On Offense

This is an interesting read, “In defense of the right to offend”: interesting, but I think ultimately it misses the point.

The issue of religious offense was run through the press quite frequently last year, what with the Danish cartoon fiasco, questions over the deportation of some of the more unfavorable elements of Islam, the attempt by Christian Voice to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the BBC and – more recently – with the school teacher tried for blasphemy for naming a bear ‘Mohammed’. In each case, the issue has not been so much about the limits of freedom of expression, but the extreme reaction by the religious to otherwise innocuous actions. In each case, the defining characteristic has not been any intent to deliberately offend, but the willingness of the religious to be offended.

Richard Dawkins has frequently come under attack by the religious both in the UK and the USA over his (excellent) book, “The God Delusion”. He has been accused of being crude, shrill and offensive. But, as Dawkins has frequently pointed out, The God Delusion is less shrill and less crude than the average political pundit on morning television, or the average restaurant review or hostile stage review. However the religious – having only addressed the arguments they think Dawkins has put forward, whilst utterly failing to address those he actually has – can always rely on that old canard “offensive”.

There is something about the offense taken by the religious that appears – to me at least – to be somewhat disingenuous. Offense is a useful tool: no-one wants to be considered so guttural as to deliberately offend someone; it’s just not seemly. But this puts an enormous amount of power in the hands of the offended. If Muslims are “offended” by (largely fabricated, incidentally) the “Danish cartoon” then no-one in the UK will reprint them for fear of causing “offense” (or is it actually, “for fear of violent reprisal by the offended”). This has a chilling effect: no-one in the UK could read an honest assessment as to whether the extremist Muslim case was reasonable or not as no-one was allowed to see the cartoons! The only benchmark we had to go on was “Muslims consider pictures of the prophet to be sacrilegious”.

By doing this, the extremist element within the Islamic community gained a massive coup over the press in the UK and elsewhere in the world. By using both a posture of “offense”, and by using threats of violence, the islamists succeeded in both getting the Prime Minister to agree that there are limits to free expression and to get column inches dedicated to “how much offense is too much?”. Scant mention was made as to the legitimacy of the criticisms of Islam that were in the cartoons. Criticism of that aspect of Islam was suddenly off the menu.

The Christian Voice used a similar tactic recently with the production of the show, “Jerry Springer the Opera” (a superb masterpiece of satirical modern opera incidentally; I saw it three times!). When the show announced that it was to start a tour, moving out of the West-End of London, the Christian Voice wrote letters to innumerable candidate venues threatening to picket their theaters and to bring private blasphemy lawsuits against anyone who dared put on the show. With the blasphemy laws being so bizarre in the UK few theaters knew whether they defend a credible case, but could not run the risk. After a brief stint in Brighton, the show closed. Even though the private prosecution against the BBC and the show’s producers eventually failed, the Christian Voice had made their point: don’t offend the Christians. The religious dictated what could or could not be shown on theaters, because the religious and only the religious know what they will find offensive.

The most ridiculous case recently, of course, was the case of the British teacher in Sudan who “insulted Islam” by naming a teddy bear, “Muhammed”. The absurdities surrounding that case are multitude, but the core message by the extreme religious element was, “we define acceptable behavior”.

In each case of religious offense the religious seek to narrow the boundaries of what is and is not “reasonable criticism” to the extent that the concept of “reasonable” criticism has itself appeared to become reasonable. But the idea of “reasonable” criticism is inherently not reasonable. To assume that any idea that offends a religious sensibility should not be stated is to give the whole area of “legitimate expression” over to the religious, or anyone with palpably unreasonable ideas. If a cartoon depicting Mohammed is offensive, then what’s to stop the claim that any “graven image” is offensive? If a bear called Mohammed is offensive, then why not any bear name? Who gets to define what is and is not reasonable criticism? If it’s the religious, then no criticism is safe from accusation of “offensive” or “unreasonable”.


