Taking Offense

When certain Muslims voiced their offense, various others took offense in turn.


Actually I agree with all but the last line of the following excerpt from the  Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association:

“Once a particular act is deemed to be offensive to another, it is only good manners to refrain from, at the very least, repeating that act. In this particular case, when at first the cartoon was uploaded, it could have been mistaken as unintentional offense. When certain Muslims voiced their offense over the issue, for any civil, well-mannered individual or group of individuals, it should then be a question as to the feelings of others and the cartoons should then have been removed.”

Generally I like “good manners”,  but they don’t trump other virtues such as “true compassion”, “honesty”, “genuine humility”,  or even  “self defense”.  Nor is it usually  “good manners” to correct the manners of others (or  at least of those others who have given every indication that they do not want to be corrected and in fact might even be “offended” by it).

But much more significantly, although displays of bad manners always offend me a bit (no matter who is their object, and even though, on another level, I may sometimes enjoy them), what offends me many times more strongly is the suggestion that anyone’s freedom to offend, in their own name and without direct physical harm, be curtailed by any means other than just ignoring them.    

But that might not be quite what’s happening here…

What complicates the situation is that the group posting the cartoon may be affiliated with a larger group that does not want to give offense, and (depending on the actual relationship) that larger group may be entitled to require the cartoon to be removed and is certainly entitled to disassociate itself from whatever opinion the cartoon represents. The larger group also has a right to apply whatever discipline is agreed to on becoming a member in order to enforce this disassociation –  almost certainly up to the point of expulsion of the “offending” members if they continue to associate their offense explicitly with the larger group.

It might even be argued by extension from the above that society as a whole has the right to criminalize the giving of offense to whomever it (society) is unwilling to offend (whether out of fear or just kind consideration),  but  I would dispute this on the grounds that membership in a society is not voluntary for the native born, and although we do of course restrict individual rights on various grounds the mere giving of offense is not and should not be among them.  (And in any case that is not is what is at issue in the UCLU-ASH case.)

In the absense of any offensive demand (as opposed to polite request) from outside the organisation that the cartoons be disallowed,  if it was any of my business then, depending on the context (which I don’t really know), I might (or might not) suggest that they be voluntarily removed from the normal view of those offended. But if the suggestion of real suppression were to be raised, then it would become imperative to me that they remain (whether or not I actually liked or despised them).

Anyone who feels impelled to avoid giving any offense at all should be aware that many such as I are offended by the excessive taking of offense (especially when this is used to excuse violent reaction), and so those who want to limit the giving of offense should encourage all with whom they associate to moderate their responses accordingly. Unfortunately, on all sides, it often seems that those most inclined to take offense are also those with the least scruples about giving it.

At first I was inclined to be offended by the AMSA treasurer’s statement, but on reading it carefully I note that it does acknowledge the freedom to insult as a part of the right to freedom of speech, does not actually claim offense to the author, and is careful to put the request for removal of the cartoon as a suggestion rather than a demand.  On the whole I find it quite reasonable in fact. But I do still think the last line of the part quoted above is wrong.  If it were right then the author should actually remove it because of the fact that, even though I am not offended by it, there undoubtedly are people who are offended. Of course the fact that it offends some people is not, in my opinion, any good reason to remove it (or even, I suppose, to edit it according to this implied suggestion). But if the author wishes to be able to claim self-consistency then leaving it unchanged is not an option.

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