The Right to Not Be Offended


Via the indispensible Arts and Letters Daily, Isaac Chotiner praises Stefan Collini's That's Offensive: Criticism, Identity, Respect, a short polemic on free speech and those who "take offense."

Treating people with respect is a fine goal, but Collini notices that respect tends to be shown with special deference to so-called "out groups." Claims of offense that would otherwise be ignored are instead given credence and even deference. Collini also correctly identifies the people who tend to fall into this trap. Very few "progressive" forces, for example, would have shown any "understanding" of hurt Christian feelings if Jesus had been mocked in a Danish newspaper. The entire force of the argument against the offensiveness of the Danish cartoons was based on the concern that Muslims were somehow less powerful than other religious believers. But this hardly qualifies as an adequate justification for a double standard.

This is Collini's central passage: "Where arguments are concerned—that is, matters that are pursued by means of reasons and evidence—the most important identity we can acknowledge in another person is the identity of being an intelligent reflective human being." And in case this seems too easy or too glib, he adds:
"This does not mean assuming that people are entirely—or even primarily—rational, and it does not mean that people are, in practice, always and only persuaded by reasons and evidence. It means treating other people as we wish to be treated ourselves in this matter—namely, as potentially capable of understanding the grounds for any action or statement that concerns us. But to so treat them means that, where reason and evidence are concerned, they cannot be thought of as primarily defined by being members of the 'Muslim community or 'Black community' or 'gay community'…

The related point, which Collini also touches upon, is that if one decides to criticize a culture or a tradition or a work of art, doing so is not an act of Western arrogance. Criticism is not Western or Eastern or Christian or Jewish, and those facing criticism—and those societies and cultures facing criticism—should respond in a spirit of openness about truth. To withhold criticism from certain communities or religions is, in Collini's word, a form of condescension towards them. It denies these groups the ability to engage in constructive dialogue, and to fortify their own values. In the final analysis, everyone loses.

The issue of how the Scandinavian culturati would react to "offensive" portrayals of Christians isn't, alas, merely a "what if," to which the answer is obvious. In 1998, some religious groups in Sweden objected to Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin's photo collection Ecce Homo, which includes depictions of Jesus dying of AIDS, a transsexual Last Supper, and God hanging out with some leather boys. Pretty tedious stuff.

Despite the niggling fact that the exhibition was displayed in various Lutheran churches throughout Sweden, with the approval of Archbishop K.G. Hammar, the editorial pages bravely united in opposition to those demanding that the photos be removed from what was then still state churches. Almost a decade later, those very same newspapers would upbraid Jyllands-Posten, the Danish daily behind the infamous "Mohammad cartoons," for antagonizing a religious minority. And predictably, following fashionable opinion, Ohlson Wallin denounced the Danish cartoons as needlessly offensive, claiming to see no similarity between her exhibit and the satirical illustrations.

The whole thing, well worth reading, here.