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8 January 2015

I have written before that offensive humor is the edge on the blade of liberty. Giving offense has a long and critical tradition. Without the right to offend, we do not have the right to breathe. Because someone, somewhere, right now, is offended by our breath.

Offending Muslims with caricatures of Muhammed isn’t nice. Nor is it nice to place crucifixes in jars of urine. Nor is it nice to picket fallen servicemen’s funerals with vile screeds that god loves dead Marines, as the Westboro Baptist Church did at my cousin’s graveside. These things are unkind. They are offensive.

But it is the right of every person to offend. It is the right of every person to assert their own truth, even if it is demonstrably absurd. No one is obliged to listen. No one is obliged to adopt someone else’s positions. But each of us has the right to shout them.

Even hate speech. Even lies. Unless the vocalizations create a substantial, direct, and immediate threat to human life, all speech must be protected.

Because someone thinks that your opinions are hateful. Someone thinks that your speech is harmful. Someone thinks that you should be silenced. Someone thinks that you’re not toeing the right line. And when enough of those people congregate in the same place, and assume power, you will find yourself oppressed.

I see this happening right now in my own community. There are opinions that it is simply not acceptable to voice in liberal academia. If you are pro-life. If you have laissez-faire economic ideas. If you challenge the academic conclusions of sexuality or gender. You will find yourself isolated, marginalized, and shunned.

No, you will not find yourself shot. And no, freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. But there is no tolerance for thoughtful dissent in academia with regard to politics, because there is no admission that thoughtful dissent can exist. Therefore, attempting to dissent brands a person immediately as a reprobate. Frequently I’ve seen absurd contests to see who can be the most orthodox. Academia is becoming like a caricature of a small town church: piety and judgement and enforcement.

We all have the right, of course, to disassociate from people who hold objectionable beliefs. But when we as a community hold the keys to a kingdom – as we do in academia (publishing, grant money, positions, titles, advancement of knowledge) – it becomes exceptionally egregious to demand uniformity of thought. As academia makes impressive, long-overdue strides with regard to diversity of race, gender, sex, and origin, it is simultaneously exterminating diversity of opinion and politic.

Satire finds a soft belly and slashes it open. It exposes our absurdities. Giving offense challenges ossified ideas. We are all proud to offend those we think need offending. But when someone comes along and offends our own sensibilities, my community is as bad as any at stamping the nonconformist down.

The proper reaction to being offended is to shrug off the offense and, if desired, engage the offender in a discussion. Ostracism and gunfire cross a line.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. sciliz permalink
    9 January 2015 12:56

    Give me an example of an excessive response to offensive speech in academia, it’s hard to know what exactly you’ve got in mind.

    • 9 January 2015 12:58

      The many calls for @jtotheizzoe to be fired for that tone-deaf, offensive Einstein/Curie video for example. It was stupid, offensive, and not funny. But demanding he be fired for it is wrong.

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