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No Room for Offense, No Freedom

“I’m very depressed how in this country you can be told ‘That's offensive’ as though those two words constitute an argument.” – Christopher Hitchens.

In 2005, the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard drew his interpretation of the prophet Muhammad for the newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Outrage soon followed, with much of the Muslim world pressuring the tiny Danish democracy to remove the publication from the bookstores. When their demands were ignored, the “offended” decided to take matters into their own hands and attack Kurt with an axe in his own residence. Only the reinforced door in his bathroom saved Kurt’s life, buying him extra minutes to call the police.

British novelist Salman Rushdie has his own stories from dealing with the “offended.” In 1989, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa over Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, labeling his work as a blasphemous portrayal of Muhammad. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was stabbed and killed in 1991, while the price on the novelists head was increased in 2012 to a total of $3.3 million.

More recently, on January 7, 2015, the world witnessed the horrific murder of 12 Charlie Hebdo staff members in France.

The ultimate question for us is: Do journalists, authors, and other emissaries of free speech have a responsibility not to offend the followers of certain beliefs?

Political correctness would have us answer “yes.” However, what would have happened if human beings throughout history were careful never to offend anyone? In the late 1980s, my grandfather stood for democratic ideals of limited government that were considered unpopular, offensive, and politically incorrect by the Soviet community. He paid for it with his life. During the Nazi regime in Germany, those who expressed the politically incorrect and unpopular position of treating Jews as fellow human beings were also imprisoned or even executed. There are men and women standing up against the political status quo of the religious theocratic tyrants in the Middle East who are beheaded and stoned to death as I write these very words.

By far the most dangerous of all tyrannies is the tyranny of the majority, where the status quo and political institutions trample on the liberties of the minority, because any objection to the mass opinion is, in fact, always politically incorrect, unpopular, and offensive.

Yes, I advocate for courageous discourse probing beyond the restrictions of political correctness and offensiveness. It’s a wonderful thing that I can wake up in the morning and be offended by someone’s opinion. On the other hand, it's tragic waking up and knowing that many authors of offensive opinions are dead, imprisoned, or in hiding.

Freedom of expression necessitates the license to offend—otherwise, the soul of liberty itself is eviscerated.


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