In August last year, I visited the Tower of London, where scores of volunteers were ‘planting’ the ceramic poppies that formed the World War I commemoration ‘Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red‘.
Each poppy represented one British military casualty during the First World War. It was an incredibly moving sight, and even more so when I learned that despite the fact that the former moat already appeared well covered, the organisers were concerned that they might not get finished in time for the November commemorations. There was still more than two months’ worth of work to be done?
I returned in late October, when almost all of the 888,246 poppies had been planted – by now completely encircling the Tower.
The atmosphere among the crowds, on both occasions, was of sobered awe. So many lives lost. So many young men killed for…for what?
They died for our freedom. And the thought that hasn’t been far from my mind since my first visit was ‘What have we done with that freedom? What have we used it for?’
It seems to me that we know what we’ve been freed from – tyranny, oppression, foreign invaders – but we’ve neglected to consider what we have been freed for.
The couple of decades between the two World Wars were, in the UK at least, a period of throwing off restraints. Though some of the trend had begun in the earlier years of the century – notably with the Suffragettes seeking to (in the words of a Mary Poppins song), ‘Cast off the shackles of yesterday’ – it accelerated after the War, with the ‘roaring’ Twenties coming to be known as a decade of decadence, partying and throwing off the moral and social restraints of the Victorian era.
A social upheaval had begun, and although the partying and financial extravagance would be curtailed by World War II, the transformation of British life was even more marked:
– Many who had been in service for generations and maybe never left their own towns had now travelled the world, learned new skills and broadened their horizons – they were no longer willing to return to the closeted world they had left;
– Women, who had been needed to fill the roles left empty by the men, or who had been recruited into the military or had volunteered as nurses to ‘do their bit’, were no longer willing to return to lives in which they were expected to be nothing more than homemakers or, in the case of the upper classes, nothing more than decorative additions to their husbands’ households;
– Advances in technology, made both necessary and possible by the war effort, meant that communications, travel and more were vastly improved and would only develop over the coming decades.
The world had changed. We had been given – had been bought, at the cost of so many lives – freedom, in innumerable areas. It took a while for our economy to recover, and for the national exhaustion to wear off, but by the ‘swinging’ Sixties the extravagance and lack of restraint was well and truly back, and this time was experienced by the lower classes at least as much as by the rich.
What did we use that freedom for? Consumerism and self-expression.
Fast forward to 2015, and the prompt that finally gave me a focus for this article: on 7 January 2015, twelve people were shot dead in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The killers were Islamists who were retaliating for a series of cartoons which had been offensive to Muslims.
Both the media and the social networks were flooded with news reports, with messages of sympathy and solidarity, and with condemnation for this ‘attack on freedom of speech’.
Several publications, I understand, republished the cartoons in question as a gesture of defiance. Many more refused to do so, and were vilified in some quarters for their cowardice, their giving-in to the terrorists (the critics somehow missing the irony of the fact that they in turn were trying to limit someone’s freedom of speech, forcing them to ‘say’ the same as Charlie Hebdo).
I haven’t seen the cartoons. I’ve read descriptions, and it sounds as though they would offend me, let alone Muslims.
Freedom of Speech is a tricky topic. I don’t know how to think about it. I don’t think there is a Human Right to be offensive, but nor do I think there is a Right to be protected from offense. Satire has long been a powerful and effective tool for pointing up hypocrisy in and failings of those in authority – and for enabling us to see our own faults and weaknesses in a new, sobering light. At its best it makes us laugh, then makes us change our ways. At its worst it is an ugly, snide, hurtful instrument of hatred, which wounds and divides without bringing about any change of heart.
Yes, we have the freedom to act and speak like that, but is that what freedom is for?
The only limit our society seems to place on our freedom is that it must not harm others, but ‘causing offense’ is causing harm. To offend is to hurt, to wound, to cut down; just because the wounds are emotional rather than physical, that doesn’t make them any less real.
Yet how do you define freedom of speech – or any of the other freedoms we hold so dear, and for which those thousands of men, women and children died – without restricting them to the point that we no longer feel free?
A friend of mine put it well on his Facebook timeline:
…freedom isn’t an excuse for unnecessary abuse and mockery, not an entitlement to deeply offend with impunity. We as a society must resist this in the name of freedom of expression and speech. Let us use our freedom to encourage, restore, heal and grow people. Let us love our neighbours and pray for our enemies. This is mankind at its best.
What is freedom for? It is to build up, not to destroy; to love, not to hate; to help, not to harm.
If freedom means freedom from all restraint, we will never be free from this kind of hateful speech/’art’ or this kind of violent retribution. We will never be free of lies, slander, cheating, extortion, or excess. We will never be free from oppression, injustice or inequality. Unrestrained freedom leads inevitably to moral decay – as the briefest glance at Western society will tell you. Yes, there is terrible oppression elsewhere in the world, and on the whole our lives are better – safer – than theirs, but would we really describe the West as ‘mankind at its best’?
We are free, and as I gazed on those poppies, then went to church that afternoon, I thanked God for that freedom and for the sacrifices made by so many to give me the life I now live. I thanked God for our safety and security, and I asked his forgiveness for the way we have used it – to indulge ourselves instead of to build a better world.
I mourn for the families and friends of those killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and for all those so filled with hatred and fear that they will retaliate in thoughts, words or deeds against one side or the other in the coming weeks and months. I mourn for a society that takes its hard-won freedom and uses it to hurt, offend and shame, to satisfy itself rather than to nurture others.
I pray that Christians will begin to demonstrate what it means to be free – free from hatred, anger, self-seeking and vice, free to love our neighbours as ourselves. I pray that God will help me to live this out more and more day by day.
Let us use our freedom to encourage, restore, heal and grow people. Let us love our neighbours and pray for our enemies.