12 Responses to On Offense

  1. faithcatalyst says:

    This was a fun article, I must come back here more often. Obviously I stand at the other end of the world but it’s still fun listening to the opposition!!! You’ve obviously got some good targets and I would agree with you on most of them. A tad lacking in discernment about The God Delusion from my perspective but, hey, it’s a good talking point. I confess to being one of your “the religious” (of the Christian kind) but you can be as offensive as you like if that helps, but then not everyone might think the same. This didn’t actually appear as offensive as it could have been so I quite appreciated it. I am collecting these ‘targets’ but how about some new ones that Richard missed. Looking forward to reading you more in the future. Thanks for writing.

  2. Z-Lo says:

    You are right that religion is misused for political goals – that is not new. And you are right that there are interesting parallels between the various cases you mentioned. You drew them together on the basis that they were all about ‘religious offense’. But I would argue that there are nuances to each case that make a discussion limited to this one theme problematic.

    The danish Muhammad cartoons issue is a turning point and, I believe, one of the major events of our generation. The issues you mention and many others can only be properly understood with the cartoons as a backdrop.

    Firstly, I must take issue with statements about the necessity for newspapers to publish them to show people. I found them online like that *(snapping fingers), and I’m sure you did too. And copious attention is given to “the legitimacy of the criticisms of Islam that were in the cartoons” and more.

    But Muslims are not part of our society like Christians are, and this raises some issues in comparing them. We, firstly, have relatively scant understanding of their religion or society beyond vague impressions – many of which are unbalanced. Second, that they are not part of our society makes criticizing them a very different issue than criticizing Christians or Christianity, which are. Lastly, as a group, they are in a relatively precarious social position, which makes them far more sensitive to an attack that to us may seem trivial. This is obviously not true of Christians.

    Thinking of Muslims as a society rather than just a religious group helps. Some more devout than others, but they share a common sense of identity. Sure, the cartoons were not offensive to us, and it is hard for us to imagine how they could be. But that is where the tolerance of the West failed: we failed to understand the nature of the offense. We don’t have anything in the West to compare to the proscription of images in Islam, so people wrote it off as a ‘taboo’. Further, what does the prophet mean to Muslims? Muhammad could be understood as a concept that is central to Islamic society and even the individual’s identity. It may be hard to find a parallel in Western culture to help put this in perspective, but that is why cultures are different. The social implications of the cartoons, supported by the West as a whole was an affront to Muslim society, and this cannot be overlooked. The unity of newspapers, politicians and populations must have been terribly intimidating.

    This is the topic of my master’s thesis, and I find it endlessly fascinating. Please look at my blog which includes this and other topics as well 🙂

  3. armchairdissident says:

    Z-Lo: The problem I see with your response is that it must inevitably raise the question of Muslim integration within Western societies. If the problem, as you suggest, is that Muslims are not part of our society like Christians are, the question then becomes, “How do they become part of our society?” Is there something about Islam that means that Muslims can never be a fully integrated member of Western societies? Whilst there are certainly fundamental value differences between, say, Britain and Saudi-Arabia, is this because Islam is incompatible with British society? Or is it because the interpretation of Islam by the Saudi authorities is fundamentally incompatible with British society.

    One of the questions is, “who is taking offense?” Take the issue of Jerry Springer the opera. One organisation took offense at the play, and sought to shut it down by fair means or foul. That organisation was ostensibly a Christian organisation, but would it therefore be right to say that Christians as a whole were offended, or would it be more correct to say that an extremist group of christians were offended.

    The same question should be asked with the Danish cartoons, or the Sudan bear, “Who is actually offended?” Were all muslims in Britain offended because the Muslim Council of Britain says so? Or is it an extreme group of Muslims who are offended? I would argue that it’s the latter. Some might have found them distasteful, much like I find the Archbishop of Wales, or Tony Blair, distasteful, but distaste is not offense, and certainly not reason for censorship. But if I’m right, and it’s purely the extremists who are offended, then we are essentially going to be setting public policy through the lens of extremist religion, and that is bad policy.

