Listen to me: no sensible and well-ordered society can recognize a right to be free from offense. It's unprincipled and mercurial, a celebration of the rule of subjective reaction over the rule of law. It's an open invitation to censorship-by-heckler's-veto. It chills satire, parody, sharp retorts, hard truths, and uncomfortable revelations. George Bernard Shaw says "all great truths begin as blasphemies" — so where is the room for exploration of truth in a society that lets every entitled group define its own blasphemies and demand that everyone avoid uttering them? Going to courts complaining of fee-fees is no basis for a system of government.
Why the mini-rant? It's because today, courtesy of Ophelia Benson, I learned of a loathsome example of the assertion that we all have the right not to be offended, and an illustration of how it can be used as a weapon of suppression. The Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London has a Facebook page, and on that page they posted a picture as part of an invitation to a party:
Today, they were sent a message by a student union offical. The message, I’m told, is confidential and so can’t be reproduced here, but stated that ‘a number of complaints’ had bene made about the use of the image – partly because contrary to Islamic teachings it depicts the Prophet Mohammad, and partly because it depicts him around alcohol. The union then told the atheist society to remove the image immediately and inform them once this had been done.
The AHSH has put up a petition soliciting defense of their free expression. By contrast, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association (AMSA) has attacked not only the cartoon but blogs commenting on the incident, asserting that the SHSH has "confused freedom of speech with the freedom to insult":
Numerous Muslims wrote in their individual capacities to the UCL Union, complaining of this depiction of Muhammad, citing grounds of religious offense. The UCL Union in turn contacted UCLU ASH and asked them to remove the cartoon from their Facebook page. The UCLU ASH has refused and an e-petition has also been set up by them to “Defend Freedom of Expression at UCL” with particular reference to this debacle. Additionally one individual has written an account on his blog of this debacle. This blog, entitled “Atheist Face Muslim-led censorship from UCL Union” has now been linked to the UCLU ASH Facebook page and has thereby become widely available. The blog itself has purposefully included another twelve panels depicting Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both) in scenarios such as comparing twitter followers, playing music at an “open mic night” and sleeping in the same bed together. The UCLU ASH has publicised the entire proceedings to such an extent that Richard Dawkins has recently made a post on his website, commenting on the issue. No doubt, it won’t be long before alas, the newspapers get a hold of it.
The AMSA grudgingly concedes that bloggers are within their rights to comment about the incident, but asserts that the ASHS should have been bound by the feelings of others:
In this particular case, when at first the cartoon was uploaded, it could have been mistaken as unintentional offense. When certain Muslims voiced their offense over the issue, for any civil, well-mannered individual or group of individuals, it should then be a question as to the feelings of others and the cartoons should then have been removed.
The AMSA is contemptuous of the notion that the images are satirical. To them, expression is only satire if it elevates discussion of which they approve:
When examined however, it is clear that these cartoons are not satirical in the least. Satire is characterised by the bringing to light of vices for the purpose of initiating reform within the individual or group of individuals who are satirised. Was this the purpose of cartoons with Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both) lying in bed together, or comparing the number of twitter followers they have? It is clear that the purpose of the cartoon panels is not to initiate serious discussion regarding the holy founders of either religion. The cartoons only have one purpose-to mock and deride and poke fun. If Christians or Muslims take offense at this, it is not for Atheists to rejoinder with “they could offend only those actively seeking to be offended”. It is not for Atheists to decide what will or will not offend believers of different religions.
Finally, after repeatedly disavowing the label of censor, AMSA advocates official censorship:
It may be however that the UCL Union is within their rights to request the UCLU ASH to remove the cartoon. The UCLU ASH is a branch of the Union and as such must abide by a particular code of conduct set out by the Union. It should be remembered that an act must be judged by its intention. It is obvious that the purpose of these cartoons is not to initiate discussion or reasonable criticism of Christianity or Islam but to insult and poke fun at. If the Union therefore judges this action as being deliberately hurtful and asks the UCLU ASH to remove the cartoon, it may be that UCLU ASH does not have reasonable grounds to resist. The Union must look to the sentiments of the whole of its student population and, being a branch of the Union, the UCLU ASH must abide by that decision.
Listen, I bid you, to the classic apologia for censorship, suitable for both majorities and minorities: officials ought to hear the people and yield to their feelings in determining what speech is permitted.
A student union is a fair distance from a national government. But there is substantial risk that more governments will yield to pressure to adopt the notion that there is a right not to be offended. Moreover, there is a real danger that the concept will infect the culture to ridiculous and lamentable ends. And it's not only people drawing Mohammed at risk and not just Muslims the potential censors — the array of potentially hurt feelings ranges from the controversial to the sublimely ridiculous, and the vast majority of the potential censors are "us," not "them."
For free people, for decent people, for self-respecting people, the remedy for offensive speech is more speech — whether that responsive speech be calm and reasoned or be a rhetorical kick in the nuts.
By the way, nothing I say should be interpreted as suggesting that the mere expression of offense is censorious. It isn't. It's more speech. Its fairness may be debated, its accuracy may be questioned, its underlying principles might be probed, but saying "that was offensive and you're an asshole" is not tyranny. If you think it is, you're an idiot.
Edit: To be clear, though I think the AMSA statement supports censorship, they were not the source of the demands that the picture be taken down, apparently.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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