Category Archives: Politics

Should Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?

This debate has recently been taking place in Britain, and in fact Scotland has already made voting a right to be enjoyed from the age of 16 in elections to the Scottish parliament. Wales looks set to follow the example of the Scots, and there are calls for the main UK Westminster parliament to get with the program.

As is typically the case with public debates, the arguments for and against are rarely very good. In fact, they’re frustratingly poor. For instance, on the “anti” side we are told that voting should remain at 18 because 16 year olds lack the necessary life experience (whatever precisely that is). I’m not terribly sure that an 18 year old has vastly more “life experience” than a 16 year old. Moreover, my own 11 year old son has more experience (and educational achievement) than many of the people who are currently eligible to vote.

Not that the “pro” side has been doing much better. According to one popular argument, 16 year olds should be able to vote because they are affected by political decisions. In response I’ll simply trot out my 11 year old again: should he and his friends be entitled to vote because they too are affected by political decisions? And why then stop at 11 year olds? Or, again, apparently 16 year olds should get to vote because they can marry, pay taxes and even join the army! The vast majority of 16 year olds do none of these things, but even if they all did there’s no connection between being able to do these things and getting the right to vote. There are certain things 16 year olds are forbidden to do too. Moreover, perhaps this argument gives reasons for raising the age limit on these things rather than lowering the voting age.

To pop back over to the folks on the “anti” side we see claims that 16 year olds are not mature enough to hold such civic responsibility. The fact of the matter is that some are, and some aren’t – just like those who are 18 and older.

The problem isn’t really with the “pro” and “anti” sides. The problem is that we are using age as a criterion for voting rights, and no matter what age we choose there will be an element of arbitrariness to it. Why choose 16? Why not 17? or 18? or 19? or 20? or 21? There are people in all of those age groups who would be “good” voters and those who are ignorant, stupid, lazy, immature, and so on. Some 16 year olds contribute to society via taxation whilst many over 18 do not (and never have). Some 16 year olds are much smarter than many over 18, and yet some are mind-numbingly stupid. Some 16 year olds have the mental and emotional development of a pre-teen, whilst others have a wise head on young shoulders.

So, what are we to do? If we lower the voting age we’ll have lots of mature and intelligent contributors fully included in civic life, but enfranchise many others who are indeed immature, selfish, undeveloped, short-sighted, and stupid. We could rethink the right to vote entirely and base it on some ground other than age. Perhaps upon reaching some level of educational achievement we might be granted the right to vote. Alternatively, we might link voting rights to one’s contribution to society – in the form of taxation, or perhaps meaningful and sustained charitable work. Both suggestions have problems of their own – neither seems to utterly remove the element of arbitrariness that afflicts the age criterion – and I doubt either will win much support any time soon. I think, therefore, that we are stuck with the age criterion for the long haul. So, which age do we pick? Is there a less arbitrary one?

I would tentatively suggest that the voting age should stay at 18. There are many factors that go into making up a “good voter.” Ideally the person should contribute in some positive way to society. They should be of a certain level of education. They should be a responsible person, well aware of the importance of political life. They should have reached a certain level of emotional and psychological maturity. Now, no matter what age we pick we will inevitably exclude some who meet such criteria and include some who do not. The question is, can we draw a line somewhere that seems to produce the best overall balance. I think that line is 18. At 18 our main education is behind us, we have finished growing up, and are deemed to be responsible adults. From this point on we increasingly have a stake in politics – we get jobs, buy houses and cars, raise children. Of course this will exclude some excellently politically astute 16 and 17 year olds, but we are simply asking them to wait a year or two, and of course they are still free to be politically engaged in many other (often more effective) ways besides casting a ballot every few years. Voting rights will be bestowed upon the reaching of adulthood, just as certain other rights are.

I think 18 years perhaps gets the balance right, so unless there are overriding reasons for reducing the voting age to 16 – and I’ve seen little to suggest that there are – then leaving things as they are is perhaps the most prudent and least arbitrary course.

Stephen J. Graham

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Voting

To ban or not to ban…that is the question…

To ban or not to ban. That was the question facing the artistic board of Newtownabbey Borough Council regarding the launch of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s three-month UK tour of “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)” at the Theatre at the Mill.

The play – which eventually opened on 29th January – had been cancelled because it was deemed to be blasphemous, an offense to Christians, offensive to God, contrary to morality, and much else besides. Of course, the real irony of the ban was that it provided widespread publicity for the play. In fact, before the ban – and the inevitable publicity it generated – only 150 of the 800 tickets for the show had been sold. When the ban was lifted the show sold out within hours, and due to demand more shows are now being planned for Northern Ireland. Define counter-productive. It reminds me of the old Father Ted episode where a certain risqué film was to be shown at the cinema in Craggy Island and the hapless Father Ted and Father Dougal Maguire are sent by the bishop to protest outside – with banners reading “down with this sort of thing!” and “careful now!” Of course, all they manage to do is publicize the play and guarantee a massive rise in audience numbers. Seemingly real life is as humorous as fiction.

