When Dr. Samuel Johnson had finished his great lexicography, the first real English dictionary, he was visited by the various delegation of people to congratulate him, including a delegation of London’s respectable womanhood and they said to him, “Doctor, we congratulate you on your decision to exclude all indecent words from your dictionary.” He replied, “Ladies I congratulate you on your persistence in looking them up.”
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Anyone who understands that story would see through the sinister piffle to which we are being treated day in and day out in order to curb freedom of speech and expression because apparently, it is offensive to some people.
Christopher Hitchens said it best. “If people are determined to be offended, if they’ll climb a ladder, balancing it precariously on their own toilet cistern, to be upset by what they see through their neighbor’s bathroom window, then there’s nothing that can be done about it.”
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As caricatured as that quote might seem, we have, unfortunately, arrived at a time when people are actually making conscious efforts to get offended. There’s no telling what people would get offended at and how they would respond to that offense. Those who are seemingly offended are treated as victims and the world bends over backward to justify their response to the offense, no matter how violent or barbaric it is.
In 2011, Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper had to suffer international outrage because they decided to print a caricature of Prophet Muhammad. Their office was fire-bombed and their website was hacked, and people were asking for the heads of the artist and the editor. Even the most progressive media portals were trying to justify these actions by saying that what the newspaper decided to print was very offensive to the sentiments of many Muslims. Drawing Prophet Muhammad is strictly forbidden in Islam, but apparently, it didn’t occur to anyone that the people who do not share that belief are not under any obligation to abide by it. It is ironic how people who want to ban drawing cartoons feel no shame in making a caricature of free speech. The level of hypocrisy is truly astounding.
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This is why offense should never be put on a pedestal – you end up feeding the ego of the people and you start campaigning for restricting free speech. From there it’s a slippery slope to book burning because some of the greatest works of literature are full of blasphemous words. Let’s take Huckleberry Finn; the book is rife with racist phrases, yet it is one of the nineteenth century’s most noble portraits of a black man in America. But most people who are burning books are, of course, too illiterate to notice.
It makes no sense to restrict speech, but for the sake of argument, let’s see how we would go about it even if we were to take a shot at that. Bear in mind that before you could violate someone’s free speech, you would have a very daunting task ahead of you. To whom would you award the right to decide which speech is harmful and who is the harmful speaker? Which man or woman on the face of the Earth would you choose, who would decide what is okay for you to speak and hear and what isn’t.
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Also, another problem you’d face is that offense is intangible and completely subjective. If what offends one person makes another one chuckle, how would you draw the line without being prejudiced towards one side?
Thus, we can safely say that is impossible to justly restrict free speech to prevent people from being offended. Therefore, more emphasis should be laid on how to properly deal with offense. Instead of wreaking havoc every time their feelings are hurt, people should learn to accept that there are other people in this world and they are entitled to their beliefs as we are to ours.
It’s like Richard Dawkins says, “I’m offended by chewing gums; I’m offended by backward pointing baseball hats, but I don’t try to get a version of the blasphemy law passed to prevent people from chewing gum or reversing their caps. So what if I’m offended? So what if my feelings are hurt? Does it give me the right to prevent other people from expressing their opinions? It does not.”
Freedom of speech and expression is the birthright of every individual, and curbing it is a fascistic trait. Ideas should be fought with ideas, not swords. In order to be able to think, we have to risk offending someone. It’s how you hold people accountable for their actions. What would happen if the press wasn’t allowed to question the ministers of the cabinet over their actions because they found the questions offensive? Well, it has already begun and it is going to get progressively worse if we do not raise our voices against it.
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If the freedom of speech means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. Those who cover their ears and bury their faces in the ground to avoid being offended and those who muffle the voices of other people to prevent them from offending anyone are both spiraling into an abyss of ignorance. We should be wary of such people and raise our voices against the sinister deeds, whenever and wherever we observe them.