In defence of our right to say what we believe

Everyone has some controversial beliefs.

But how comfortable are we telling people about them? For many of us, the answer is: not very.

We commissioned new research asking New Zealanders whether they thought society should have more tolerance for people expressing differing beliefs even if they are unpopular or about sensitive issues like sex and gender identity, the Treaty of Waitangi, hate speech, or religion. The majority — 59% — agreed that we need to be more tolerant than we are; just 11% disagreed.

There’s a growing sense that society’s becoming more censorious, more willing to sanction people whose beliefs aren’t consistent with the prevailing attitude or popular belief. There’s an obvious concern about suffering social stigma, or worse, if you hold the “wrong” beliefs. Overseas, banks have been accused of closing customers’ accounts because of their political views, like campaigning for Brexit or participating in protests, or their views on issues like gender and sexuality.

Living out our deepest convictions is a fundamental human right, recognised in law. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act says that everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief”, and the right to “manifest that person’s religion or belief” through, for example, practice and teaching.

Sometimes these beliefs lurk just below the surface of everyday activity and only come into view when there’s some kind of crisis. Beliefs like these don’t usually feature in public debate but they’re there nonetheless, shaping our leaders’ decisions and our nation’s future.

Other times the beliefs that move us are out in plain sight, like the questions about equality and belonging that feature when we discuss te Tiriti o Waitangi and other hot contemporary topics.

Whether the beliefs in question are obvious or subtle, the fact that Kiwis say we need to show more tolerance suggests we’re not doing a great job of respecting people’s right to put their beliefs into practice. So do recent court decisions, like Orewa Community Church v Minister for COVID-19 Response, a case about restrictions on faith-based gatherings brought by Christian and Muslim plaintiffs.

The court said that it is easier to justify limiting rights when they are held by “a group whose views are not widely shared”. With respect, this is not just wrong but back-to-front. Legal rights protect minorities from the power of the majority. That’s one of the main reasons we have them.

We should value these rights because they give us real protection, not just against stifling social orthodoxy, but against overbearing public power. As law professor Helen Alvare put it, “ if we do not leave people free to pursue these questions, to judge, and to order their lives in integrity, who or what will supply their system of meaning? The majority view — which has been proved wrong not a few times? The predilections of the rich and powerful? The government in power?”

Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, pointed out that respecting people’s right to their beliefs ensures there is “real moral debate” in society and says that this kind of “argumentative grit” is good for everyone, even when we don’t share the beliefs in question. For example, when the Springboks toured in 1981, “people with strong commitments about what is due to human dignity” (to use Williams’ phrase) gathered, occupied and protested up and down the country and made sure we had the hard conversations we needed to have.

We need to advocate for these rights and take action to uphold them. If we want the social benefits they offer — indeed, if we want to enjoy these rights ourselves — it’s not enough to pay lip service to them. We have to be willing to stand alongside those among us who bear the brunt of intolerance and social stigma.

This will inevitably take us into some messy territory where people hold strong beliefs, and that’s OK. We should insist on civility, but we shouldn’t be afraid to let people express themselves passionately and act differently. Our neighbour’s beliefs might not be our cup of tea, but it’s fair enough to let them live out their most important convictions to the fullest extent we can.

Like all rights, there are reasonable limits on the right to put your beliefs into practice, but we should set the boundaries as broadly as possible.

We can expect more debate about freedom of conscience, religion, and belief in days ahead. If we are really committed to values like diversity and inclusion, we should welcome this.

This article was first published by The Post on 13 March 2024.

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Alex Penk
March 28, 2024
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