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.