The right to offend and Islam

Published on Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I contend we all should have the right to offend. Why? I bet you are wondering why I just said that. "The right to offend" is a contentious proposition. Almost nobody enjoys being offended, whether in private or in public. So why should we have a right to offend? What is so defensible about that? Imagine someone coming to your house and shooting you as you exit from the front door, just because you said something that someone else did not like. It has happened before. And if you are a blogger, I bet you've already offended someone with your writings. Hopefully you have not get death threats yet. Now, most of us would agree that the hypothetical shooter is dead wrong in shooting you. But why is he wrong, and why do we think that? Does he have a right to punish people who offend him and his sensitivities? Let's find out why he does not. Salman Rushdie said it well: The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each others positions. The right to offend is not about humor. It is not about anarchy. It is not about what I feel like doing, without consequences. Believe it or not, it is about defending the right to tell the truth -- which is necessary for progress of society. The right to say these things is called freedom of speech, and is one of the cornerstones of a free society. Throughout human history, we have had a lot of "inconvenient" truths, and saying them out loud have cost the lives of countless martyrs. Modern society is no different, with the concession that today it is less likely -- but still possible -- to be killed by saying something offensive. Moreover, this right extends beyond the mere possibility of stating verifiable truths. Since we express what we think in countless ways (such as humor, offensive statements, ironic quips), you need to have a right to say things in these ways as well. Furthermore, what the majority of society may understand as being "true" is constantly being proven wrong. That is why we must have a right to say things that others will regard as blatantly wrong, even if these things are offensive. And that is why I have the right to say retards are funny, God does not exist. Regardless whether I offend you or not. I have the right to ridicule your religion, your beliefs, your ideas, and even you. Yes, you read that right. Evidently, if we are to gain (or, more appropriately, preserve) this right, we need to have the right to be offended. Call it eye for an eye if you want; I will call it tolerance. What does it mean? It means that, if I say something that offends you, you can only respond with speech. You cannot retaliate with your fists, a knife, or a bullet. Why? Because you have accepted (or, more likely, forced by society into accepting) that you have a right to offend as well, and you are also granted protection against your integrity. Read again: you may not take the matter in your own hands. This is a recognized fact of modern society law: If I insult you publicly, you cannot shoot me or beat me up. Not unless you like going to prison. However, if you try to hit me, I am entitled to use the same force to stop you. But that is a subject for a different post. That is absolute tolerance. Naturally, that does not exactly work in a world where words have different leverage depending on their source. Something written about me in a newspaper will carry a bit more weight than what I've written on this blog. Thus, lies created to ruin someone's life need to be forbidden. Modern society law comes to the rescue to draw a line between what's acceptable and what is not. So where do we draw the line? We draw the line on the character of the speech. The line is drawn where speech turns from just offensive into defamatory. Most of you would be surprised to learn that, in matters of speech, offensive is not equal to defamatory. Key to determining if speech is libelous is two factors: 1.Said speech contains a significant amount of non-falsifiable statements -- lies, and accusations that cannot be positively proved. 2.Said speech is designed expressly with the intent to harm someone's reputation. For example, when a reasonable person is expected to believe the speech to be true. The civilized world does apply this rule.Both assertions must be satisfied before judging speech to be libelous. Your feelings about you being offended do not matter at all when judging speech. In effect: • if a statement is true, then it is not libelous. • if a statement is hardly likely to be believed, it's not libelous. • if a statement wasn't made with the purpose to harm someone, it's not libelous. For example: let us suppose I call you a fucking bitch. If what I said is hardly likely to be believed, or it is true, then I have the right to say that. Fortunately, thanks to this, most insults are protected speech, whether you like it or not. But if: 1.I called you gay, were reasonably gay-mannered, 3.I have a grudge against you, 4.I said the statement in a manner that negatively affects what lots of other people think about you, 5.I could not prove that statement, and 6.You really wanted to put me in prison. I could end up in the arms of my future cellmate.Different types of speech are afforded different levels of protection. It just so happens that death threats are a type of speech that is outlawed – we have already seen other types of forbidden speech. In the scale of "useful speech", death threats rank at the bottom, and there is nothing defensible about them. Thus, it is a crime and it is expressly not protected by free speech because a death threat inflicts direct, grave emotional distress in a person. Moreover, death threats are, by modern judicial standards, expressly outlawed and categorized as a serious crime, right there with theft, because it usually is used to prevent others from exercising their right to free speech. Yes, we forbid certain types of speech to let other, more productive types of speech flourish. Now, you may be thinking: Hey, but just yesterday you called me a whore, and that inflicted emotional distress on me. If you were distressed at that, I suggest you reevaluate how thick your proverbial skin is, because you got nothing on the people who have received death threats. After all, there might be something productive about me calling you a whore. Remember this. The next time someone offends you, you do not get to call "mummy" when someone offends you. You have to shut up, put up and respond in kind. And you better develop thick skin, because offenses are a part of our everyday life. And sure, there are animals out there, who will feel offended by you and think they are entitled to payback in blood. But that is why we have guns. Islam represents more than a religion; it is a culture, too. The religious faith and the culture and the people are inextricably intertwined, so when the faith is denigrated, they feel disrespected.The history is complex and frankly it involves a lot of western interference in Muslim regions on top of their own economic and political and social problems. In addition, they have no tradition of free speech either religiously or politically. That is a western concept, and it is not a very old one even in the West. It is really not surprising that Muslims would be very, very sensitive on the subject of the way their religion is discussed in the West. Moreover, Islam has not undergone Enlightenment the way Christian nations and Judaism did. Someday that may happen, but until it does, Muslims are simply not going to grasp the "freedom of speech and expression" issue the way westerners do. Right now, there are still Muslim countries functioning socially very much as they did in the middle Ages. They did not have to function in any other way for centuries, and then they suddenly got dragged into the modern world by the West. They are undergoing culture shock. The Muslim extremists responsible for the acts of violence we are witnessing around the world are causing more problems for themselves than anything. I am not sure to categorize it as common-sense or education but they are:

  1. Giving fundamentalist Christians/Jews/Hindus around the world more of a reason to dislike Islam and even take-up arms against it.
  2. Causing the world to look down on them. Is there any justified reason, in the name of Allah, to deface and destroy public property and hence bring physical harm to individuals? Are not all lives to be respected provided they do not transgress the bounds of hurt? What arguments, and/or solutions, can be implemented and shown by Muslims worldwide so as not to cause turmoil and further segregation in today's modern world? We now live in a new era and long are gone the days of barbarianism and tyranny rule through show of brutal force. What does a general, non-fanatical Muslim, think? How can we preach words of love so that it is remembered that it is not the words and actions of a single individual (i.e. Muhammad) that should be heeded, but instead that of society and humanity itself?
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