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.)