It can’t be morally good to close down debate about that which is morally good

I have previously commented on the furore surrounding the Parkfield Community School demonstrations. You can read my outlining of the key issues here. My purpose in that post was to highlight where the key arguments lie. What were the issues at stake and what were people actually arguing about?

Interestingly, however, there have been new developments. Not specifically in the demonstrations themselves but in the wider reporting of them. On a recent episode of Question Time (below), the question was debated: Is it morally right that five-year-old children learn about LGBTQ+ issues in school?”

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the panel unanimously concluded ‘yes, it is morally right.’ That really isn’t the point at issue here. The panel – as much as anyone else – are entitled to their view on the question. The problem came over what happened next.

BBC Breakfast presenter, Ben Thompson, responded thus:

Sue Perkins – Comedian and former Great British Bake Off presenter – said this:

Tony Brown, BBC News senior foreign producer, said this:

Luke Tryl – director of the New Schools Network, a former special adviser to Nicky Morgan and head of education at Stonewall – wrote in the Guardian:

In perhaps the most startling rebuke to those of us who thought that the fight for LGBT equality was won, in the past week both the BBC’s Woman’s Hour and Question Timehave felt it appropriate to debate the “morality” of discussing LGBT issues in schools.

The Guardian

Here is the concern I have. It is not about whatever position you think morally right. It is the fact that we are being told, in no uncertain terms, that we are not even allowed to discuss the question.

Now, it is one thing for the Head of Education at Stonewall to make that case. I do think it is problematic whenever any group is essentially campaigning for the suppression of what can and cannot be said. I can’t see a case – no matter how heartfelt or sincere – for the closing down of what debate. But a pressure group that exists to advocate for the rights and protection of particular people in society may decide this is a legitimate tactic to achieve their ends. Whilst not agreeing, I believe freedom must extend to their right to campaign for things I don’t like.

However, it is quite another thing to have BBC journalists, presenters and news editors openly stating that this discussion should not even happen. The BBC exists to report that which is in the news (and this issue is in the news). They also have a duty to facilitate relevant debate (and there is a debate going on, whether they like it or not). They are not most certainly not there to proscribe what may or may not be said. Such does not accord with the impartiality rules to which the BBC abides. Nor does it do any great service to journalistic endeavour to facilitate wider public debate. It is one thing to make an editorial decision not to publish something, it is quite another to insist that a debate that is clearly happening must stop.

Nobody is arguing that gay people should not exist and nobody is arguing, despite how several people have presented it, that gay people should have their rights rolled back. The sole issue at question is whether LGBT+ issues should be taught in school or should be left to parents to decide the best way to teach it at home. In fact, the point at issue is even more refined; it centres less on whether this should be taught in school at all and more on whether it should be taught to those as young as five.

The man who asked the question on Question Time clearly thought that teaching about LGBT+ people should exist, but perhaps age 11 would be a more appropriate time. I suspect if you asked a lot of people that same question in respect to the whole area of sex and relationship education – regardless of its specific focus – you would get a fairly similar response. So I’m not even sure this is unique to LGBT+ issues at any rate.

Ironically, those affronted at the thought of this debate even happening, landed on other groups and insisted we wouldn’t have this discussion if it were about them. But that is demonstrably untrue. We have had very public debates about the value of teaching Black History in schools, for example. The National Secular Society (and a few others, I hasten to add) have specifically argued – and contributed to a public debate – on the question of whether schools should teach Religious Education or not. There have been moves in the past to remove all teaching about religion in schools and replace it with PSHE and Citizenship lessons. It is a common enough question in the teaching of history as to whether what we teach in schools centres too much on WWII and the holocaust. The fact is, we have these debates all the time.

This is the nub of the issue. It isn’t where you happen to fall on any of these issues. It certainly isn’t whether you sympathise with the parents protesting outside Parkfield Community School or whether you line up with the Assistant Head at the centre of the row. The issue is that this is another example of something we are being told is not up for discussion. The elites in parliament and the media insist that there are words and discussions that shouldn’t even be on the table. I find that a thoroughly dangerous position.

This is precisely the issue we have faced locally in Oldham. As we discussed on our recent podcast, the constituency in which I live has been one in which BNP councillors were elected. For years, people were told that their concerns were illegitimate and could not be voiced. As frustrations grew and the belief that the elites simply did not listen increased, the BNP exploited the situation. They listened to people’s concerns and offered to do something about them, focusing the blame of their scapegoat of choice. Whilst those who controlled the narrative insisted such things could not be discussed, the BNP quietly and effectively listened and were voted into office. Prohibition on certain views and ideas never eradicates them but merely allows those who wish to spread them to do so effectively without any push back because discussion has been stymied.

Whatever your view on the question of LGBT+ teaching in primary schools, it cannot be right that we simply insist the question cannot be discussed at all. If your concern is equal rights, that must extend to the right of others to question your assumptions, no matter how strongly you feel about it or disgusted you are with their opinion. If your concern is making children reach acceptable conclusions about what is or is not morally right, leaving aside the questions of whether schools should be doing that, in the long-term this approach doesn’t work. If your concern is helping children think through issues they may one day encounter, prohibiting debate is an odd way to go about it.

Perhaps most obviously of all, if you are resting on the right to stymie debate because you don’t like the question being asked, what confidence can you possibly have that one day – should public opinion or the elites who control the discussion be against your view – you will not even be allowed to ask the question? It bears asking, what are we actually teaching our children by insisting that certain things are beyond discussion?