Everywhere we look offence is being taken, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad ones, but always in a way that seems to imply that offence is something terrible in itself.
…Increasingly, the statement ‘I find that offensive’ is taken as an argument in itself; the complainant is not called upon to justify his feelings. But without some debate about why it is that we find certain attitudes or words offensive, the quality of public debate is degraded. Indeed, we become so comfortable in our positions that we are in danger of forgetting why we are offended. This is a recipe for intellectual laziness. By engaging with other points of view, we call into question our own positions, refining them when they need refining and discarding them when they are shown to be flawed. That is why the philosopher A.C. Grayling says that the right to freedom of speech is the most important right of all because, without it, it is simply impossible to subject all our other rights to scrutiny.
To ban an opinion is to ban not only the right of a person to express that opinion but also everyone’s right to hear it. In such circumstances the claim to be offended is no more than an assertion of moral superiority—an article of political faith, which, like religious faith, will brook no challenge.
I recall a progressive political blogger once impatiently brushing off comparisons of politically-motivated boycott campaigns to more traditional forms of censorship by saying that the 1st amendment simply guarantees you the right to be free from overt government censorship. Which is true, strictly speaking. Private organizations and righteous mobs are not legally obligated to provide everyone and anyone a soapbox and a respectful silence. But it also shows that if people are determined not to listen, they’re just not going to. It’s not difficult to make unpopular views known or heard, but it’s impossible to prevent ideologues from caricaturing or simply refusing to engage them.
Sometimes these strict defenses of free speech from a more-or-less legal standpoint strike me as slightly archaic, in the sense that its defenders don’t seem to recognize that perhaps a more prominent threat to communication and understanding in consumer democracies comes not from tyrannical bureaucrats but from the freely-chosen echo chamber. Absolutists find themselves making incoherent arguments aimed at the culture of offense-taking while using the vocabulary of rights and freedom, all without taking into account that their opponents don’t see themselves as literally “censoring” anyone. Convincing people that moral indignation is not an argument and that offense is not necessarily a terrible thing is a different, and far more difficult, point to get across than convincing people to grudgingly allow an unpopular opinion to be voiced.