  4. armchairdissident says:

    Faithcatalyst, glad you popped by, and glad you enjoyed the post. I’d be interested to hear where you thought my comments lacked discernment on the God Delusion; maybe I could address some of those issues in a future post 🙂

  5. Z-Lo says:

    I like your thinking in general. But I do not think that it was only extremists who were offended. This is one of the major aspects of the issue that caught my attention: the alienation and outrage expressed during the events surrounding the cartoon crisis are not limited to extremists. The scale and scope of the Muslim response was what revealed this to me. Also, protests were not limited to violence – Wikipedia calls the boycott of Danish goods in the Middle East one of the largest in history. To say that only extremists were offended is to label a huge number of Muslims extremists – which, I might add, many nowadays seem more and more willing to do. Of course it would also be ridiculous to say that all Muslims were offended when there are so many billion of them – there are certainly some who never even heard about it.

    You are right, it does raise the question of integration. I do not believe that there is anything about Islam that means that Muslims can never become fully integrated members of Western society, and I never meant to imply that I did. There are many Muslims who are perfectly integrated.

    Our society, though now overwhelmingly secular, is based on Christian roots. So to criticize Christians is in a way self-criticism. But in this time of high tension between Islamic and Western societies, criticism of Islam cannot be understood as similar to criticism of a movie or a book or a politician. Or Christianity or Judaism. In addition to this context, there are other groups which are integrated whose identities and sensitivities we are familiar with and generally respect (at least we know where to draw the line). With this in mind, claiming ‘free speech’ and the ‘right to offend’ itself can be offensive – even to me :]

    It is in many ways akin to the issues of Blacks in the U.S., though different in that it is unrecognized as such. Try considering ‘criticism’ and ‘offense’ in that context. Trying to understand the Muslim point of view requires some mental flexibility for a Westerner, but we are asking Muslims to understand us as well, so we can at least try. It is not just about trying to understand Islam, but about their social position and experience.

    These elements are essential in understanding the cartoon issue, and I think that the cartoon issue is essential in understanding many of the other problems we face today.

    Here is a link to an academic paper I found online that discusses “‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ criticisms of Muslims” and focuses on the UK:


    Keep up the nice blog!

  6. armchairdissident says:

    There are two issues here: one is criticism of people lumped with the designation “Muslim”, and the other is criticism of religion itself.

    It is a highly unfortunate side-effect of the press that the term “Muslim” has come to mean both “a follower of Islam”, and “a person from the Middle-East”. It’s also unfortunate that this is a linguistic tradition that appears to have gone back to when the British empire consisted of “moslemen” and “christendom”. Them, Us.

    If the criticism of Muslims is code-speak for “dem damned foreigners”, I think I would be inclined to agree with you, and I can see that it is often difficult to separate out puerile racist commentary from religious criticism.

    Religious criticism is legitimate. I will always maintain that criticising someone’s belief system should be no-holds verbally barred: all opinions into the circle, last man – philosophically-speaking – standing — and that includes my own humanist-atheist-secular philosophy. Cultural criticism is also legitimate: there is nothing inherently racist in stating that the burkha is misogynistic, or noting that circumcising children purely because of their parent’s faith can be harmful.

    Racial discrimination is not okay. Racial profiling on middle-eastern people on the presumption that all middle-eastern people are radical muslims is not okay (and not even sensible for that matter, but that’s a discussion for another day). Presuming that people with middle-eastern origins are radical muslims is not okay.

    So, yeah, I can see the racist argument. I can see that anti-muslim sentiment can just be an expression of racist sentiment: the “muslims do this” angle, inciting feelings against anyone who looks “muslim”; and I must admit I’d not really made that connection before, and from that perspective, I can see how people can become so offended at otherwise apparently innocuous statements.

    That I get. BUT.

