The Freedom to be Offended — Part 3

“CAESAR: Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.”
–George Bernard Shaw in “Caesar and Cleopatra”

I titled my two previous pieces exploring the freedom of expression as “The Freedom to be Offended” deliberately. Everyone is free to take offense, which is the flip side of the individual right to free speech. If the speech of one has to be restricted because someone else is offended, then taken to its logical conclusion we would arrive at the absurd position where no one will have the right to express anything.

So here is what I would attempt to do here. First, I would argue that in a world which is a heterogeneous aggregation of people with diverse viewpoints, restricting the freedom to express one’s viewpoint leads to undesirable and absurd situations. Then I will argue why it makes immense practical sense to not proscribe free speech. The evolution of human civilization is critically dependent on this single right. Indeed, free speech is not just a consequence of a civilized society, it is a cause – if not the cause – of a civilized society. I argue that civilization itself is not possible without the freedom for individuals to express what they perceive as their truth. Note that I do not say “the truth” but rather “their truth.” Next I argue why development and economic growth itself is dependent on this right. I will justify why this topic is relevant in the context of India’s development.

The Pastafarians® happen to believe, among other things, that global warming is a consequence of the decrease in the numbers of pirates. They point out the inverse relationship between the number of pirates in the world and global warming. Their deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster™, has instructed them that all other explanations of global warming are blasphemous and therefore the Pastafarians® are mortally offended by so-called “scientists” who extend all sorts of sacrilegious arguments which involve green-house gasses and other pseudo-scientific theories. They point out that the so-called “scientific” theories are just that—theories not fact. The fact, according to Pastafarians®, is that fewer pirates leads to global warming. They insist that the threat of global warming can only be met by more people becoming pirates. They may soon launch a world-wide campaign to outlaw the publication of any explanation not consistent with their pirate dogma which they say their Prophet received when He was Touched by the Noodly Appendage ® of the Flying Spaghetti Monster ™.

“Yeah, yeah,” you may say dismissively, “but they are only a couple of million people who believe in that sort of silliness. They are not a real religion with hundreds of millions of followers.”

I am not sure that the argument by numbers holds much water. Here is what I mean. Just because a very small minority believe in something that the vast majority considers incorrect does not imply that the minority belief is wrong. Only a minority in the whole of Christendom at one time believed that the earth was not flat and they were right and the majority wrong.

So if one has to proscribe the freedom of expression of some based on the prejudices of a large group, there is no reason to not proscribe the freedom of expression based on the prejudices of a small group. The freedom to be offended has to be granted to all groups irrespective of size. In which case, we arrive at the absurd position where nothing can ever be expressed by anyone.

I am a non-monotheist. I am offended by speech which expresses a belief in a monotheistic vengeful cruel dictatorial meddlesome God as in the Judeo Christian Islamic tradition. So to suit my sensibilities, monotheists would be compelled to stop their profession of their belief in the One True God ™ . Not only will they be forced to stop their shouting on loudspeakers their beliefs several times a day, they will have to stop publishing them in their “holy books.”

Someone else may be offended by my expression of my belief that life arose on earth not from divine intervention but through natural processes and the diversity of life is explained by Darwin’s thesis of evolution through natural selection. Darwin’s theory will have to be outlawed, as they are attempting to do in the US, because some people find it offensive to suggest that there is no Big Daddy Up in the Sky™ .

The Amish believe that modern conveniences such as electricity and mechanized forms of transportations are not good. They could push to outlaw the industrial parts of our society. There are some Christian sects that believe that modern medicine is evil since it interferes with the will of the One True God™ and only the power of prayer should be brought upon illness and disease. We, therefore, will have to outlaw medical science research and stop the practice of medicine.

Name any thing or any idea, and I will show you a group which considers that thing immoral, or unethical, or evil and that it offends them. They are free to be offended and I support that freedom as much as I support the freedom of expression. But in a world which is diverse, it is absurd to move from the freedom to take offense to preventing others from expressing themselves, irrespective of whether that expression is artistic, scientific, cultural, or religious. Worse still is the use of violence to stop people from expressing themselves.

