The Vatican once had a list of proscribed publications – known as the Index – which Catholics were urged to shun, these being a danger to their faith. Karl Marx and Jean-Paul Sartre both featured in this famous Index, which was, to some extent, an encouragement to rebellious youth to read such authors.
Censorship, we decided, in our 1960s generation, was odious. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression were paramount, and should know no parameters. When the atrocious Charlie Hebdo massacre took place in January 2015 in Paris, world leaders marched together carrying banners proclaiming the words “Je suis Charlie” – freedom of expression was a Western liberal value and we should all stand with it.
Except that events have recently shown us that freedom of speech isn’t absolute, after all; there are limits on freedom of expression. Angela Merkel, who marched for “Je suis Charlie”, has recently allowed the prosecution of a German satirist whose scurrilous skit on President Erdoğan of Turkey could put many lives at risk.
And Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is currently in turmoil over allegations that Ken Livingstone made anti-Semitic remarks, and that there are, within the Labour ranks, those who speak insultingly about Jews. Mr Corbyn has said that such expressions of racism are “unacceptable”.
Thus we are discovering, through the sometimes painful road of experience, that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are not absolute. There are limits. Dangerous talk can cost lives. Inflammatory speech can do plenty of damage.
We might not have agreed with what the Vatican placed on the Index (which still exists, though now mostly for the purpose of examining theological works) but the principle – that there are limits to freedom of expression – has surely been borne out by events.
My late uncle Jim Kelly was a great devotee of Fr John Sullivan SJ, whose beatification has just been approved by the Holy See. Uncle Jim had been taught by the priest at Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare in the 1920s, and Fr Sullivan was, by all accounts, the most remarkable, inspiring and caring teacher in an era when teachers and tutors could be rigid and disciplined. Uncle Jim had to drop out of university because the family money ran out, and Fr John wrote some wonderfully encouraging letters to his ex-pupil, which my uncle cherished.
But alas! Uncle Jim was married to a good woman, Aunty Dorothy, who had many housewifely virtues but was a fiend for tidying up. One day, she went into Uncle Jim’s study and “tidied up” his papers, throwing away, among other things, the precious letters from Fr Sullivan.
This provoked a marital rift that was never entirely healed – there were week-long silences, which are almost worse than violent rows – and I, a witness to all this, have retained a deep prejudice against “tidying up” ever since. A most awful book currently in print – and an unfortunately bestselling one – is a tome by one Marie Kondo on the art of tidying. (Tidy people destroy valuable archives, Ms Kondo!) Fr Sullivan had a saintly reputation in his lifetime. He travelled around by bicycle and always visited the poor. There is great devotion to him today in Co Kildare, especially around the village of Clane.
The poor old Baptists of Northern Ireland are somewhat negatively portrayed in ITV’s new weekly thriller The Secret. Granted, it’s based on a true story – of an adulterous pair who decide to murder their spouses to avoid the complications of divorce. James Nesbitt is the sinister protagonist, a ghastly hypocrite of a dentist who quotes the Bible with one side of his mouth and seduces a married Sunday school teacher with the other.
The script not only highlights the hypocrisy of feigned virtue, but also the perversion of ideals. As if murder were a “lesser evil” than divorce, or abortion the right solution to keeping up appearances.
Yes, sometimes the extremes of virtue are too difficult for flawed humans to reach, and excessive Puritanism can involve somewhat confused values. My late husband once met a South African Calvinist who told him: “The moral danger of sexual intercourse is that it can lead to dancing.”
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