There is a movement taking place within the liberal camp (I say as an insider and card-carrying Democrat) where in our attempts to be inclusive and open-minded we have become our own sort of bigots. “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that,’” humorist and activist Stephen Fry said in 2005 during a debate on the legality of blasphemy. “As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more … than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what?”
In our belief that all ideas and expressions are valid, we have waged a crusade against that which offends in the name of protecting minority groups and the underrepresented. ‘Intolerance cannot be tolerated’ has become our rallying-call and in our fervor, we have forgotten our own message. We have forgotten that freedom applies to people you dislike and that equality applies to those you hate. In other words, we have become the oppressive force we have fought so long against. We have become the evil we despise most. In essence, we ourselves have become intolerant.
This is not to say that there is no merit whatsoever in attempting to protect minority groups. It is what sets us apart from a state such as modern Iraq. It is why we are called a ‘liberal democracy’ instead of a dictatorship of the masses. However, this protection can — and does — go too far at times, and that is what I am addressing here. It is easy to make the slip from defending those who need it, to the type of patronizing I will not get into currently.
“We have to stop this recent culture of people telling us they’re offended and expecting us to give a fuck,” entertainer Ricky Gervais tweeted in 2012. The answer to offensive speech is not to censor, to silence or to drown out. The way to combat those who offend is to outshine, to combat them head on, on their own ground and beat them. We must counter hatred with love and understanding; anything else would be hypocritical.
The case of Westboro Baptist Church comes to mind. One is hard-pressed to think of a viler series of beliefs than those held by Phelps family. They protest at funerals, laugh and sing in the faces of the grieving and, worst of all, raise children to hate the world they live in. Their religious fervor is so strong that anything which contradicts their literalist interpretation of the Bible is damning. They view our pluralist society as hand-in-hand with the Devil Himself, and, therefore, our shared tragedies as judgments against us by God Himself. Soldiers, atheists, even the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School — it seems as though no one is safe from their vitriol. They are allowed to speak, however, and this is precisely why they have no power.
They were given as much rope as they wanted, and have hanged themselves with it. By allowing them to speak their minds we not only negated their message, but created one of our own. The Phelpses, among others, helped to catalyze the nation and have brought us together. Because we countered their speech with more speech, and beat them at their own game, we are stronger. Safe havens were constructed, charities were founded and countless people’s minds were changed because of this dialogue. Because we as a society stuck to our values and tolerated the most repulsive assaults we could imagine, we are better off. As the great scholar Charles Kingsley once said: “light must beget light, good beget good, love beget love; and therefore we ought to expect that as true and sound knowledge increases, our views of God will be more full of light.”
A powerful case study would be to compare contemporary Europe and America in our dealings with the rhetoric of the Golden Dawn party and other racist organizations, respectively. Following WWII, the continents adopted different philosophies in how to deal with the Nazi party. America defended its right to free expression, while most of Europe cracked down on Nazi imagery and writings. While there are a myriad of different factors to consider, it should be noted that America has very little, if any, to fear of neo-Nazis or other popular racist movements while the Golden Dawn party has made significant gains in the Greek and European Union (EU) legislatures.
It is no surprise that the Internet has been one of the great liberalizing forces in the world, like the printing press before it. The free exchange of ideas will always produce societal improvements. It is by comparing ideas with those whose reality differs from one’s own that progress is made. And by stifling that exchange (in our case for the sake of politeness), progress it is destroyed.
‘If these shadows have offended,’ please, speak up. Challenge me. Challenge what offends you, what provokes you, what makes you think, but most of all, challenge yourself. And when you finish challenging, listen to the responses. I guarantee that you will learn something. That is the true purpose of education. Your offense is a reaction to the strange and uncomfortable, a twinge of pain as your mind fights against its expansion and strives to preserve the status quo. We live in an imperfect world. There are and will always be things which will cause discomfort. Rather than curse the darkness, let us light a candle. Let us stop being captives to our own thin skins and moral superiority. It is time to stop burning books, to abandon authoritarian legislation and to make due on our promises of open-mindedness and inclusivity and allow for a real diversity of opinion.
I leave you with the words of one of our Emory distinguished professors, Salman Rushdie, a man whose conscience has nearly cost him his life: “Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn’t exist in any declaration I have ever read. If you are offended, it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people. I can walk into a bookshop and point out a number of books that I find very unattractive in what they say. But it doesn’t occur to me to burn the bookshop down.”
Connor Crum is a College junior from Maryville, Tennessee.