The play’s cancellation caused widespread anger in wider society – particularly the arts community – and attracted international attention. Northern Ireland was, once again, some silly little fundamentalist backwater. Most of the reasoning behind the various arguments in favour of the ban related to its blasphemous nature (despite the fact that those who banned it hadn’t seen it), and the offense it would cause to Christians.

[I want to note in passing that the situation is slightly complicated by the fact that the play – like most arts events in Northern Ireland – was publically funded. However, it seems that for most Christians this didn’t ultimately matter – even if the play was totally private it still, according to them, should have been cancelled.]

The issues of blasphemy and offence are tricky beasts, not least of all because they are incredibly subjective. Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” might be offensive to some Christians, but not to others. It’s often a matter of taste, and, frankly, maturity. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the play is indeed blasphemous and offensive to the majority of Christians. Is this good enough reason to ban it? Surely not.

“I’m offended.” These two words are incredibly irksome, not least of all because they are constantly abused, misused and overused. It’s becoming something of a societal creed that we have some sort of right not to be offended. Of course, the correct response to “I’m offended” is, to put it bluntly, “so what?” You’ll survive. The sun will still rise tomorrow. The rain will still fall. Nothing bad is going to happen to you because you’re offended. It would be obscene if we lived in a society where a small number of people could get anything they like banned on the basis that they find it offensive. Given the subjective nature of offence this would be an incredibly dangerous road to go down. I wonder what kind of world these people wish to live in – a nice little toy world full of cotton wool and cushions where everyone is always safe and protected, regardless of the damage to our freedoms? I find that the level of maturity – intellectual and emotional – displayed by a person is inversely proportional to the ease with which they are offended.

Taking offence, as I said above, is an entirely subjective matter. Everyone and anyone can claim anything is offensive, and subsequently demand the corrective of censorship be applied to ease their pain. Laws and policies are at their most dangerous when they are defined in subjective terms as opposed to objective because no one really knows where they stand, and the only boundaries are the ever changing whims of peoples feelings.

It seems to me, however, that calling for bans in the face of offense is ultimately damaging to those who claim to be offended. Take the case of Christianity. When Christians call for bans on plays or publications which ridicule their beliefs they are asking for the machinations of government to protect their beliefs, and this implies that those beliefs are not robust enough to stand in the arena of ideas on their own two feet. Moreover, it looks as if Christians are incapable of rational discussion and persuasion. I can’t remember a single case of a Christian group seeking a ban on something which was anything other than a public relations disaster for the gospel. It all adds to a generally negative image for Christianity. Why couldn’t Christians have taken a totally different approach in the case of this play? Perhaps they could have bought tickets for their non-Christian friends and gone to watch the play with them. Maybe afterwards they’d have an excellent opportunity to chat to their friends about their faith and issues raised by the play. Wouldn’t that have been far more constructive and much less damaging to the public persona of Christianity?

Most importantly, however, allowing freedom of speech for critics and “blasphemers” is a guarantor of free speech for the Christian. Take one other example: a few years ago a number of homosexual groups produced an advertisement linking homophobic attacks to the Bible; while Christian groups produced advertisements linking homosexuality to the breakdown of family life in Britain. Both sides wanted the adverts of the other lot banned. This tit-for-tat scenario means that by calling for the other side to be silenced you are, in effect, risking being silenced yourself by consenting to the principle that crying “offense!” is a good enough reason for censorship. In the case of the Bible play, if the Christian councillors are supporting the premise that they have a right to ban it because they are currently the majority, then I hope they are prepared to gladly swallow their own medicine if ever the tables are turned. A much better scenario is to allow individuals and groups to argue and market their case and allow people to use their own rational powers to decide whose case they support. In other words the only rational and moral solution is to allow everyone to take their chances in the arena of ideas wherein force becomes persuasion, bans are replaced by arguments, and personal rationality triumphs over moral authoritarianism.

With the free speech that is left to us we must shout, scream, rage against the growing culture of inoffensiveness. We don’t need protecting from “offensive” speech, plays, music, or advertisements. And we should not pander to the subjective feelings of thin-skinned, hyper-sensitive souls.

Freedom of speech means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t include the offensive, the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative. As Gareth Crossman of Liberty says, “In a democracy, criminalizing even the most unpalatable, illiberal and offensive speech should be approached with extreme caution.”

Amen to that.

Stephen J Graham

Leave a comment

Filed under Free Speech, Politics