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Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Small Price To Pay

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A recent headline in the British press proclaimed, Archbishop of Canterbury calls for new law to punish 'thoughtless or cruel' words, and related how the aforementioned Archbishop is calling for new laws that will punish “thoughtless and cruel” speech, in an effort to protect religious sensibilities. His “thinking” here is that certain kinds of speech offend religious sensibilities, can intimidate and then silence arguments. In other words he is seeking to limit free speech in order to promote free speech. (?)

In Canada, the Canadian Islamic Conference, the self-proclaimed “voice of Canada’s Muslims” has lodged two complaints with Canada’s Human Rights Commission against Mark Steyn, popular columnist and author of the bestselling America Alone, and Canadian magazine, McLean’s which excerpted a section of that book which details how immigrant Muslims in Europe are literally out breeding native Europeans and within a generation will outnumber them, burying Western civilization in the process as the immigrant wave rejects assimilation, instead bringing their native culture and transplanting it in the West. Heavily researched, cogently and wittily argued Steyn’s work could land him in jail. Apparently in Canada writing anything that could be considered critical of Islam is potentially a “hate crime”.

In universities across the United States speech codes spell out what can and cannot be said, so as to insure that no person or group is offended. Penalties for violating these codes can, under some circumstances, include expulsion. Over the last forty years “diversity trainings” have popped up in colleges, corporations and government, wherein speech is examined for any hint of possible offensive content. If any is found, and not successfully addressed, punishments of varying degrees of severity are meted out. The objective behind these “trainings”, if not the setting is similar to the reeducation camps that sprang up in Vietnam after the War there; those being “reeducated” were subjected to intensive indoctrination into the “correct” way to think and behave. No trials were necessary for those subject to such “reeducation”, just as no specific offense is required for diversity trainings: they’re mandatory.

Which raises the question: What about freedom of speech? This relatively new emphasis on “offense” being a major criterion of what is and is not permissible is, in fact, a major assault on the longstanding Western tradition of freedom of expression established and promulgated since the time of Socrates up through the signing of the Magna Carta and the passing of the First Amendment. Logically, there would not even be a need for the protection of a First Amendment if not for the possibility of “offensive speech.” Freedom of speech only exists to allow each of us to say whatever we want even if someone else is offended by what we say.

There have always been reasonable limits on free speech, of course. You can’t shout “fire” in a crowed movie theater; you can’t libel another person, etc. But this current emphasis on “offensive speech” is different in that now the burden of proof seems to have shifted. It no longer matters if your intent was meant to offend or even that your “offensive” speech had some demonstrable negative impact. Now it seems to be actionable if someone merely feels offended no matter if the offense taken is reasonable or not. Even the truth doesn’t seem to be a sufficient defense. Previously the remedy to being offended by someone’s speech was limited to the private sphere. If you said something that was interpreted as being offensive you either apologized or didn’t and faced the ramifications on a personal, social level.

Much of this sensitivity seems to have appeared contemporaneously with the rise of multiculturalism, which ostensibly is about promoting diversity, a good goal until we see how it is being pursued. Multiculturalism as it is often actually practiced holds that all cultures are equally good…with the sole exception being the larger American/Western culture which is assumed to be oppressive by definition. Therefore anything that can be interpreted in any way as insulting to any other group, culture, sex, lifestyle etc is immediately understood to be an assault by the repressive dominant culture.

You then get such bizarre situations as a Turkish lawyer filing a lawsuit against an Italian soccer club for having a large red cross on its jerseys, apparently offensive to Muslims as it is reminiscent of the cross worn by Christians in the Crusades one thousand years ago. California has banned the terms "mom", "dad", "husband", and "wife" from public schools as it is potentially offensive to gays.

The road on which these kinds of surreal developments seem normal is one which leads to a world in which people can no longer speak their minds, in which ideas can longer be thrown against each other in competition so that the best one might win out. A world in which no one is offended is a sterile world, a world without dynamism. The price we pay for freedom, the ability to do and say what we want is that sometimes we may wind up offended. That really doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, when you think about it. Does it?

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