    I don’t get the reaction. I don’t get Theo Van Gogh being murdered because he helped produce a film – along with ex-muslim Ayaan Hrisi Ali – critical of Islam. I don’t get why Ayaan Hirsi Ali should receive death threats for her apostasy. I don’t get the idea of a death-sentence being imposed on Salman Rushdie – who was himself raised muslim and turned apostate – for writing a book.

    These events preceded the cartoon case, so they cannot be taken in the context of the Danish cartoons. They were genuine discussions about the Islamic religion and were not racist.

    So, where does one go from there? Yes, there are discussions about Islam that are racist in nature, and these are intolerable. But there are equally discussions about Islam that are not racist in nature, and the reaction to these has been threats of violence by extreme muslims.

  7. Z-Lo says:

    Armchairdissident, I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion. I think we agree after all : ) There are some who maintain a basic level of respect when criticizing another or when discussing, say, religion, and those who do it with a racist agenda. I say ‘racist’ though it’s not always about race – I think we’re on the same page about that. Discriminating against someone for dressing Islamic is different from criticizing religion or culture.

    Now, analyzing extremism, I think it will begin to get really thorny.

    I think your reaction that “I don’t get the reaction” is dead right. I don’t claim to understand it either. Although these acts of violence apparently in the name of Islam are absolutely unacceptable, they are complex in nature. I think you are right because it is necessary to acknowledge first that we don’t understand before we jump to rash conclusions. This is the only valid starting point.

    I think that in the examples you give, the perpetrators can reasonably be called extremists. But labels like that must be used carefully and not dismissively. If it is used to write them off, for instance as ‘brainwashed’ or ‘insane’, it is at that point that they become an enemy that can only be fought with brute force. But what makes all of this so interesting is that it is ideas, complex contexts and culturally determined world views that are at the center. As soon as we stop trying to understand one another, the only thing that’s left is fighting.

    In the examples you give, it was not a precedent, but I believe that understanding the cartoon crisis helps us understand the relevant issues. Many of the sentiments we saw surface there are, I believe, the same. But lines seemed to be blurred between ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ in regard to the cartoons. To me, this helped to illustrate the vastness and multi-dimensional nature of the situation. There are those who commit violent acts, those who support them indirectly and those that share their sentiments but disagree with their methods. Then there are the victims, who are overwhelmingly Muslims themselves. Some may be raised uneducated and with a Kalashnikov on their shoulder. Many have a world view and reasoning that is radically different from ours but is not based on religion alone, just like our world view is determined by multiple factors.

    In conclusion: The question of combating extremism, I think we will find, differs significantly from theological criticism. Islam itself may be a relevant aspect, but the tendency of people in the West to put the two questions into one is something that many Muslims are offended by. This then feeds the alienation and polarity. So we just need to be clear about our purposes and then ask the appropriate questions: How do we combat extremist violence?

    I began this reply intending to make it a short one… oh well : )

  8. Z-Lo says:

    By the way, I’m going to link to your blog on mine – hope you don’t mind..

  9. armchairdissident says:

    But sometimes, Z-Lo, you do also have to accept that some people really are just nuts : )

  10. faithcatalyst says:

