child pornography is outlawed. Defamation and false witness can be acted upon in courts. Vilification, racial slurs and jokes are considered inappropriate and not acceptable.
There is also the issue of invasion of privacy. If people do not want information about them spread abroad they should have some right to preserve their privacy. Our medical records for example are considered something that we should be able to control.
Some of the censorship is really community opinion rather than any legal action. There is just an un-stated political correctness that means some comments are publicly frowned upon. There is a polite conversation mode of address in modern English. The content of it is more a matter of good manners and emotional intelligence than strict rules and regulations.
Thus self-censorship is often at work. We learn intuitively when it is right to say things and when it will be deemed inappropriate. We learn how language works in relationship so that we know what to say to whom and when. This self-censorship means that Christians often do not raise their belief for fear of being considered gauche or insensitive or overbearing.
In general censorship is bad. It conceals the truth. We may perchance know the truth, but we do not know if it is reliably the truth if we are unable to test it fully.
Christians often have to put up with silly, unprincipled and erroneous attacks on our beliefs because of freedom of speech. But at least we are better off than others who live in countries where nothing negative about their religion can be said. They cannot have the truth brought out into the open. They also have no way of knowing if their religion is right or whether they have just been brainwashed.
When people out of their frustration cease talking openly and freely and resort to force of arms, the freedom of speech is diminished. The first APEC meeting was held with a minimum of security. But that was before 9-11-2001, or other violent protests at meetings of heads of state.
Instead of demonstrators gaining the freedom to speak their viewpoint, their violence gives legitimacy to governments clamping down on protest.
Yet governments, who will not listen to alternative viewpoints, increase the frustration of people. People feel that only by violent demonstration and disruption will they be heard.
In a sinful and fallen world freedom of speech is a wonderful and unrealistic ideal. Civilisation is just another unrealistic ideal. We need a wholesale change of hearts and minds to live in such freedom, that we will are able to speak the truth in love. We need the Kingdom of God.