A few days ago, a protest rally outside Google’s HQ in London against the film “Innocence of Muslims” saw one of the speakers trot out this gem:
Terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.
It seems we have a wonderful new addition to the definition of terrorism. A woman wearing jeans is now a terrorist against mullahs who want her to cover up. Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year old girl who insisted on studying in school is now a terrorist against the Taliban who shot her twice. Couples who run away against the wishes of their parents are terrorists also. Sanal Edamaruku is a terrorist for exposing the fake “miracle” of the Jesus statue dripping water.
There are two kinds of people who favor restrictions on freedom of expression which “offends” others. The first type is worried solely about real world consequences. So if the film “Innocence of Muslims” outraged the Islamic world and caused riots where people were killed, that is is prima facie enough reason to ban it. They don’t necessarily care about the sentiments of the people who are outraged, and they don’t feel sad for them. It’s just causality. X resulted in Y. Y is bad, therefore X needs to be curbed.
This logic is easily destroyed. Taken to it’s ultimate end, it means that women must not wear anything “revealing” (that means everything other than a full body covering) because “men will be provoked” and if they get raped it’s because they wore something – not because the culprits chose to do it. It means that schoolyard bullies get to control what the rest of us can say, do and read because they merely have to raise a ruckus, go on a rampage and get things banned. It means that we’ve shifted the blame from the where it belongs – the people actually responsible – to something “higher up in the chain”. Either a book, a movie, a woman wearing jeans, or whatnot.
This is clearly untenable. You can’t ban something merely because you’re afraid that someone else may choose to break the law. Which leaves us with the second type of person.
The second objection to freedom of expression is that others will get “hurt” in the very act of hearing, seeing, or reading something. And since we have laws protecting people’s body, we must also have laws protecting their minds. This is a very dangerous idea and needs a more thorough debunking.
Physical hurt and being hurt by “getting offended” are fundamentally different. Here’s why:
1. Physical hurt affects everyone in the same way
When you hit someone with an axe, it will always cause pain regardless of who is hit. It will bleed. The person will feel pain. There may be an infection that has to be treated etc. Physical hurt leaves us with no choice but to be hurt. Since physical pain is uniform across humanity, we can make laws affecting all humans. Saying “hitting someone with an axe is wrong” is valid because everyone is equally affected by it.
Being offended on the other hand is not even close to universal. Not only do different people react in different ways to the same thing, the same person can react in different ways depending on his or her choice. If seeing something shocks you, you have the choice to either ignore it, or spend the next few hours holding your head in your hands and ruminating over the offense. You have a choice as to how to react. Many people simply choose to ignore something that offends them. If they can do it, why can’t others? Which leads me to my second point.
2. Merely “existing” can be offensive!
Our world is designed so that there is ample material to give anyone offense if they seek it. When I look around, I see religious people trying to spread their beliefs and that offends me. It offends me when khaps in India make stupid observations about women. It offends me that politicians say stupid things. There is no dearth of offense. Do I demand that they be banned? No. I can condemn them of course (and I do), but I don’t demand that they shut up.
For others, billboards can be offensive. Rich people can be offensive. Someone not moving out of your way can be offensive. The world is structured in such a way that offensive things are thrown at us day in and day out. We all have to formulate our own private ways of dealing with it. Either cut yourself off from most sources of offense, or learn to ignore it. Or you can continue getting frustrated, have a heart attack and die.
Every mentally healthy human has developed the capacity for ignoring offense. It’s a skill that adults are assumed to possess. Our world demands it. Because if not, then we would all be walking around in a perpetual fog of outrage and fear. Most of us are not that way, so we obviously have some way to deal with it.
Offense is an integral part of our everyday world. We all deal with it.
3. It’s easy to distance yourself from offense
We all possess the ultimate defense against being offended. That of ignoring what we don’t like. Sure, we may have the initial exposure to something, but continuing to see it, or read it is a choice. Everyone has the power to close a web page, press the back button, or switch off the TV. These defenses aren’t available for physical violence. You can’t just “walk away” from someone who’s trying to kill you.
Going even further, most people can even avoid the initial exposure if they really want to. How many of us go to see a movie without knowing what the story is from reviews or from our friends? When we click on an article link, we mostly know the kind of stuff we’re going to get. When you walk into an art gallery…well we all know what artists do and we may even be familiar with the particular artists whose work is on display. Most of the time we know full well what we’re about to be exposed to before we see it.
Millions of people spend vast amounts of time on the Internet without ever seeing something offensive because they’re careful about where they go and which sites they visit. So if you see a link or receive an email saying “OMG this video totally offends xyz religion!” you’re an idiot if you click it and don’t want to be offended. You have no one but yourself to blame since you had full warning. You deliberately touched a hot stove that you didn’t have to knowing that you would get burnt. And then later you turn around and blame someone else for your pain.
Take some responsibility. You caused that pain to yourself. You chose to cause that pain to yourself. Your problem.
Bottom line: The pain caused by “offence” doesn’t even come close to physical pain. And most of the time, the “offense” is directed towards a group or even a religion – not towards a single individual personally. It’s easy to bear, easy to avoid, and easier to ignore. To compare it with a real wound on the body which causes guaranteed pain that cannot be avoided or disengaged from, is perverse.
Don’t accept this illogic. This basic premise must be challenged and thrown down for good. Mature adults are expected to protect their own mind. Let the state protect the body.