Opinion: Sensitive subjects must be debated

The recent murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent critic of president Vladimir Putin, rightly attracted worldwide condemnation. In the days before her death she was reportedly working on a story about torture and abductions in Chechnya.

Her death, like her work, has cast light on the issue of the importance of a free press and free speech in any coherent, democratic society.

Jack Straw's recent article in the Blackburn-based Lancashire Telegraph about Muslim women wearing veils led to inevitable allegations of racism and the denial of individual liberties.

Having read the article, it appeared to me that he defended the right of women to wear what they choose, but said that he thought there was a legitimate debate to be had about whether the wearing of veils might make positive relationships between communities more difficult.

I don't want to use this column to take sides in this argument, but I am concerned that we are entering into dangerous territory as a society when a topic of debate becomes taboo, even if it is in an area that must be approached with sensitivity and care.

As Voltaire said: ‘I may not agree with a word you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.'

That is why I have always been opposed to attempts to suppress any debate, even if it means giving a voice to extremists, such as the BNP, whose views I find abhorrent.

Those of us who work in the public sector know that tackling racism, extremism and hate, and promoting inter-faith activity and a shared sense of belonging, are central to improving community cohesion. 

Building strong and positive relationships between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods is a communication challenge that takes both patience and skill.

Those communities that are most successful are those that have the most effective dialogue. And you don't have to be a PR professional to know that the most effective conversations involve listening and talking, rather than shouting at each other.

Lorraine Langham is co-founder and managing director of Verve Communications

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