Saturday, April 21, 2007

I Want You To Be Offended - I Make No Apology

I skim volumes of information streams and picked up an older but pertinent adaptation of a Salman Rushdie presentation that celebrates the act of being offended. To say that the essay is refreshing is far too pithy a sentiment. This is important stuff - critical for democracy and humanity to persevere.
The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.)

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.
If we cannot have open discourse about the ideas by which we live, then we are straitjacketing ourselves. This is the starting-point of the Enlightenment.

It does matter. People have the fundamental right to take an argument to the point where somebody is offended by what they say. It’s no trick to support the free speech of somebody you agree with or to whose opinion you are indifferent. The defence of free speech begins at the point when people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech. You only believe in free speech as long as it doesn’t get up your nose. But free speech does get up people’s noses.
This was written to protest a British legislation that would allow one religious group to silence another. I mention this because the internet has had a number of incidents to which ham-fisted authorities are attempting to pass laws that criminalize speech that is offensive enough to get up somebody's nose.

For intelligent people nothing in life is more satisfying than the contention of passionate ideas. The intellectual arena is transcendent yet the attendance of thin-skinned individuals in this arena can trigger recriminations that the ideas being discussed are somehow inappropriate, tainted, or illegal. And let's be clear, we are not talking about speech that advocates harmful activity, we are talking about ideas that challenge other ideas.

Today, the anti-intellectuals simply have to accuse someone of being a troll, of being offensive, or of being too strong-willed (a "bully") and discussions can end, reputations slandered, and individuals ostracized as if they are criminals or dangerous no matter how legitimate the conversation may be.

There is an effort that is proposing a blogger's code of conduct that I largely support. But I also support those who have the courage to intelligently ignore the code as well.

Putting our ideas on the line is a sacred act, the breath of God, a spark of humanity that can power our species forward or differently. We can't afford imposed silence, muzzles, or false witness.

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