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”.