I was reading Jason Rosenhouse’s summaryish-type post on the Charlie Hedbo attack, and he quotes and expresses an idea that seems to be pretty common: that despite the fact that most people agree that the Charlie Hedbo satires are definitely aimed more at causing offense than at providing anything that is artistically or intellectually valuable, the fact that some people are willing to take such strong and violent offense to it provides sufficient reason for us to promote what they did that caused the offense and for people to do similar things in order to defend our ability to do things that offend people without having to face a violent response. This, to me, is a rather odd and harmful idea.
One of the main thrusts is to avoid censorship by intimidation, the idea that if we won’t publish something or say something because people might react violently to it then if someone wants people to stop saying certain things all they have to do is threaten or take violent actions against it, and then it will be censored. So we must make certain that we don’t even let a threat of violence deter us from saying certain things. The issue, though, is that we don’t need to say that if someone people take violent offense to something we must promote it or engage in it, because we are in fact completely and totally able to determine if someone could take reasonable offense to certain speech, and decide not to engage in it not because we’re scared of the response, but rather because we don’t want to offend people. I think we can all agree that causing offense is not, in and of itself, something desirable or beneficial.
Now, the counter to this is the claim that sometimes just saying totally reasonable things might cause offense, and so causing offense can’t be a criterion for limiting free speech either. To which my response is that we can look at intent and determine whether the main purpose of the work is to offend, or if it is to provide something artistically or intellectually valuable and happens to be potentially offensive to some people. So, obviously, anything whose purpose is clearly more to offend than to express any real idea is something that ought not be defended in any way; free speech does not include a specific right to offend. However, one can also call out a work that expresses a real and valid point for doing it in an unnecessarily offensive way, by asking if they could have gotten the desired effect with a method that was less likely to cause offense. Too often, I see people using the argument that people will be offended even if they are polite to justify selecting options that are terribly impolite and are going to offend almost anyone in a group, not just those who are overly sensitive. You cannot use the fact that some members of a group are overly sensitive to justify not caring about the feelings of the others in the group, or to justify speech that has offending members of that group as a sought after benefit, even if it isn’t the primary purpose.
In short, I believe that offensive speech deserves no protection. You do not have the right to offend. Free speech implies the ability to express valid ideas even if they might offend, but that does not validate an attempt to offend, either directly or indirectly. And discussions over offense often seem to assume that attempts to offend are valid and something that we should at least allow if not defend in our society. And I think that’s wrong.