Malik: To live in a diverse society means to live with debate. Bring it on

To my mind, it is more how one engages in discussion and debate, not in the raising of uncomfortable issues:

No one has a right not to be offended. All of us have a duty to challenge bigotry. These two claims are not just compatible, they are often interconnected. Today, though, many view these as conflicting perspectives. To give offence to other cultures or faiths, they argue, is to foment racism; to challenge racism, one should refrain from giving offence.

It’s a belief at the heart of the controversy engulfing Batley grammar school. The facts are still unclear. A teacher apparently showed an image of the Prophet Muhammad in a religious education class. Some parents have demanded the teacher be sacked, holding protests outside the school. The school has apologised and suspended the teacher involved. At the heart of the affair, the former Tory cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi insists, is the issue of “child safeguarding”, of protecting children from racist bullying.

It is inevitable in plural societies that we offend the sensibilities of others. Where different beliefs are deeply held, disagreement is unavoidable. Almost by definition, that’s what it means to live in a plural society. If we cherish diversity, we should establish ways of having such debates and conversations in a civil manner, not try to suppress them. A structured discussion in a classroom, properly done, seems an ideal approach.

It is inevitable, too, that in pursuing social change, we often offend deeply held sensibilities. Many groups struggling for justice and equality – women, gays, non-believers – within religious communities cannot but be blasphemous. In this context, to accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. Fighting for social justice, in other words, often requires us to offend others. The boundaries of speech are different in a classroom than in the world outside. Here, a teacher is dealing with minors, building a relationship of trust with them, encouraging them to think, and to think about issues that they may not have thought about or may not have wanted to think about.

Source: To live in a diverse society means to live with debate. Bring it on

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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