The Right to Offend

The Right to Offend May 1, 2019

Dog whistle alert! More free speech shenanigans from the Islamophobia crew.

Want Ethnocentrism With That?

Recently, the owner of a sandwich shop in Illinois, an establishment rather appropriately named Gross Burger, got into hot water over a bumper sticker on his restaurant’s wall. Next to a snippet of Arabic script, the sign reads, “If you can’t read this, thank a Marine.”

In the face of criticism from offended patrons, restaurant owner Brad Gross defends the sign as merely an appreciative gesture toward Marines. He claims the sticker was donated by an Iraq war veteran over a decade ago and has no intention of removing it. According to Yahoo News:

A number of people have supported Gross and have argued that the bumper sticker is “not racism.” Some even suggest that the message has been misunderstood.

“It’s not about speaking another language. Be fluent in as many [ways] as you want. That’s great. But the sign is about being under a Muslim law or Sharia law & government that would make us write Arabic and abide by their laws,” one person wrote. “We need to thank our military we are not forced to be under that type of law.”

These denials fail to acknowledge a lot of not-so-subtle messages in the sticker’s slogan about people who live in the Middle East, US foreign policy, and Islam. Gross could show his appreciation for US troops and veterans in a way that doesn’t also offend or alienate people, but his refusal to remove the sticker says all we need to know about his sensitivity toward the feelings of Middle Eastern or Muslim patrons and his opinion about multiculturalism in general.

Schoolboys In Disgrace

Flash back a few years to the London School of Economics, where an incident took place at an orientation expo to welcome incoming students. (This is an old story, but was discussed earlier this week at the Rational Doubt blog.)

Here, two members of the school’s Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) were at their organization’s stall and were approached by agents of the event’s organizers and security personnel. The atheists were told that their Jesus & Mo T-shirts had to be covered up or removed “in the interests of good campus relations”, since there had been complaints about their propriety. The students complied, but were so affronted at their treatment that they filed a statement with the school’s administration and were subsequently issued an apology.

Their treatment at the fair seems heavy-handed, but what disturbs me about the matter is that its coverage in the atheist-humanist blogosphere focuses on the free speech aspect and not the ideas of multiculturalism and responsibility. Bob Ripley, the author of the Rational Doubt post, delivers stale freeze-peacher rhetoric by the ton:

Being offended is the price you pay for living in an open and free society.

When an educational institution bans a shirt, which offends the religious sensitivities of some students, it is not a victory for progressive liberalism but for dogmatic oppression.

When religion is off-limits for debate, we are all in trouble.

Sounds like this is less about free speech than about our need to police the beliefs of others, mock and ridicule them, and decide what sort of consequences we consider appropriate for our behavior. Neither in the ASH members’ statements nor in any of the posts and comments about the controversy did any atheist or humanist even pay lip service to the idea of multiculturalism.

In other words, it’s about privilege.

White and Wrong

I’m convinced this idea of a right to offend is a right-wing dog whistle. It’s based on the idea that the worst that can come from unrestricted speech is that people’s feelings might get hurt. Despite pretty glaring evidence that an atmosphere of distrust and contempt toward Muslims causes an increase of hate crimes against them, this myth reinforces the majority’s sense of entitlement.

This goes beyond the freedom of expression and into territory where we maintain we have the right to insult, intimidate, and demonize others by characterizing beliefs they hold dear (but which we don’t) as dangerous delusions. And even though nine times out of ten, this “right” is being wielded against a Muslim minority in the West, free-speechers make it sound like such mockery and ridicule does wonderful things for the minorities under attack. Look how my buddy Kevin, contributing to the discussion at Rational Doubt, asserts that mockery was instrumental in the civil-rights battles of African Americans and the LGBTQ community:

If folks previously worried about mocking or bucking what others hold dear, then black people in USA would still be going to “separate, yet equal” facilities and LGBTQ people would still be in the closet.

Oh, come now. If anything, mockery and degrading stereotypes of black people as well as gays and lesbians were the majority’s way of legitimizing their oppression. Rosa Parks wasn’t just trying to offend white people, she was employing civil disobedience to motivate social and legal change in the status of an oppressed minority. The college boys in London, on the other hand, were defending their right to intimidate and offend an oppressed minority. Doesn’t anyone else see the difference here?

It’s not as if a cartoon on a T-shirt represents some sort of scholarly debate on religion. Everyone involved understands that the mere image of Mohammed is taboo to Muslims, and so the claims that the T-shirts were innocuous and inoffensive ring very hollow. Brad Gross could just as easily claim that the bumper sticker on his restaurant’s wall never mentions Muslims, so anyone who objects to it must be motivated by hatred of Marines.

Distinction Without a Difference

It’s time we abandon the crusade to make everyone recognize the distinction we make between criticism of religion and criticism of religious people. As J Enigma 32 pointed out in the discussion on Rational Doubt, the idea that we can criticize Islam without implying lots of things about how Muslims act and think sounds way too much like love-the-sinner-hate-the sin: a rhetorical cop-out unworthy of people who pride themselves on critical thinking.

Touting our right to offend makes us no different than the gun nuts who think shall not be infringed is the be-all and end-all of the matter of firearms regulation in the USA, or religious folks who say the Constitutional protection for religious freedom allows them to discriminate with impunity. We either acknowledge that we have responsibilities that go along with rights, or we’re not living in the real world.


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