Freedom to offend

Like many nonbelievers, I find some aspects of religion absurd, even ridiculous. Sometimes the most appropriate response seems to be satire. I want to ridicule the bastards. If Catholic bishops enable child molestation while prancing around as “reverend fathers,” blaspheme them and their religion. If Muslim leaders demand obsequious respect toward their ignorant prophet, draw and publish Muhammad cartoons.

Now, if pious and upright people get all pissed off at this, that doesn’t overly bother me. In fact, that’s partly the point. I want it to be known that their sacred cows are their sacred cows. I do not want to have publicly available speech be overly constrained by their piety.

Naturally, that’s an impious point of view. In response, it’s no surprise if many religious people seek to reduce their exposure to offense. We then get a debate over free speech, and nonbelievers often defend a right to blasphemy. We say that only individuals have rights, not ideas or communities. And among those individual rights we recognize, we do not include a right not to be offended.

I’m not entirely satisfied by this. I don’t think those of us who want to blaspheme every now and then have adequately articulated reasons to have an expansive view of free speech in the public sphere—reasons that may appeal to people who see nothing wrong in contemplating limits to liberal individualism, or who recognize offense as a real harm that perhaps might generate legitimate claims for protection. (Sometimes, as with myself, these may be one and the same conflicted people.)

I find the bare assertion of rights especially unhelpful in this context. After all, it just raises the question of why there shouldn’t be a right not to be offended. You just legislate it—many countries have laws against publicly offending religious sensibilities—and there it is. Defenders see such laws as morally appropriate and of practical use in preventing strife between communities.

Even if someone is not willing to endorse a legal right of this sort, they may still support informal sanctions against blasphemy. Many liberal-minded people, for example, thought that the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons should not have been published. They did not want any explicit legal restraints against publication, finding the apparatus of official censorship distasteful and dangerous. Yet they also thought the cartoons were a terrible idea and that they should not have seen the light of day. In effect, they preferred a kind of internal censorship, a moral knowing of the boundaries.

So, do we have an argument for why, socially speaking, freedom to offend might be a good idea? Indeed, can we defend the actual offense we cause and further offense we propose to allow? After all, we don’t want to install internal censors and let freedom of expression become a dead letter.

I guess one possibility is to say that we don’t need an in-depth defense. Freedom of speech is a basic freedom, and it includes offense. If someone wants to compromise freedom, there’s nothing to do but rally freedom-loving people and fight for your rights.

That doesn’t work for me. “Freedom to do what?” seems a legitimate question. And the desire of religious people to be free from offense has some resonance with me. I don’t usually want to piss people off, and I have to ask myself if I can find some overriding reason or if I’m really just being an asshole. I also distrust notions of fundamental, nonnegotiable principles, whether freedom of expression or anything. I see too many conflicting claims to balance, too many possibilities for adjustment and compromise. I’d like, at the very least, a clearer picture of what we’re trying to accomplish by demanding and exercising a freedom to offend.

In my case, I would have to start from a familiar institutional context where freedom of expression has a fairly straightforward rationale. In an academic environment, where I teach, it’s reasonably clear what we’re trying to achieve. In our teaching and research, we are supposed to be engaging with the best scholarship we can. This means our interactions with colleagues must involve debate, skepticism, consideration of rival points of view, and the understanding that what we say is open to challenge. Now, universities have other purposes as well: producing graduates with good employment prospects, bolstering the local economy, creating applicable knowledge that corporations and militaries can exploit, transmitting a cultural heritage, etc. etc. All of these can and do generate pressures that conflict with free inquiry and expression. Still, by and large we manage to uphold some approximate ideal of free expression. It’s still sometimes possible to shame university administrations to back down if they interfere with expression too heavy-handedly.

