The Freedom Blog

by Alexandra Tompson

Diversity is celebrated. But there is one kind that we discount. Diversity of thought. People can be different…so long as they think like us. We try to promote understanding of the situation of refugees, women, blacks, Latinos, and Muslims but show no obvious empathy for the bakers refusing to deliver a cake promoting same-sex marriage, or for the conservative Professor getting the sack.

Tolerance is heralded as the bedrock of a progressive society. A noble virtue, indeed. One which sets us towards diversity, inclusion, and equality. Regrettably, this virtue has been distorted into a vice by a myth. An assumption that requires tolerance to consist of neutrality – or even endorsement. No judgments. No ‘forcing’ personal beliefs. No alternative views. ‘To each his own’ – unless you disagree with me. And yet, paradoxically this newly entrenched moral motto is intrinsically intolerant.

To be truly tolerant no longer means to recognize the existence of different views. We must now accept them. The conformist slant of modern tolerance dangerously denies a fundamental human right: the freedom of thought, and conscience. Be it a registrar sacked for refusing to oversee a civil partnership, elderly guesthouse-owners sued for operating a certain room policy, or even a pastor arrested for preaching from the Bible. Examples proliferate. Surely, it is one thing to accept that a different position exists but quite another to be forced to accept it. Wouldn’t that absurdly require each to forego one’s own?

No one should have to choose between one’s profession and conscience. And yet, this is precisely what is happening. Take Ellinor Grimmark. The Swedish midwife is at the center of a years-long legal dispute. Medical clinics in Sweden had professionally blacklisted Ellinor because she would not assist with abortions. Her dream was to bring life into the world. Instead of accommodating her deeply held convictions, the Swedish courts refused to acknowledge that her right to freedom of conscience had been violated. They unmercifully ordered her to pay the authorities’ legal costs. The even darker side of the ordeal is that she is no longer employable in her own country. Given that Sweden suffers a serious shortage of midwives, it is all the more ironic that a competent midwife is obliged to find work in neighboring Norway where she has now delivered hundreds of babies. That’s a 4 hours commute each way. All that hassle because Sweden refuses to respect someone who sees things differently.

Conformist tolerance would have this case depicted as one that pits women’s rights against Ellinor’s. The bold midwife would be denying patients a ‘right’ to abortion. Sweden insists that she simply needs to find another profession. Yet, according to UN data, Sweden has one of the highest abortion rates in Europe. That’s tens of thousands of abortions every year. Given the statistics, Sweden is clearly not devoid of staff willing to perform the act. The only persons whose rights are actually being violated is Ellinor. She is the only one facing a non-choice: violate her conscience or switch profession. Somewhat puzzlingly, a midwife is by definition a person trained to assist women in childbirth.

Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is the cornerstone of individual liberty and explicitly protected under international human rights, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for ‘everyone’. This invaluable Article guarantees one’s right to act according to one’s beliefs, rather than the prevailing orthodoxies.

Our modern society’s embrace of the intolerance of tolerance is worrying. Enforced conformism is used to clamp down on our liberty to act in line with our convictions. All in the name of so-called tolerance. Before the way is utterly paved into a new era of intolerance, one hope lies with the European Court of Human Rights. It urgently needs to shield the virtue of tolerance from its increasingly conformist slant. Ellinor Grimmark’s freedom depends on it. And so does a free and diverse society.

You can learn more about the way the European Court of Human Rights approaches questions in these controversial areas in the ‘Conscience of Europe?’

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