Imagine that the neo-conservatives in the US gain absolute power and decide that Intelligent Design™ is the only permitted dogma and all societies that don’t believe in ID, are committing an offense and the US will nuke them since they have nukes.

The followers of one particular monotheistic faith have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to use violence as a response to perceived slights and insults arising from the exercise of free speech in parts of the world not governed by that monotheistic faith’s laws. This is particularly pernicious because there are signs that some people are caving in because of the natural fear of being killed.

The Western Civilization has been the most evolved in terms of the freedom they grant themselves with regards speech. If they start retreating now, they would lose their hard-earned victories. Next time I will argue why the freedom of expression is the cause and consequence of not just the Western civilization but the global civilization as a whole. Show me one society where speech is proscribed by religious dogma and I will show you a backward underdeveloped society.

[See also:

Why Free Speech

On Being an Armchair Intellectual.]

Author: Atanu Dey


12 thoughts on “The Freedom to be Offended — Part 3”

  1. Since I think that Freedom of expression, as even any sort of freedom is truly everyone’s birthright, I cannot argue your point at all.

    But a certain sense of consideration to other people’s sensibilities wouldn’t go amiss. In anyone. When there are a million zillion burning problems to solve, face, handle and just survive, to do things to just provoke a certain religion and its sincere followers shows lack of taste, grace and refinement and kindness / understanding. But then, what do journalists know of these adjectives or their meaning and their import, let alone know how to live these qualities?


  2. Wow. Good article again, I agree to each word of it.

    In the current situation however, given that one of the two parties has to blink, I donot doubt that the it will be the European side (same reason you gave: fear of death)!


  3. Again, I agree with all you say. Which means that I agree that the cartoonists had all the right to draw the cartoons and papers (the Danish and subsequently the rest of them) had all the right to publish them.

    On the other hand Muslims have every right to be offended. Also those who are threatening to kill or actually killing other people in the name of these cartoons are fools. The best way for Islamic countries to “express” their freedom to be offended is through boycotts and suspension of trade and such. I believe that even without any threat of bombing and killing, boycotts and trade suspensions will also make the Europeans “blink”. Fear of “losses” is greater than fear of death.

    Then again I feel it would be foolish to make such a big deal over a bunch of cartoons. A few scraps of paper should not harm my faith. But there are those who feel that their faith is deeply offended by this and they all all the right to be offended and “express” that right in every legal way possible. (even if it causes harm in the sense that few Danish people will lose their jobs, companies will suffer losses etc).

    Ultimately any freedom has to be used wisely. If I know that my expression of freedom will cause harm to someone then it is my duty to do it in a way which causes no harm or less harm. I see that “lack of wisdom” is more prevalent that “lack of freedom”.


  4. Atanu,

    I’d like to know your opinion on the M F Hussain and Bharat Mata painting.

    Atanu’s response: I think I have addressed that point in this series. But allow me to reiterate. Freedom of expression is paramount. It is non-negotiable. It is not context dependent. Anyone — artist or clutz — is free to express himself in words, pictures, speech, mime, dance, or whatever as is allowed by the law of the land. If the law is restrictive and the people don’t want to be restricted, they have to go change the law.

    MF Hussain is free to paint whatever he wants to paint and however ugly his paintings are, it is protected. It is interesting that he would happily paint nude Hindu goddesses but will not paint Islamic icons. Interesting but understandable because if he did the latter, he would be sent to make his maker, as Monty Python would say. Bereft of life, he would rest in peace eternal. All statements to the effect that the artist known as MFH is still a going concern would from that point on become inoperative. He will become a dead artist.


  5. In my opinion, the M. F. Hussain nude godesses episode and Ganesha’s portrayal on sandals and toilet seats a while back have important differences from the Mohammad cartoons. (Of course, all such expression should be allowed).

    While eroticism is prominent in Hindu mythology and theosophy, depicting Saraswati in the nude is almost random. Among the plethora of Indian godesses and their colorful antics, Saraswati has less than average association with sexuality; mythology regarding her is centered on very different aspects. If Hussain had drawn explicit pictures of Krishna getting it on with his consorts, it wouldn’t have caused a ruckus. Some devout Hindus would have gladly snarfed it up, outrageous price tags and all.