But even if we were to take an idealized academy as a model of free speech, we see that freedom of expression and inquiry is not a free for all. For example, there are status differences. In my classroom, I will treat things like quantum randomness and biological evolution as established knowledge. If a student objects, that is fine. I like discussion. But I run the show: I decide on how much time we spend on such matters, what I will more extensively explain and what I will take for granted, and how all this fits into the picture of present physical knowledge I hope they will come to grasp. We have institutional mechanisms in place that differentiates between an exchange involving a novice and an expert, and a debate between colleagues. And even debates between colleagues are highly structured, involving all sorts of scholarly apparatus. In some ways, our academic speech is highly restricted—the idea is to have structures in place that enable productive debate. “Freedom of speech” means very little if a creationist student wants to use my classroom as a soapbox, or if an intelligent design proponent objects when I recommend against publication of his paper I am refereeing.

Furthermore, even in an academic context, we have to give some weight to non-academic considerations. For example, I occasionally like to stir up public controversy on campus, and I’ve invited creationists to speak. I would not do the same by inviting a racist to speak about, say, his claims about biological inferiority. Both may be examples of highly distorted “science,” but the political context would make the reception of such talks very different. Making an ethnic minority population of students feel at home on campus, and helping them to learn without having to deal with hostility are legitimate institutional interests. I don’t see any problem with accommodating such interests to some degree, even if my first loyalty is to the intellectual purposes of the institution.

So, even in an academic environment, where freedom of expression is vitally important to what we are trying to accomplish, this freedom is highly structured and sometimes compromised in the light of other institutional interests. If we are more realistic and bring in military and commercial desires for secrecy, and community pressures, our departures from the ideal become even more noticeable. So, how would things work in a larger political context, where what we’re trying to achieve is much less clear, and much more negotiable?

One possibility is to say that with democratic politics, free debate and exchange of ideas is nearly as central as in an academic enterprise. There is a point to this, even though I can’t help but be cynical about the degraded, narrow, and generally farcical political debate we are subjected to in the United States. But even in better circumstances, we want substantial debate, not another form of strife. Some formal and informal structures would seem necessary for political debate as well. And it’s notable that many arguments for at least informal sanctioning of blasphemy take the point of view that it is

a kind of speech that is an attack on a community, that poisons the climate at best, and at worst ties into other obnoxious behaviors that can result in excluding members of the targeted community from public debate.

Moreover, in politics, we have other interests in play besides a nice, meaty debate. Peace and public order is one that often comes up. It’s not unreasonable to expect that especially for those parties not directly involved, such considerations would carry some weight.

Now, here I admit I’m somewhat stymied. I can’t come up with reasons to defend offensive speech that could have a broad appeal. There are ways to sanction and discourage blasphemy that fall far short of instituting a heavy-handed censorship regime. There are secular rationales that can be given for this discouragement. So selectively, and usually informally, discouraging blasphemous speech need not lead us down a slippery slope to where we can’t criticize religion in an academic setting or express opposition to fundamentalism in a democratic political contest.

So, at least for now, I have to fall back on some less lofty, very much non-universal motivations. In some circumstances, I find that I favor some offense to fundamentalists and religious communitarians for my own, secular, political purposes. I want to live in a society where there is less religious political influence, not more. I want to enjoy a public sphere where everyone does not tiptoe around pious nonsense for fear of giving offense. Politically, I want more secular views of a good society to prevail, not the vision of traditional religious communities. To that end I naturally want to not just to be legally able to see a cartoon of Muhammad, but to actually have some cartoons of Muhammad around. Pissing off the overly devout may well be, with any luck, a tool that will help some other religious people to become less sensitive, to realize that their notion of the sacred does not automatically command respect in the public sphere. So, even with some reservations, on balance, I end up saying bring on the blasphemy.

Still, while I have my reasons to favor a freedom to offend, this is not the same thing as having a cluster of arguments that can persuade a wider constituency than hard-core secularists. Maybe someone can help me. Or maybe I just have to stick to my political guns and hope my side is more successful.