What's Your Excuse?
The Kindness of Strangers

The Right To Be Offended

Newseum_5_Freedoms_1st_AmendmentLike everyone I know, I was sickened by the news of the attacks in Paris last week.  The actions of Cherif and Said Kouachi are criminal and indefensible.  But I have followed with interest the conversation about free speech that this incident has provoked.  While no one can defend murder, thoughtful people have had a wide range of responses to the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo and to the questions they provoke about how a diverse group of people can manage to live in community with each other. 

Some of the most thoughtful comments I've heard came from Maajid Nawaz who was interviewed this week by Terry Gross on the NPR show, Fresh Air.  Nawaz is the author of "Radical:  My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism", an account of his experience with Islamist groups in Great Britain and Egypt.  When Terry Gross asked him about the Koran's teachings regarding blasphemy, he quickly redirected the question.  The issue for the wider society, he asserted, is not what the Koran teaches about offensive speech or images.  The issue is how to faithful Muslims can live in the midst of a society where not everyone is a Muslim, bound by the teachings of the Koran.  It is important for Muslims, and for everyone else, to distinguish these issues.  Nawaz continued:

And so I don't think the problem here is enforcing Muslims to render nothing sacred in their religion. You know, I'm not offended by these cartoons, but I know many Muslims who are my friends who are offended. And the conversation I have with them is that actually the issue here is you can be offended all you like. What you can't do is insist that others do not offend you. There is a right to be offended. There is no right to insist that other people do not offend you.

The phrase that stuck with me was the "right to be offended".  That is, in fact, what is guaranteed when a country establishes a right to free speech.  What a marvelous way to put it!

The building in Washington, D.C. which most inspires patriotic feeling is me is the Newseum which has the First Amendment to the U. S. constitution inscribed in stone on the front of the building.  I think of the rights defined in that amendment--including the right to free speech--as an expression of our understanding as a nation of how to best live in community.  When I first learned about the First Amendment as a teenager, I heard it as a list of benefits of living in our country.  We get to say whatever we want!  Cool!

These days, the right to free speech doesn't just seem like a bonus.  With the right to free speech comes the right to be offended.  How should we understand that?  Should we acknowledge that positive rights also come with a cost?  Is offense the price we pay for a right that also protects us from tyranny?  

Or could it be that the experience of being offended is an important and valuable part of being in community?

It certainly is an inevitable part.  I have done my fair share of offending the people with whom I'm in community, mostly unintentionally but at times intentionally, in the context of heated argument or failed attempts at humor.  And while I work hard to follow the advice to not take anything personally, I am occasionally offended by others.  These aren't pleasant experiences, but they have often become opportunities for self-reflection and honest, if difficult, conversations which then strengthen the bonds in our community.

One of the songs I learned at the Jewish Day Camp I attended as a kid often runs through my mind:  Hine(y) ma tov u’ma-nayim, Shevet ach-im gam ya-chad.  Look how good and pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity!  It is indeed pleasant to be around people who all agree.  But it is also good to be around people who disagree, who argue with each other and even offend each other.  Why?  Because when we recognize that not everyone thinks what we think, likes what we like or is offended by what offends us, we forced to think critically about things which we may have accepted without thinking.  

Free speech saves us from tyranny--not just the tyranny of a political leader or group who does not allow dissent, but from the tyranny of our own belief systems.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.