I‘m saddened by the failure of most American newspapers to reprint the editorial comics that triggered the so-called “Cartoon Jihad” among Muslims. The typical excuse rendered by the papers is that reprinting the comics would be ‘offensive’ to Muslim sensibilities. This treats not giving offense as a kind of ethical primary or commandment — “Thou Shalt Not Give Offense”. The obvious rejoinder to this is the observation that the papers are engaging in a double-standard, being willing to print items that offend some groups and not others. But there is a deeper question as well: since when is it always wrong to offend people?

The classical definition of a gentleman is someone who never gives offense unintentionally. This definition acknowledges that there are times when being offensive is not only justifiable, it is obligatory. Politeness is a two-way street; the rude are not in a position to demand treatment from others that they will not themselves grant. This is why I’m not particularly moved by concerns that reprinting these cartoons might be offensive to Muslims. Muslims are not exactly well-known for their respectful treatment of the symbols and icons of other belief systems. (Recall, for example, the then-lamented-but-now-largely-ignored destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime — or the innumerable cartoons with anti-Semitic elements published in various Middle-Eastern newspapers.)

As a general rule, it is acceptable to treat people under the same principles that they adhere to themselves in dealing with others. If a criminal uses force against others, he cannot claim wrongdoing when others respond to him with force. A rude person cannot invoke the principles of etiquette should others treat him poorly in response. And Muslims are not in a position to complain when their religious icons are treated with the same (lack of) respect they show to the icons of others.

Indeed, granting people the protections of principles they reject through their actions just undermines the principles. You don’t encourage the acceptance of a principle by rewarding people for not following it. Giving deference to Muslim feelings of offense at satire of their religious symbols, while not calling them on their myriad of similar offenses directed at non-Muslims, simply feeds into the preexisting sense of Muslim exceptionalism. Islam already incorporates a systematic double-standard, with certain actions permitted to believers but banned to infidels. Confirming and reinforcing this double-standard by acquiescing in its application (as most American newspapers have been doing) just makes it harder to integrate Islam into modern, pluralist societies.

There is no such thing as a legal right not to be offended. But, more importantly, there is no moral requirement to avoid giving offense to those whose own behavior is offensive. Justice, in fact, requires the opposite.

6 Responses to “Sometimes Being Offensive Is Ok”
  1. Al says:

    And if anyone needs a reason, how about a desire to separate ‘moderates’ from ‘people willing to throw Moltov Cocktails.’

    Martin Luther’s Writ was _hugely_ offensive. But… it caused reform inside the Church and split the Church.

    Martin Luther’s writ is _PRECISELY_ the sort of speech that the First Amendment was _designed_ to protect. Anything that protects poo-flinging as ‘speech’ certainly protects this.

  2. Kyle Haight says:

    True enough, although I was trying to make a moral point rather than a legal one. Just because some behavior is legally protected doesn’t make it something that one ought to engage in. The First Amendment protects neo-Nazi speech, but that doesn’t mean that pushing neo-Nazi ideas is morally acceptable. It just means that if somebody decides to engage in such an immoral action, they cannot and should not be legally prosecuted for doing so.

    What I’m trying to argue in this instance is not just that newspapers should be able to publish these cartoons without fear of legal reprisal; I’m arguing that publishing these cartoons is *morally justified* even though they may be offensive to Muslim sensibilities. Muslims are not in a position to request us to respect their beliefs when they refuse to grant a similar respect to others.

  3. Mithras says:

    Indeed, granting people the protections of principles they reject through their actions just undermines the principles.

    I thought principles were something you lived by whether others did or not. Thanks for clarifying that.

  4. mm hm says:

    Accidental idiocy should be protected as a most vital freedom that the press should possess.
    Intentional idiocy should be censured by intellectual rebuke.
    But let’s be realistic. Our world is not composed of intellectuals: it is mostly composed of water, dirt and idiots.
    Violence towards the embassies is idiotic.
    Violence towards the cartoonist himself would be more interesting and morally a “tough call” for *this* patient reader of all this nonsense. If he genuinely held these perceptions of Arabs or Muslims, he should be prepared to confront their wrath. If it was genuinely an exercise of his “freedoms,” he should be aware of reality as it is. He composed something low-brow, idiotic that could potentially piss off 1 billion people.

  5. A Richardson says:

    So, just curious. Did you feel the same way back when Christians were outraged by the “piss christ” and had it banned? How about Christian outrage a few years ago that forced the removal from New York art galleries depictions of Mary and Jesus done with cow dung?

  6. Kyle Haight says:

    That’s a reasonable question.

    I’m not sure the cases are 100% parallel. Offensive treatment of non-Muslim iconography seems to be much more widespread among Muslims than offensive treatment of non-Christian iconography is among Christians. That gives the Christians a somewhat stronger position, in that they weren’t so obviously treating others in a way they were unwilling to be treated themselves. And I don’t recall Christian mobs burning down art galleries or the pope issuing death threats against the artist who did “Piss Christ”. (There is also a difference between producing an offensive artwork using private resources and doing so with taxpayer money. Being forced to, in effect, pay to offend yourself would be galling in the extreme. I don’t know whether or to what extent the cases you refer to were subsidized with public money, so that point may or may not apply.)

    If someone does something you find offensive, there’s nothing wrong with saying that you find it offensive. There is something wrong with threatening people with physical force when they do something you find offensive, and there’s something hypocritical about being hypersensitive yourself while offending others in a basically identical way on an ongoing basis.

    That said, I thought the Christian outrage against “Piss Christ” was overblown. It was bad art, designed purely for shock value — fundamentally childish. As such, the most appropriate response would have been to ignore it. Had that happened, it would have rapidly vanished into well-deserved obscurity. Reaction to offense should be proportional, and that was not. (Of course, burning down embassies and declaring international boycotts in response to some relatively tame cartoons is even more out of proportion.)

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