Freedom To Offend; Freedom To Be Offended

file0001964396712_smallThere have been some horrible events in France recently.  In short, in case you’ve been living under a rock without access to Wi-Fi, some gunmen took offense to some cartoons.  They decided that the proper response was to kill the cartoonists – and anyone that stood in their way.  While the world mourns the dead, it has also opened up a very important question:  Is it right to offend people?

I’ve heard from various people, most recently the Pope, who say that you shouldn’t offend other people’s religions.  That those things should be held sacred and not poked fun at.  However, I think being able to ridicule is an integral part of free speech.  Suppose we accepted that you couldn’t belittle religion.  Where is the line drawn?  Can I say that Jesus wasn’t the messiah because I don’t believe he was?  Or am I forced to be quiet because that might offend someone who believes he was?  Can someone who thinks Jesus was the son of God say so or must he remain silent just in case he offends those of us who don’t believe that?

Furthermore, what about scientific advances that move explanations from "God did this" to "here is a detailed scientific explanation as to how this happened"?  Should all research on the beginnings of the Universe be banned because the Big Bang Theory, and all the evidence in favor of it, offends those who think the world was created 10,000 years ago?  Should any fossils be crumbled into powder lest they offend by their age?

As you can see, banning anything that might offend someone’s religious sensibilities turns into a quickly widening circle.  You wind up banning everything.  The only alternative seems to be picking and choosing which religions (and subsets thereof) are "important" enough for protection from offense.  So maybe Catholicism is deemed worthy of protection, but Buddhists are declared fair game.  (Fat jokes in 3… 2… 1…)  This doesn’t seem like an equitable arrangement at all.

So let’s say we allow for people to make materials that offend other religions.  Does this mean we’re not allowed to be offended?  Of course not.  I’ll be the first to admit that I get steamed if people joke about certain things.  If you laugh about how you’re "retarded like an autistic kid" you’re going to get an earful from me (or at least a stern glare).  By all means, get offended when people say things you don’t like.  Just like they have a right to offend, you’ve got a right to be offended.  The key is in how you express your taking offense.

The ideal way to express your offense is with words.  Tell the person just why their action offends you.  If the person is working off of a misconception or is being offensive due to ignorance (for example, perhaps not knowing how offensive a word like "retarded" can be), talking with them can inform them.  If the person knows exactly why they are offending, at the very least you can begin a dialog.  If the person doesn’t care to start a dialog and just wants to offend for the sake of offending, you can at least bring up counter-arguments to other people who might fall under the first two groups.

If words alone don’t work, peaceful actions can.  Organize protests and marches to show the support for your side.  Keep the protests peaceful and your message will come across loud and clear.

The operative word in that last sentence, of course, being "peaceful."  Nothing distracts people from your counter-message like violence.  Attempting to hurt or kill those who offend you is a sure way to lose the argument before you begin.  Yes, you might silence one person, but dozens – if not hundreds – more will take that person’s side  in sympathy.  What’s more, you don’t have the right to threaten and claim it as free speech.  Saying "I’ll kill you if you don’t shut up" is not presenting your side of the issue.  It’s attempting to stifle a person using the threat of violence.  Rightfully so, it’s illegal.

Protecting a person’s right to free speech – including their right to offend – is rarely easy.  There are many times when I wish I could just say "free speech for everyone except this group – they’re too icky."  As a pastor once pointed out, people in Nazi Germany supported taking away certain "undesirable" groups’ freedoms bit by bit because it didn’t affect them.  When their freedoms started to get removed, however, they found nobody willing to speak up in their defense.  Were I ready to sacrifice the freedom of speech of some groups because they’re "icky" or "offensive" or "loony", I’d be setting a dangerous precedent that would more than likely spread to include my own free speech.

My general mantra when it comes to rights comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:  "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins."  So I can say whatever I like so long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.  Hurt, in this case, meaning causing actual physical harm or egging others on to do physical harm.  Offending people might hurt their feelings, but I doubt anyone is going to claim that we need to be nice to all people all the time.  If your response to my offensive speech is to hurt me, your swung fist has not ended where my nose began (possibly literally).

The Freedom To Offend and The Freedom To Be Offended are two sides of the same coin.  So long as people are peaceful about it, offending and responded to offenses can open up dialogs, clear up misconceptions, or challenge long-held – but perhaps no longer relevant – beliefs.  It can break down and improve upon the status quo.  Taking those away would cost society – and all of us – dearly.

NOTE: The image above, "screaming mouth open" is by EmmiP and is available from MorgueFile.