A couple of weeks ago, Columbia FAVS colleague Nabihah Maqbool addressed the latest incidence of an unflattering (and to Muslims, blasphemous) presentation of the prophet Muhammad. Her thoughts sparked several comments, including a few from me.
That brief discussion made me want to say more, since it touched on a favorite topic: affirming and supporting diversity of thought in our society. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that modern Americans hold a variety of views on just about every conceivable topic, including those religious and political.
Lately, however, we haven’t been very good about working – or even talking – with people who have a different opinion than our own. In politics, in religion, on just about every topic, people hold their views with clenched fists, believing that anyone with a different view is absolutely and dangerously wrong.
How does one affirm one’s own belief without denigrating other beliefs? How do we encourage debate without having it turn into divisive arguing? How might our culture support free expression without either establishing one view as “right” or destroying civility in a never-ending spiral of woundedness?
Once upon a time, Americans seemed to be more sensitive to the opinions and concerns of others. We didn’t discuss religion and politics in mixed company, for instance, reserving our opinions for the like-minded while dealing politely with others in the community at large.
The ability to have “in-group” discussions, however, has become a casualty of our hyper-connected society; everything anyone might say is immediately available everywhere. Some people haven’t learned that – or don’t seem to care if others hear their intemperate opinions.
Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, considers it a sign of the unhealthy influence of religion that people dare to be offended when someone insults their faith or its representative. Our freedom of speech, he declares, must be absolute and inviolate, and others’ feelings be damned.
The discussion on Nabihah’s commentary revolved around whether anyone has the “right not to be offended,” as if “my” rights are sacrosanct and the other person is always the problem.
I prefer to think of it – and I believe this perspective supports a healthier society overall – as a question of whether I have the right to be obnoxious and offensive. Yes, we live in a “free society” with unprecedented amounts of personal liberty. But should our freedom be completely untempered?
Do we not, rather, have a mutual responsibility to maintain a society wherein everyone can realize the maximum level of freedom, even if that means self-limiting our own liberties in order to safeguard those of others? Why would anyone want to deliberately offend someone else?
Part of my perspective comes from viewing our society not as a bunch of unconnected individuals but as a collective in which each has an effect on all others and on the whole. So my ability to exercise my freedom is constrained by that exercise’s effect on you and your freedom – as the old saying goes, my freedom stops at the end of your nose.
It’s not that anyone has the right not to be offended; that’s not the issue. The real issue is that, in a society which rests on an implicit contract of mutual responsibility, I have the duty to hold your freedom as dearly as I hold mine, to safeguard your place in society with the same energy as I do mine.
If we were radically isolated, completely self-sufficient individuals who just happened to occupy adjacent plots of ground, this wouldn’t be an issue. But because we live in an interwoven society, and play interconnecting parts in a community, we should want to be more careful about how we express ourselves and refer to others.
The Christian apostle Paul addressed a very divided congregation in his first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 12, Paul reminds the various factions that they are in fact one body, and each has a role to play, as the parts of the human body each have their purpose. He even cautions that some parts may require a little more care or compassion than the stronger, less vulnerable ones.
The state of our political discourse is just one example of how claiming the freedom to be obnoxious interferes with our ability to solve problems constructively and achieve a better society for all.
The false woundedness of those who claim to be persecuted and the intentional offensiveness of folks like Sam Harris actually weakens our society and makes our vaunted freedom of expression seem less desirable to cultures that take seriously the collective good.