    With Ganesha, sandals and toilet seats – there is absolutely no correlation. It reminds me of the museum piece of the cross mounted in a bucket of urine. No art, no iota of meaning.

    The depiction of Mohammad in the cartoons touches on two aspects: (1) the Islamic diktat that it is blasphemy to portray the prophet, and (2) the constant, time honored undercurrent of violence. They are both fitting.

    No one can deny the second, not even revisionists who would want us to believe that Islam spread peacefully and that Sufism had pacifist roots. Islam has always spread only due to the most extreme violence, coercion, or unfathomable ignorance. So it is indeed apt to depict the stick of dynamite lodged in the turban of the prophet.

    Regarding banning the depiction of the prophet itself, Atanu you excellently and rationally argue the necessity for the freedom of such expression in non-Islamic societies. I view it as touching on the same live-wire that the dynamite stick in the turban conveys. You are commanded not to portray the prophet. If you do, then … We only have to look at history to see what has been done to people who have portrayed the prophet in the past. Or the unfortunate few who have made apparent their appreciation of music. Centuries later, their followers do them immensely proud.

    The Danish cartoonists could have made their point a little better if they depicted the prophet as an outline or silhouette surrounded by any and all artificats of violence, drawing rightful emphasis that depicting him is itself heresy. To be tackled we all know how.

    “Show me one society where speech is proscribed by religious dogma and I will show you a backward underdeveloped society”. Amen. Show me one country that continues to be dangerously backward and underdeveloped, and I will show you the increasingly pernicious influence of a certain monotheistic faith.


  6. Good analysis on the whole thing. By and large I agree with what you’ve said.

    But I have a slightly different take on free speech, especially the type of “free speech” JP is prophesising to defend. If I am sure that my free speech is going to hurt millions of others, it is in my best interest that I try to make it more acceptable, sugar-coat it, make it more diplomatic etc. And in any case I don’t think this was a matter of free speech as much as hate monegering. JP baited Muslims, and stupid radicals(that much I admit,yes, there are many idiots amongsts Muslims) fell for it hook line and sinker. And media loves images of things burning. for eg: read this story. Headline says: “Muslims hold peaceful protests in Europe” and much of articles is about that. But note the image:Burkha-clad women in Pak burning effigy of Danish PM. Many of us when we reflect back on this event after a year, all we’ll remember is those images. The alternate reactions are either not reported or POVed like this case. And that is what makes many people like me flinch.

    I also don’t believe the case is as cut and dried as you make out (law of the land within your own borders). Ok, on paper it is. But let’s be practical shall we? I don’t believe I can anymore claim that I am immune to what happens outside my country. eg: Ideally speaking US-politics shd not affect me, but it does. I should not be concerned about NSA wiretapping, but I have to be. That Indian-American guy shouldn’t have been evicted from Bush’s SOTU and grilled for hours, but he was(yes, there were three people arrested). He was not even wearing a T-shirt. And what do we make out of it that the administration had to “apologize”(pseudo IMO) for all three of those? I am not trying to mix issues deflect attention, but making out a case why I won’t delude myself in that line of thinking. Throw this internet thing in the mix as a dessert topping.

    Also in your part#1, you wrote:
    “Muslims have taken offense because Islam forbids the depiction of Muhammad or Allah.”
    Yes Islam forbids depiction of Prophet or Allah but for a reason. And it definitely doesn’t prescribe such a reaction. Many like me have NOT taken offense due to that.
    The above statement coming from you assuming that you believe it to be the sole reason(and assuming that you’ve watched those 12 cartoons) makes me a wee bit uncomfortable. But I can totally understand why one would form that opinion. And this is exactly the point I’ve addressed in my post.

    Sadly there is only so much time to write a lengthy comment. And I’ve just returned after a gap, so my fingers are not warmed up enough:) And these issues sap up a lot of energy.

    For once, may I direct you to my post where I’ve put down an alternative viewpoint. It’s not laid out as good and coherent as your 3-part series but FWIW do read it.

    Thanks for writing this.


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