I constantly wrestle between feeling/being offended or offending somebody vs the right to free speech. At times, it feels that we are all walking on eggshells all the time. No matter what one says is probably going to “ruffle someone’s feathers.” On the other hand, no one is likely to volunteer to be on the receiving end of hateful speech. I do not have a solution or definite answer. Speech must be evaluated within the environment and context is being used. I can only offer my opinion and hope that no one will be “offended” by my words. And yet, they have the right to feel offended if they so choose it. That is the cost of freedom.
Personally, I work hard at not feeling “offended”; getting constantly offended is a childish way to say I cannot control my emotions. That is not to say that I do not feel insulted, annoyed, irate, and sometimes I deeply dislike the messenger. However, despite all the discomfort that causes me to listen to speech I do not like or agree with, I rather know where the other person stands. It is better to know if they are racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. than thinking you have the same beliefs. I believe when all parties involved know where they stand, they is a small chance to discuss the differences openly and even if you do not change each other opinion’s, it may expand your original ideas and allow you to acknowledge other ideologies. If we were not “offended,” it could mean we are not critical of anyone speech.
Religion can help illustrate how getting offended it is the cost of freedom. In England, in 2008, the blasphemy laws were abolished in England and Wales to protect the Anglican God against any spoken in public or written insults. As vestiges of a more theocratic age, one could have thought their eventual abolition was inevitable. Yet, real change was anything but an inevitable conclusion: while the case was made for progressive reforms, there was a push not to abolish the blasphemy laws, but for their continuation. Ridicule of religion is now being censured by many public figures in many countries besides England, and the existing social climate allows this to flourish.
The last few years have seen religion becoming immune from criticism or mockery in our public spaces, particularly universities, where student union have played the role of moral police. For example, in University College London, the humanist society was sanctioned for using a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed at a bar to promote their sociable events. Around the same time, a humanist society talk at Queen Mary’s was cancelled due to death threats. LSE, students were censured over ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoons and excluded from their own fair a year later over T-shirts. At London South Bank, it was for using Christian imagery of the creation of Adam to advertise their drinks. And at Warwick, it was for using a cartoon of a stick man throwing crosses into a bin. Four-time Olympic medalist Louis Smith was forced to apologize and banned by British Gymnastics for making a joke at the expense of religious practices which many people find ridiculous “offending” those who would prefer to see religious ideas protected and excluded from questioning.
Some people think religions are big and powerful ideas. Others think they are not just absurd but malign like a cancer and block human rational and moral development. Regardless of what we think of them, in Europe’s history, most of the social progress has come from criticizing and mocking their practices. Britain’s free thought benefits and free speech they enjoy today is the results of limiting their control.
Near 70 countries, in 2016, have real blasphemy laws in statute; 43 countries deal with it as an imprisonable offence, and in six others it is a crime punished with torture or the death sentence. Those countries that actually enforce these rules are not places where many of us would choose or want to live. The laws create a totalitarian atmosphere that is completely the opposite to freedom. I would have a difficult time living my entire life without ever expressing my true opinions. This is true for many emigrants from Saudi Arabia and it is true for any other country where the price of freedom is extremely high. Conform, say nothing, never speak your true thoughts. The alternative is pay with your independence, your well-being, or even your existence.
Public authorities, in our liberal democratic society, have an obligation to shield and advance human rights, including our right to freedom of speech. If societies were fair, they would not punish individuals for lawful actions, however offensive they may sound. I am not suggesting that individuals have other obligations, and they must live with their own conscience. It is feasible and necessary in many instances to exercise self-restraint in our own expressions out of politeness, or choice. And in an act of civility we may even urge others to do the same. However, we should never ask the law to enforce our personal values or tastes, regardless of deeply rooted these may be.
As we embark in our journey through life, we have all had our most valued beliefs, identities, or ways of life subject to ridicule at one time or another. When we feel that way, we have more than a few choices. Our obligation as individuals and citizens in a democratic or liberal society is to engage with our detractors and attempt to persuade them to our way of thinking; to learn about their beliefs without persuading them to change their minds; or to ignore it. Then, we move on with our lives learning and accepting that the discomfort we feel is a very small price to pay for freedom.
The same logic could be applied in the US to issues like race. Yet, it is difficult not to have a visceral reaction when racist people are having the time of their lives at the expense of your skin color, for example. Yet, having experienced the dictatorial side as well, I arrive to the same conclusion than the British. I rather be insulted for a few minutes (hopefully) to preserve my right to freedom. This right to freedom can be an extraordinary commodity when you are not born with it.
For me, embracing people that claim to be offended by anything they do not agree with or that they do not like hearing, is giving them the excuse to exclude others that do not think like them, that do not dress like them, that do not look like them. It is telling them that what they think and how they act it is the correct way. Finally, I believe, most people do not state ideas or opinions and ideas to offend others. They do it because they are exercising the right to freedom.