In the previous post in this series I concluded that insulting or offending speech should not be forbidden, and is not a legitimate reason to limit the right to freedom of speech. Such limits are possible in general but should be exceptional given the importance of the freedom of speech. In the current post, I’ll flesh out the argument against limits on offending speech.
Offending speech is a slightly broader category than derogatory speech. The latter can be said to imply the intention to offend, ridicule or belittle, but offending speech in general does not imply this intention. People can be – and regularly are – offended by speech (or actions) that is not meant to offend.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing as a right not to be offended. Such a right would create a duty not to offend. This duty goes much further than the duties normally assumed to be generated by tolerance. Tolerance forces people to abstain from
- interfering with other people’s beliefs or practices
- suppressing other people’s beliefs or practices
- persecuting people with other beliefs or practices.
The focus is on the duties to abstain from actively interfering, suppressing or persecuting (or coercing in perhaps other ways). Tolerance forces us to leave people alone, even when – or rather especially when – we dislike, disapprove of or feel insulted by these people, because only then will we be tempted to intervene. We will not be tempted to intervene with people who leave us indifferent, in which case tolerance and the duties that arise from it are irrelevant.
A presumed right not to be offended can therefore be thought of as an exception to the duties of tolerance. When we accept such a right, we in fact claim that this right trumps some of our duties of tolerance in certain cases, namely in the cases when other people offend us. We should not tolerate offense, and the right to free speech of the offenders (of those who cause offense) should be limited by our right not to be offended. I say “some of our duties” because I don’t think that many people would claim that a right not to be offended should make it possible to go beyond limiting free speech, and should for example allow us to persecute offenders (some Muslims went this far in the case of the Muhammad cartoons).
If we assume that there is a right not to be offended and that this right has the consequences for tolerance which I have described, then we’ll quickly run into some insurmountable difficulties – and these difficulties will be a reason to reject the right not to be offended.
What are these difficulties? Let’s make a difference between active and passive offense. We can offend others by merely having certain beliefs or ways of lives. This passive offense does not result from an intention to offend. Active offense takes place when
- we knowingly and intentionally seek to offend others, by for example making certain derogatory claims about their beliefs and ways of lives, AND
- these others take offense.
If we focus on passive offense, then we must accept that it cannot be in itself offensive or disrespectful to have certain beliefs or ways of lives. Offense should entail the active intention to insult and cause offense. If we do not accept this, then we have to conclude that a right not to be offended triggers the duty to change beliefs or ways of life. And that is obviously outrageous.
Now, regarding active offense, the issues are, at first sight, much clearer. However, the problem is that there is no clear distinction between active and passive offense. It can be part of my beliefs and way of life that I should subject all views to rigorous criticism. And such criticism can cause offense. I know this, but still insist that I should criticize. Hence, I create active offense. A right not to be offended would then imply the duty to change my views and way of life, again outrageously.
Or it can be part of my beliefs that everybody should hear the word of God (my God). This as well can be insulting to adherents of another religion, who consider me to be a sinner, a false messenger leading humanity astray. A right not to be offended would again force me to deny myself.
Another problem with a possible right not to be offended is the fact that everything can be considered offensive by some people. It is impossible to predict what will or will not be considered offensive by someone, somewhere. A duty not to offend would ultimately lead to a duty to remain silent.
So, if offense is to be prohibited, and freedom of speech limited, then the only options would seem to be:
- remain silent
- force people to change their beliefs and ways of life
- force people to be hypocrites.
Any one of these options is a nightmare. And the second one is self-contradictory because the rationale behind the proposal for a right not to be offended is precisely the necessity of respect for people’s beliefs and ways of life.
So it seems that offense and disrespect are a necessary price to pay for freedom of speech and the right to live your life according to you own choices and beliefs. However, this doesn’t mean that offense, ridicule, belittlement and disrespect are virtues. We shouldn’t make them illegal, but they shouldn’t be cherished either. They make it more difficult to have a rational debate on important subjects. They poison the debate and make it difficult to argue and persuade. So there are good reasons to avoid them, even if there are no good reasons to prohibit them.