When the cartoon show South Park referred to the prophet Muhammad, the producers got perceived death threats, and removed all such references from subsequent shows. This self-censorship prompted a “Chalking for Freedom of Expression” campaign by a University of Wisconsin humanist student group, urging people to chalk stick figures and label them “Muhammad.” Writing to the Muslim Student Association, the group’s president, Chris Calvey, explained, “A free society cannot tolerate violence or threats of violence which seeks to limit our freedom of expression.” MSA VP Ahmed Fikri replied, likening the campaign to “slapping someone in the face,” and urging that it be cancelled, “before resorting to what we feel to be rather drastic measures;” yet asserting “we believe in freedom of expression just as much as you purport to do.” (The campaign was not called off; Muslim students retaliated by chalking “Ali” after “Muhammad.”)
In past times it was pretty much accepted that if someone’s beliefs didn’t match your own, it was OK to burn him alive. Most people today – even most Muslims – no longer sanction this. So that’s progress. But while we mostly agree about the right not to be burned for your beliefs, now many people think there is a right not to be offended. Muslim nations at the UN, in the wake of the Danish cartoon affair, have mounted a big campaign to restrict worldwide press freedom to bar anything deemed offensive to someone’s religion (mainly theirs). (The U.S., I’m glad to say, has steadfastly opposed this.)
Let’s be clear. My freedom to swing my fist stops at your nose. There is a right not to be harmed by someone (absent just cause). But my freedom to speak does not stop at your ears. The difference is that while the pain of a punch cannot be averted, you can choose to ignore words. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Moreover, while the ban on hurtful action is intrinsic to a social contract whose raison d’etre is protection from harm, a ban on speech deemed offensive is fundamentally incompatible with a free society. Because everything can be offensive to someone; and if everyone has immunity from being offended, then there is no freedom of expression. If this seems a reductio ad absurdum, we have actually seen how enforced codes of political correctness on campuses, banning utterances deemed offensive to certain sensibilities, have resulted in promoting monocultures of thought, the very antithesis of the sort of laboratory of ideas that a university should be. Lawrence Summers was hounded from Harvard’s presidency for just such a “transgression.”
Given all the centuries in which untold thousands of dissenters (real and imagined) suffered excruciating death at the hands of religionists, it ill behooves them now to complain at having to endure the “offense” of people being able to express dissonant thoughts. And even if most religionists eschew burning non-coreligionists in this world, still many of them insist we are condemned to burn forever in the next one. How is that not supremely offensive??!
But when one of my own good friends actually says such things, I just shrug it off. I am sick of all this oversensitiveness, the whole “gotcha” culture of finding “offensive remarks.” There’s too damned much taking of offense. It’s like we’re becoming a crybaby civilization, running to mommy in tears, whining, “Johnny said something bad!” And of course most such indignation is actually synthetic rather than heartfelt, which makes it even more nauseating. Most public taking of offense is just a cynical, disingenuous tactic to wrongfoot adversaries. That certainly applies to all that Muhammad umbrage, exploited by some Muslims as a stick with which to beat those they consider enemies. The aggressive Muslim Student Association letter quoted above is a perfect example.
If my blog offends you – live with it.