    Sory i didn’t reply earlier – been a bit busy. Here are my replies to my comment and your request:
    1. Surplus-to-Requirement Arguing
    An immense amount of this book actually has little or nothing to do with belief in God being a delusion, which is what the title suggests it should be about.
    2. Failure to Distinguish between Principles and Practice
    A lot of Richard’s writing is taking up arms against particular individuals or groups or denominations or even religions, on the basis of things they have said or done which are questionable, NOT on the basis of the specific beliefs.
    3. Aiming for an Illusory Target
    Now Richard in defence mode at the beginning of the book strongly denies doing this, but denial doesn’t stop him doing it. A number of times I have had to say, but we don’t believe that! Every time he sets up an extremist group or an extremist belief, we have to say, but we’re not like that, we don’t believe that, so why bother to say it. But he still does it – again and again!
    4. Ignoring Classical Scholarship
    He uses poor authorities to bolster his weak arguments. Richard studiously ignores an immense wealth of scholarship, men of great learning and wisdom who have researched how the Bible came to be, why it is what it is, and these are men who can be trusted.
    5. Relying upon Liberal Theologians who start from an atheists position
    Richard relies upon liberal theologians, largely from the 19th century who have been subsequently discredited. Anyone who starts from a presupposition that says that God can’t speak or work into His world, prejudges the issue. Reputable scientists and scholars take the evidence in front of them and draw conclusions. They don’t start with the conclusions.
    6. Using only sceptics for his quotes
    His constant use of sceptical atheists to back up his arguments is rather like a socialist going into a Conservative club, entering into a debate with a Conservative member who simply appeals to all the other conservative members to support his argument against the Socialist.
    7. Deriding his fellow scientists who disagree with him
    Richard’s constant deriding of his own colleagues in the scientific world who clearly disagree with him, comes over as just shear arrogance and the exhibition of an utterly closed mind.
    8. Basing many of his arguments on speculation and not scientific evidence
    Richard works on the premise that one day everything will prove what he is now saying. The only trouble is that so much of what he is saying is not based on science – and even flies directly in the face of established science – but is pure philosophical speculation.
    9. Failing to Know the Bible
    Probably the major failure is picking out bits of the Bible that he feels suit his argument and carefully omits the large amounts that run contrary to his beliefs. Those bits he does refer to, he clearly doesn’t understand.
    10. Appealing to the most bizarre use of illogical use of statistics to reach a conclusion
    His use of statistics to prove the impossible is possible must cause many an insurance underwriter to have nightmares.
    11. Having a Dogmatic Approach that is not open to reason
    Although he disclaims this, this is actually how he comes over, as a variety of his scientific colleagues have commented.

    Hope this gives you some food for thought. Thnaks again.

  11. armchairdissident says:

    Hi faithcatalyst, thanks for replying, and thanks for taking the time to write your objections to Dawkins’ book. They are certainly, in general, more interesting than the objections generally penned! I hope you don’t mind, I’d like to use go through this list in detail in separate post – but it’ll have to wait until tomorrow now – I’m currently learning Japanese, and I haven’t done any studying tonight! (I’ve been procrastinating by writing a birthday card for my fiancé in japanese – happy birthday is tanjobi omidetou gozaimasu, apparently!)

    I will, however, just leave one comment: the Aiming for an Illusory target. The problem is, if what Dawkins is attacking is not what you believe, then what do you believe? Do you believe in a god? Is that god a person/an entity? If so, what qualities does that god posses? The god that Dawkins is attacking may not be the god that you believe in, but if that is the case, what god do you believe in?

    Do you believe that Jesus was the son of this god? Do you believe in salvation through faith? In heaven? In hell? If so, then Dawkins has hit the nail at least reasonably squarely on the head. If not, then how many tenets of the christian religion can be removed before the term Christianity is devoid of any meaning?

    I will address your list; you may not like my responses, but I do at least promise I’ll respond to them!

  12. faithcatalyst says:

    I look forward to the ongoing discussion.
    I’m not quite sure about your penultimate paragraph. Let me spread my wares for you to question: Yes, I believe in the God who is described as a whole in the Bible (you’ll need to read and think a lot if you aren’t going to fall into Richard’s pit of misunderstandings that come from absence of knowledge), this God is Spirit (energy with personality and ability to interact with the material world?), this God is utterly good (wow, go for it!) and all wise (ride on Crusader!!). Yes, I believe the evidence points to Jesus being the Son of this God, yes salvation by faith built on evidence, existences after this life with and without God’s presence, yes all of that.
    Richard, I believe aims at the ‘god’ of superstitions, confusions and calamities, and for that he does a good job and we should be grateful. Don’t get me wrong – I respect Richard and think he’s doing a brilliant job stirring up the church like I could never do. His writing is very readable but because it is so speculative and so often lacking Biblical foundation, is deceptive and easily carries away the gullible. Questioners and dissidents definitely needed!

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