The War on Personal Offense
There’s a lot that could be said about the attack on Paris-based satirical publisher Charlie Hebdo. It’s a horrific demonstration of Islamist barbarism. It’s also provided opportunity for western outlets like the New York Times to demonstrate their warped priorities and edit their own stories that accidentally reveal too much truth, and to cravenly refuse to print the Hebdo cartoons that so riled the terrorists despite their obvious newsworthiness.
These are important topics, but I won’t be addressing them here. Others are doing so quite well already. I want to focus on another aspect of the story, and that is its place in the liberty threatening war on personal offense.
Free speech is a required ingredient for a free society. It empowers citizens to be a check on both government and other social institutions that might overwhelm the individual. Through communication, individuals can combine their dispersed power to become a potent collective force.
The obvious threat to free speech is government, protection from which being secured by the First Amendment. But government is not the only threat. As much as there is a legal and protected right to free speech, there must also be cultural respect for free speech. And that means recognizing the value in letting others speak and be heard, even when you don’t like what they say. That doesn’t mean ideas cannot be criticized, merely that the exercise of speech should be respected and honored.
Unfortunately, there are strong currents developing aimed at devaluing speech. That they are cultural currents and thus do not implicate the First Amendment make them no less troubling, or the threat no less serious. The core of this threat is the growing belief that individuals have a right not to be offended, discomforted or otherwise upset by the speech of others.
And like most bad ideas, this one seems to be emanating most strong from universities, where a new generation of students insists that respect for feelings is more important than respect for speech. For instance, the University of Iowa pulled an anti-racism display because it featured newspaper coverage of racial tension and violence over the last century on a klansman sculpture. UI’s School of Journalism director even said that, “If it was up to me … I would follow the lead of every European nation and ban this type of speech.”
It’s not just administrators and eggheads, either. Students are often times leading the charge to censorship. Michigan State University students demanded that George Will be disinvited as commencement speaker because he wrote a column about the college victim culture and the absurdity of “micro-aggressions.” When students fail to prevent hearing thoughts they don’t like, they heckle and scream to drown out the speaker and ensure no one else can hear them either. It’s not just the US, either. Stepford students are busy halting dialogue and preserving their hugboxes in the UK as well.
These are deeply disturbing trends of which I’ve only just barely scratched the surface. It’s disturbing because valuing comfort over the give and take of ideas first leads to stagnation as militant orthodoxy prohibits new ideas, and then eventually to oppression when majority views are no longer able to be challenged.
For free speech to have any meaning, there must be a right to offend. And for it to be effective, the right to offend must be absolute.