Why I Am Against The Right Not To Be Offended
In September 2015, Barack Obama spoke at a town hall meeting on college affordability in Des Moines, Iowa (). His comment on the debilitating political correctness on campuses aptly summarizes the dangers of baby-proofing people from speech, ideas, and commentaries that might offend them.
“It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn either.”
I concur. This insight extends beyond the context of universities. It applies to all institutions and groups that infantilize people by baby-proofing their feelings from being offended. The price of living in any society is living with difference that’s bound to offend in one way or another. Hell, as Sartre once put it, is other people.
Diversity is the sine qua non of the human condition. And diversity is not a gathering of people singing praise to one another, massaging each other’s personal or supra-personal egos, living in a blissful state of duplicates singing Kumbaya my Lord. Diversity is friction: a ceaseless encounter with the abrasive, offensive, and obnoxious.
My view on “protecting people from being offended” has evolved. And I got to thank my libertarian schoolmates for helping me engage in critical self-reflection on this matter. Though I won’t go on endorsing “the right to offend” (partly because it doesn’t fit my theory of rights: No rights without responsibilities and vice versa), I no longer believe that there is such a thing as a “right not to be offended.”
I particularly detest using the coercive power of the State (which one does if one seeks to legislate against offensive speeches) in order to protect someone or any group from anything that may offend them.
The use of this coercive power is justified when it’s utilised to guarantee the physical safety of individuals. Using this coercive power to guarantee the emotional safety of anyone (be it may individuals or groups) will only lead to the abuse of this power by individuals or groups sufficiently powerful to sway the government to protect it from anything they find offensive.
The likelihood of this dire consequence from happening is quite high because, unlike the attainment of physical safety, there is no objective standard the government can use to appraise whether one has attained emotional safety. The State – all its branches – cannot determine whether a particular policy will guarantee someone from not being offended because emotional states are subjective.
When offending someone’s feeling is a crime, the presumption of innocence of the suspect is either extremely weak or non-existent. The burden of proof shifts to the suspect: he must prove what he said is not offensive. How can he effectively do that when the accuser will keep on insisting otherwise?
If I say that my feelings are offended by X? Can the State effectively butt in and say to me that I am not really offended? No, because feelings are subjective. Any evidence that will be presented to prove that I am offended is bound to be tautological. The evidence of my feelings of being offended is going to be just a restatement of my accusation: I am offended because X is offensive and my feelings are the evidence of X’s offensiveness. Your honor: I am offended, what else do you want to know, I AM OFFENDED?!
The determination of whether something is offensive relies solely on the subjective evaluation of the offended. Thus, enforcing any law guaranteeing the right not to be offended will ONLY lead to an arbitrary, abusive, and dangerous use of the coercive power of the State.
I am not in favour of this particular use of the coercive power of the State; don’t legislate anything that would protect me from anything that would offend my ego – whether my personal or supra-personal one. So go ahead and offend me, but grow a damn spine, and cultivate a stronger stomach, because freedom of speech doesn’t stop with you: be prepared for being offended in return. No one has the right against criticisms, offensive or not.
“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” – Rumi