Offence and Censorship

19 Mar

Right. So this whole offence thing has really got me going.

A person chooses to be offended. It is not the person speaking that gives offence; it is the person listening that takes offence. It is the offendee that chooses to be offended.

For example, if someone disses my mum I’ll probably get offended. But I’ll be choosing to get offended. I could choose to just reply with a witty retort instead, and move on.

To compound the issue, people willfully do not distinguish between attacking a person and attacking an idea. Respecting a person doesn’t mean to say one can’t disagree with what they believe. One can have great respect for a person yet not respect a belief they hold. It’s a very important distinction.

That said if a person chooses to define themselves or their life by a viewpoint, then they will find it more difficult to hear ideas that question that. But it is a level of maturity to which we should aspire if we want to grow both individually and as a society.

I point out the quote often misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

The mighty Stephen Fry has it right in this clip on offence:

“It’s now very common to hear people say “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. “I find that offensive”. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that”, well so fucking what.”

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about this area, said: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Ideas need to be challenged, whether scientific or beliefs or politics. If an idea someone holds cannot stand up to rational and logical criticism then it needs to be reviewed. If it can withstand disagreement then all the better – a true or worthy view will then be strengthened by the process.

In fact free debate is a cornerstone of a pluralistic and democratic society.

Offence and the Religious

To the more specific point: for too long religion has been able to censor debate, free thought, literature and science. From Galileo to Salman Rushdie to Copernicus to Danish cartoonists. Even now it is slowing genuine scientific research that may lead to treatments that stop the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people – such as genetic manipulation or stem cell research – as it goes against their idea of god’s order.

In fact, I have the feeling this is more about power – the power of people to control those around them, to control debate in the public sphere and control how people can say things they don’t like. In the case of established religions, I’ll go as far as to say it’s the cry of a rapidly diminishing power.

On this point I’ll give the last words to Douglas Adams:

“Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.”

(The full text of the speech is here.)


13 Responses to “Offence and Censorship”

  1. eightace May 5, 2012 at 9:21 am #

    hmmm… so there’s some criminal law stuff here: that suggests that we, as a society, recognise that there is a kind of grey area around taking offence. Yes, there’s a bunch of freedom of expression rights, but there is also protection for victims of perceived racist abuse. Basically, if someone feels like they have been racially abused, then they have. It feels like a very subjective thought crime, but I think it makes sense: sometimes it is ok to take offence. And sometimes, it is necessary to take offence in the spirit of the logic (erroneously) usually attributed to Edmund Burke: “all it takes for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.

    • 5i5i May 5, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

      Doesn’t that give carte blanche to someone to silence an opinion they don’t like?

  2. Natalia May 11, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    You have the feeling? Religion, whilst maybe based on good principles to begin with, is “all” about power.
    And I totally agree, our reaction to criticism is entirely our choice, no road like the high road, not to be confused with fighting for your rights.

  3. 5i5i May 17, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Interesting article showing both sides of the debate:

  4. UrbanMuslim November 24, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    I think that if Jews feel offended by that it’s because, in the past, they suffered from anti-semitism in western Europe for a long time and still do in other parts of Europe – sometimes. Once upon a time, it started with words, but then persecution and pogroms, etc. So there is always a fear that things might get horrible again.

    Some Muslims feel offended because since 9-11 (due to the propaganda that immediately followed) they feel like they are under siege. So even when somebody expresses an opinion, even without malicious intent, it does bother them. Then there are certain ring-leaders who fan the flames by saying, ‘look, see, they hate us and want to malign and demonise us.’ And the situation starts to get out of hand due to certain people (with ill-intent) taking advantage of the situation.

    Many religious people are not educated about their faith and have merely an emotional connection to it, may be because they inherited their religion from their parents, which might also be why it is very sacred to them. In fact, from my travels, I’ve found that sometimes religion is part of a person’s cultural identity. That person could even be a ‘disbeliever’ or an atheist (in the closet).

    Also, for most religious people, faith gives hope and patience for circumstances when there seems to be no way out. One need not be religious to have hope and patience, but my point is that faith is very close to a person’s heart. And so they get get hurt when…

    Speakers need to know their audience. If the audience does not understand then the speaker is also to blame. Originally, I did not watch the Tom Holland documentary, but his views are nothing new in the academic world. Within academia there are probably many who support those opinions and also some that have refuted those opinions (and possibly have other views that the public at large has not heard of). What is different is that these opinions have been broadcasted to the masses. And a section of those masses were not just surprised by what they heard but were also not ready for those sort of challenges, especially in these times.

    But then again, when is the right time?
    I do feel sorry for Tom, but I’m glad he made that documentary. In the future, I hope more Muslims will appreciate the documentary even if they do not agree with most of it’s conclusions. In fact, I am confident that they will, one day.

    Some Christians in this country also feel offended at times, but perhaps they see it as nothing new and since the majority of British people are originally from a Christian background they probably don’t feel the same level or type of fear that a Jew or any minority group might feel (regardless of whether they are religious or not). However, they might feel hurt and under attack.

    I think we should have more discussion, debate, but we need to be sensitive and have empathy for each other.

    I do agree with freedom of speech, but I also think it’s not true that ‘…words will never hurt me.’


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