Archbishop of Cant calls for “cruel words” law?

The Times reports that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has called for new laws to punish “thoughtless and cruel” styles of speaking.

However, owing to the Archbishop’s opaque style of discourse, it is unclear whether or not Times reporter Ruth Gledhill is correct in her interpretation of his James Callahan Memorial Lecture. Other reports, from more overtly religious sources, do not put the same spin on it.

Whichever way you look at it, he was talking drivel:

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

Non sequitur upon non sequitur. Language offensive to religious believers is not the same as intention to limit a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in public life; and the apparent admission in the last sentence is that the main purpose of incitement to religious hatred laws is to stop religious people being provoked into committing acts of violence.

He does agree that there is no case for the retention of the blasphemy law, but then he goes on to muddy the waters further by making vague suggestions about power:

Since the old offence of blasphemy – as we have seen – no longer works effectively to do this, there is no real case for its retention. How adequately the new laws will meet the case remains to be seen; I should only want to suggest that the relative power and political access of a group or person laying charges under this legislation might well be a factor in determining what is rightly actionable.

Is this man incapable of clarity? Have another go why don’t you, Archbish:

It is clear that the old blasphemy law is unworkable and that its assumptions are not those of contemporary lawmakers and citizens overall. But as we think about the adequacy of what is coming to replace it, we should not, I believe, miss the opportunity of asking the larger questions about what is just and good for individuals and groups in our society who hold religious beliefs.

This appears to be the section which has led the Times to shout that he is calling for new legislation. It’s not quite there, is it?

Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, commenting on the Times’ interpretation of Williams’ speech, is understandably worried.

It is as if the prolonged and widespread debate on the recently-introduced religious hatred legislation had never happened. Dr Williams takes us right back to the beginning with his special pleading for the protection of religious feelings – in other words, another form of blasphemy law that would be even worse than the one we’re about to ditch.

Let’s wait and see. The Archbishop of Cant has been forced in the past to issue clarifying statements. Maybe one day he will get it right the first time.

UPDATE: (2nd Feb) Ophelia Benson has read the Archbishop’s speech, so you don’t have to. It does seem that he was indeed suggesting, in his roundabout way, that Parliament should indeed legislate to protect certain groups from cruel and hurtful speech or publications.


9 Responses to “Archbishop of Cant calls for “cruel words” law?”

  1. Stuart W says:

    Translation – “Can we please make it illegal to say things that Christians don’t like, without calling it a ‘Blasphemy Law’, which implies special treatment?”

  2. Stuart H says:

    ‘what is just and good for individuals and groups in our society who hold religious beliefs’?
    Since when were they either?
    The average godbother doesn’t even seem capable of spelling words like ‘just’ or ‘good’ any more – never mind understanding that non-believers are capable of such qualities.
    Unless they at least try and drag themselves up to the level of civility you’d expect from a small child how can they demand respect from the rest of us?

  3. Paul Tavener says:

    We sort of agree that the blasphamy laws are a nonsense, but we want something in return when they are ditched…

  4. martyn says:

    Shame the can’t agree that their beliefs are a nonsense too.

  5. Joe Otten says:

    Terrifying. It would be better to keep the blasphemy law than replace it with one that might actually get used.

  6. The speech is quite an impressive example of qualifying everything one says so heavily and at such orotund length that the meaning becomes (perhaps by design) hopelessly obscured. Sort of ‘It may possibly be not entirely beyond the scope of the ordinary or familiar forms of reasoned debate to suggest with all due caution and restraint and concern for the implications of the thought that conceivably it might under the right circumstances be not hopelessly futile to ask the question whether – ‘

    He’s good at it, but what a thing to be good at.

    Not surprising the Times wasn’t sure what the hell he was driving at.

  7. Tim Jackson says:

    It really is absolute nonsense isn’t it? You have to ask what the point of him opening his mouth is if his meaning is so opaque. Is he trying to communicate or trying to avoid saying anything that he may have to justify? What a useless Archbish he is.

  8. Tim Atkinson says:

    He’s frightened, pure and simple. This verbose, meandering over-diplomacy is fear. He is afraid to simply come out and say what he wants, quickly, clearly, bluntly. And that is the keynote with this man. He is afraid. He has been afraid since the very beginning, when he backtracked over the gay Canon. That was Rowan Williams sewn up once and for all right there and then at the very start. Nothing will change.

  9. [...] said that, the Archbishop’s ability to obfuscate his points to the point of abstraction is legendary – he’s good at making weasly statements that play to the faithful but give him an Out. I had [...]