You have the right to remain offended

Imagine a world where anything that might cause offence was forbidden. Whatever you said or did would have to be filtered through even the least important whims and fancies of society. What space might this world leave for humour, say? Or more seriously, freedom of speech, and thus intellectual debate and progression? Perhaps, you might say, only those beliefs which people hold most dearly, at the core of their existence, should be barred from attack. Is it not instead the case that these beliefs should be scrutinised and satirised more than any others? Either we will come to see them as farcical and mistaken, or the attacks will meet rebuttal and those beliefs will become strengthened. The alternative is a world of static sterility, without vigour, passion or even truth.

It is for these reasons that the resignation of Robbie Yellon, former President of UCL's Atheist, Agnostic and Secularist society, is such a great shame. The move came after controversy caused following the group's Facebook post of a cartoon depicting Mohammed and Jesus drinking in a bar to advertise a pub night. The picture of course violates the sacred command prohibiting images of the prophet. Though the demand was most likely originally intended to prevent the worship of false idols, it is doubtful that Muslim voices advocating censorship are worried that over time they may come to pray for a cartoon. Why is it that so many, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are so opposed to the light-hearted mockery of a 7th century Arabian merchant?

This small tale is not the first of its kind. 14th February 1989 - a death warrant is issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini for the writer Salman Rushdie. His crime? Writing a book that depicts the prophet and Islam unfavourably. Rushdie's book is burned across the world with total vigour and a lack of shame. The fatwa still stands. In 2005 a Danish magazine published cartoons of the prophet, one depicting him as a terrorist. The reaction is hysterical; embassies burned and people killed. Even South Park's creators censor their show. This recent fiasco is a minor variation on a major theme. I hope I find no disagreement among readers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, in the view that these events are damnable in the highest degree.

So why do these events ignite such sentiment? Let's be frank - religion, Islam in particular, cannot take criticism well. In a society that professes to protect free speech, all institutions claiming power and authority will be subject to harmless jibes and rigorous scrutiny alike. If freedom of thought and expression are to be safeguarded there can be no exceptions. This includes politics, economics, science, but most importantly religion. I say most importantly because religion has so often seen itself as exempt from precisely this sort of attention. Blasphemy is a crime punishable by death in many nations of the world, most prominently in those fond of Sharia law. It is not Islamophobic, nationalistic or unimportant to ask ourselves why this is. Some of the most troubled and violent regions of the world deny the freedom of expression that characterises those of the most developed.

The greatest threat to Islam comes from within. For a religion with a history of comparable tolerance, whose very name means peace, the refusal to even permit any form of critique displays nothing but an unreflective adherence to medieval norms of censorship. We cannot pander to the repugnant mindset of an Ayatollah who demands death in response to free expression. It is the same putrid intolerance that leads to ostensibly polite yet deeply misguided demands to ‘avoid causing unnecessary offence'. Offence is necessary. I have the right to offend you and you have the right to offend me. We must all do our upmost to keep it that way.

Michael Campbell is a first-year philosopher at Caius

Comment on this story (3)

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  1. C.J. Wallis, Trinity College

    It's a good point, Sasha, that people who defend freedom of speech seem weirdly narrowly focused on religion. If you're going to talk about free speech, you've got to look at it as a whole. Otherwise, you should talk about religion, if such a clear-cut category exists in real life. However I disagree with the idea that you can simply deem everything politically correct or taboo as a problem. It's senseless to resist/challenge something merely because of the category it's in - you have to take it on a case by case basis. Of course many things that are PC are overly sensitive, and many taboos serve to prevent any kind of questioning of authority. But not all of them. For example, it's not PC to say "death to all arabs/westerners". And rightly so - this is insulting, provocative and needlessly offensive. It serves no useful purpose. Such language should be prevented as much as possible. Just because it's PC to censor oneself from such language doesn't mean we have to resist it! Some PC is sensible, some is OTT. These blanket generalisations about free speech/religion/taboo are the main problem - as I say, we must take things on a case by case basis.

  2. Sasha Valeri Millwood, Girton College

    Sir: Whilst I agree with the author's argument that society is preposterously over-sensitive, I do not think that this is a matter limited to religious people. In 2010, much outcry was raised at plans to build an Islamic "cultural centre" in the vicinity of (actually, several blocks away from) Ground Zero in New York, because it was perceived as somehow "inappropriate" given that the people who instigated the infamous attacks on 11/09/2001 (that is, nine years previously) had purported to be acting in the name of Allah. Many of the people protesting the plans were not motivated by their own religion; many were not even religious. Rather, they had allowed their view on a whole religion to be tainted by a small number of people who had misappropriated it to wreak violence and carnage. To extrapolate the logic of this unjustified indignation, it could be argued that no Catholic church should be permitted in the vicinity of the Brighton Grand Hotel on account of the IRA attack. Another event that raised outcry in 2010 was a proposed (subsequently cancelled) book-burning event in Florida, which was to have used the Qur'an as fuel. Whilst the most notable protests were predominantly situated in Muslim countries, the fact remains that many people with no religious motivations were also indignant to the extent that there was a campaign to have the instigator banned from entering this country. Much as I found the simplistic stereotyping that motivated the proposed book-burning idiotic, and much as I despise the deliberate destruction of any book, the fact remains that the instigator had purchased the fuel himself. Ultimately, I think the underlying problem in all this is political correctness and taboo: both should be openly resisted and challenged, especially by those who enjoy positions of power or influence in any discipline or profession.

  3. C.J. Wallis, Trinity College

    Is total free speech and freedom to offend only applicable to religion, or to everything in life? Should we abolish libel laws? What about campaign advertising in the US? Or direct incitement to violence? In fact, why should free speech be total and unrestrained, and not other freedoms? What's the difference exactly between my freedom to not pay tax, for which I would be locked up, and my freedom to say what I like? Why have laws at all? And why has criticism of deep beliefs/doctrines (which is clearly important) got anything to do with freedom of speech? You can be allowed to satirise a religion without being allowed to insult them - that just seems sensible. What is gained by allowing mindless offence? Sure, a cartoon should not be a resigning issue, I don't think anyone disputes that, but how on earth does it then follow that we should just be able to say what we like with no consequences? What are we, stuck in the enlightenment? Lets have some relativism and some middle ground.