}

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The right to offend


If there’s one issue that people from all over the political spectrum should be able to agree on, it’s protecting freedom of speech, right? Trouble is, while everyone depends on that freedom, we don’t really want our opponents to have it.

The Right rails on about “political correctness” while practicing their own version of repression. The Left tries to cut off debate on whatever it disapproves of. Those of us somewhere between the extremes are left wondering, well, what can we talk about?

The video above, from RT, talks about the United Kingdom’s increasing crackdown on freedom of expression, particularly criticism of religion of any kind. Contrary to popular belief, this is something that affects the left and the right alike.

All Western democracies protect fundamental human and civil rights, to varying degrees, and that includes freedom of expression. In many countries, hate speech is criminalised, meaning people could theoretically go to jail for it. The problem is that one person’s hate is another’s sincerely held belief.

The rightwing is especially loud in complaining about what it perceives as restrictions on its free expression. They point to places, like Britain, where they can’t say blatant untruths about gay people, Muslims, etc., and get away with it. But what about this video:



Pat Robertson attacked atheists and flat out lied about them—he defamed them, spread untruths with an eye toward bringing them into general disrepute. Does he have that right? If all hate speech is banned, shouldn’t this be, too?

I’m old school. I think that the best antidote to hate speech isn’t repression, it’s more speech: Condemnation, ridicule, mocking, refutation, undermining—any speech is fine in response, but repression isn’t.

Still, not everything is okay. I make the same exception that the US Supreme Court does: Speech that presents a clear and present danger isn’t protected. Determining what isn’t protected is the job of our elected representatives who can be turfed out if they go too far, as they often do. However, I do have a rule my mother taught me: You have the right to swing your fist as hard and as wildly as you want, but your rights end when your fist meets my nose. So, you can say whatever you want, but if your speech threatens my life or safety directly, it’s not permitted.

Of course, it’s not easy when dogma must be upheld. Consider a recent story from India: A sceptic discovered that a statue of Jesus in a Catholic church that was supposedly “weeping” was actually just standing in front of a leaking drainpipe, and he publicly disclosed that fact. As a reward for his honesty, he’s had to flee because of death threats and is facing prosecution for “blasphemy”, one of India’s many laws left over from colonial days.

Last Friday, a judge threw out an Illinois law that made it a crime to film/video the police. Under that law, a person videoing, say, their own arrest could be charged with a Class 1 felony and face 15 years in prison—all for holding public employees accountable to their ultimate employers, the people.

What all of these things have in common is that someone—unusually someone in power, or just the majority—wants everyone else to shut up. But no one has the right to NOT be offended and, in fact, freedom of expression means at some point we’ll ALL be offended. So, no one—no church, no government, no police force, no one—should stand in the way of free people freely expressing their opinions on the issues of the day. I firmly believe that if we lose the freedom to express our opinions on those issues, we have no freedom left.

Not only does the right to freedom of expression NOT mean the right to be free from being offended, in fact, in fact it means having the right to offend—or it means nothing at all. If the Left or the Right doesn’t like what we say, well, too bloody bad. It’s our right.

No comments: