OP-ED: Freedom to Offend
If freedom of expression can cross a line then are we truly free to express ourselves? It is commonly accepted that mocking someone’s religious beliefs is unfair and cruel. It is considered an act of bigotry and hate to use a person’s religion against them. There is a sect of the population, generally secular, who counter this with a zero-compassion approach. If you feel uncomfortable with that cleavage, too bad! If you feel uncomfortable when someone says there is no God, too bad! If you think this article is offensive, too bad. Don’t look at the cleavage, don’t listen to the atheist, and don’t read this article. Freedom of expression is not a one way self-defined street. You also have the freedom to listen or not to listen and to dispute or not to dispute another person’s opinion. Condemning one form of expression in favor of another is not freedom, it is censorship. Religion has the benefit of flourishing in a censored society. Religion is so powerful in our world today that it has become a catalyst to some of the most violent outbursts of the 21st century.
Pope Francis made the grand declaration that freedom of speech is fine unless of course it offends a person’s faith. If I were at the Vatican right now and encountered Pope Francis at St. Peters Basilica, the conversation would go a little something like this: “So, Franny let’s say I’m a secular lesbian and a scientist to boot. I’m a gay, evolution-loving atheist. When you say evolution is wrong and “gay marriage” is evil and that offends me, are you not being a total jerk of a hypocrite?” Maybe I wouldn’t refer to the Holy Father as a jerk but you get the point. Of all the people in the world who have faith, shouldn’t the Grand Pontiff of the Catholic Church understand the many facets of faith? I put a lot of faith into my theories and concepts and yet criticizing my empirical evidence is not only allowed, it is celebrated. What about my feelings? Maybe I feel very strongly towards Darwin. Maybe Darwin is my Jesus. If I told a catholic Jesus was a fake and a liar, they’d tell me I was going to hell. When a catholic tells me Darwin was a fake and a liar, what am I supposed to say to them? I’ll tell you what I’ll say: A human with superior traits is eventually going to drown out your inferior gene pool. Both the catholic and I spoke freely, but what I said would be considered especially offensive by today’s norms since religion is protected from such ridicule.
I digress back to my original thought on freedom of expression. If we truly believe in free thought and speech then we must drop the impenetrable guards we have put up. If religion is off the table when it comes to mockery, then my precious science needs to be too along with government, big oil companies, and mass media. We may as well stop speaking freely until we live in an oil spill-laden, Fox News-driven, global dictatorship. That sounds almost as awful as allowing religious dogma to dictate our public policy – oh wait…
I realize what I am saying is teetering on the offensive but I’m only trying to drive my point home. You have the right to be offended and I have the right to offend you. You have the right to dispute what I say and I have the right to ignore you! This is the beauty of living in a global and civilised world. A world where we don’t live in fear to open our mouths. Sadly, not everyone lives in that world. People are born into toxic, violent and ultimately religious environments where violence is a justifiable action. Freedom of expression should never, ever result in a murderous rampage. Dialogue needs to stay dialogue. This isn’t the Wild West.
Getting back to our original dilemma, how can we assess the times freedom of expression goes too far? John Stuart Mill coined the “Harm Principle”, that says actions should only be limited if it is to prevent direct harm to an individual. The underlying idea of the principle is that acts of one person or group should not hinder the free acts of others. Essentially, you can say and act however you want as long as you doing so does not prevent another person from acting or speaking freely. Slavery is an obvious example of a violation of the harm principle, since a slave is not free to act how they choose. Drawing a cartoon of a prophet in the nude however, is not a violation since it does not prevent anyone from doing anything directly. It doesn’t matter if the cartoon isn’t funny, creative or even remotely intelligent. No one should have to die for that.
We have created this global, civilised world through our inability to be satisfied with the status quo. Humans have persevered by questioning ideas and beliefs. If we had abandoned that perseverance in favour of a zero tolerance freedom of speech centuries ago I don’t think women would be able to vote and slavery would still be a booming industry. We are where we are today because we questioned religion, governments and the social norms. We exercised our freedom of speech to reinvent the world. Dialogue, not violence, created our social sphere.
Here’s my challenge to you, dear reader: Next time someone says something you don’t agree with, don’t be afraid to open a dialogue. Stand up for your beliefs and opinions no matter how crazy people might think you are. There’s plenty of apathy to go around already.
- Is a world where everyone speaks freely and no one retaliates with violence realistic?
- Is the freedom to offend a necessary concept for freedom of expression to exist?
- Do you find this article offensive? Why or why not?
- Freedom of Speech. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 April 2008.