All of us are constantly bombarded with information. Living as most of us do in places where cultural diversity is the norm, it is all but inevitable that some of this information will cause offense. Christmas lights may delight the person who erected them, and horrify the neighbors. Short skirts, see-through shirts, and other bits of fashion which limit the imagination, delight the eyes of some, and offend the eyes of others. Museum displays on evolution thrill and educate most, and offend the sensibilities of the science-impaired. Every bit of information we encounter has the potential to offend some of us, and so much the better! No founding document of any Western democracy of which I am aware guarantees a right not to be offended. In fact, we enjoy the exact opposite: We have the right to be offended, and we should exercise that right whenever the opportunity presents itself.
To understand what I mean, peruse the following (largely made up) overview of history. Prior to the Enlightenment, and during much of it, the powers-that-be exerted fairly tight control over public speech. Any ideas that were considered seditious, heretical, or interesting were clamped down upon. This was a world where discovery and invention were stifled, where the arts were permitted to express only the vision of the church and state, where no dissent on any grounds from the majority line was tolerated. This was a world where almost no one ever encountered a viewpoint differing from their own. This was a world that lacked the right to be offended.
How dull! How stagnant! How frightfully unenlightening! Thankfully certain people began to demand the suite of rights that now guarantee free expression, and many other people fought to extend these rights to all people. We now enjoy the right to offend people of just about any point of view imaginable, and necessarily to be offended ourselves.
Consider for a moment how vital this has been to Western history. Where would we be if Galileo hadn’t dared to offend the sensibilities of those who held that the Earth was the unmoving center of creation? Where would we be if Darwin hadn’t (eventually) dared to offend the common wisdom of his time, that all creatures were the fixed creation of God? Where would we be if abolitionists hadn’t offended slaveholders, if civil rights crusaders hadn’t offended racists, if gay people hadn’t offended (and didn’t continue to offend) oppressive homophobes? The freedoms we take for granted, every one of them, were built on offense.
In spite of these facts, offense is under attack in the West. People successfully demand the suppression of viewpoints they don’t share, on these simple grounds: “That offends me.” This trend is insulting, first for the obvious reason that it is a terribly weak basis on which to decide matters of public policy. A more insidious reason, however, is that people who flaunt their offense are forgetting something fundamental to the growth of Western democracy: offense is a learning opportunity.
Creationists are routinely offended by the teaching of evolution in schools, but rather than learn something about an immensely successful theory, they allow their offense to shut down their brains and switch on their intolerance. Catholics who rage and froth at the pushing of a nail through a cracker are missing a fantastic opportunity to consider the reasonable limits of freedom of expression, and whether their concept of what is sacred must extend even to nonbelievers. Offense offers us the chance to consider points of view that differ from ours. We should seize that chance, and if we reject the opposing viewpoint, it should be on the basis of reason, not gut reaction.
In closing, a plea: the next time you are offended by something, please, ask yourself, “Why does this offend me?” And finally, and most importantly, be thankful for the rights of others to offend you, and for your own hard-won right to be offended by them.