The Freedom to be Offensive
All revolutions ultimately devour their own midwives; this is true both in the physical and philosophical sense. Paths started down with the noblest of intentions will invariably lead to places the walker never imagined they would go. Bourgeois French intellectuals began a rebellion against a royal dynasty they felt unfairly taxed them to pay for their vainglorious wars and the end result was an Emperor who selfishly tried to conquer all of Europe, bankrupting France of both money and men in the process. Russian intelligentsia plotted to bring about a worldwide revolution that would create an eventual withering away of the state in favour of global cooperative anarchy and this led to the rise of the most totalitarian entity in history. The liberal revolution of the past few centuries is no exception to this rule.
If you require proof look no further than modern day liberalism’s relationship with free speech. The original thinkers of the philosophy, for all that they held a flawed conception of human nature, were unabashed defenders of free speech; indeed, the idea that man could say what he wished no matter what religious creed or political authority he offended was one of the central arguments they advanced. Living in an age where blasphemy laws still held power, and to criticism the monarch could see a man thrown in jail, the philosophes very much prized freedom of speech as a concept, and were unafraid to make the case for it.
Sadly, if you look at the contemporary heirs to their legacy you will find no trace of this past conviction. Go to any university campus, and sadly you will find our modern day social activists and liberal advocates dedicating much of their time not to encouraging discussion and debate, but instead to stamping it out. Trigger warnings and safe spaces have become the new star chambers of modernity. Equity dons stand by at student government meetings waiting to offer consolation and counselling to any of the little dears who might be traumatized by having someone mildly disagree with them. Viewings of “the Vagina Monologues” have been banned out of concern the play might be offensive to “women who happen not to have vaginas”. It would seem that to our budding modern day social justice warriors, the greatest injustice to be fought is the terrifying menacing chance that they might one day be confronting by someone or something that will challenge their preconceptions of how the world is or otherwise say something they disagree with or dislike. If the stereotype of the modern day conservative is a curmudgeonly old man giving crotchety rants about the follies of youth, then it would seem the opposite observation would be to compare contemporary liberals to an oversized, bawling baby throwing a temper tantrum at a minor slight. How dare you say that! How dare you think that! And I want my bottle! Where’s my bottle! Wah! Wah! Wah!!!!
It has gotten so bad that such esteemed comedians as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Larry the Cableguy have announced they no longer will perform on college campuses out of frustration with the overbearing attitude of political correctness that has come to dominate our venerable institutions of higher learning (after this announcement one charming example of a worthless waste of oxygen otherwise known as a college student actually had the audacity to write a public letter to Jerry Seinfeld lecturing the inventor of the sitcom on what comedy really meant). When some of the premiere comedians of our time are telling you to get a sense of humor it truly is a sign you need to grow a thicker skin.
And this trend is sadly extending beyond the hallowed halls of academia. Bill Maher recently took Spike TV to task for censuring a joke by Clint Eastwood that referenced Caitlyn Jenner (to be clear the joke in no way insulted Caitlyn Jenner and her recent…transformation….it simply was a joke about her). When the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were brutally murdered for the crime of drawing pictures of the Prophet Mohammed (along with a French Muslim security guard who sought to prevent the massacre), the sounds of gunfire had barely faded before the
inevitable babbling of the usual suspects filled the air saying that they all but had it coming for “punching down” (ignoring the fact that Charlie Hebdo had a long history of advocating on the behalf of minority rights and had regularly criticized the far-right Front National party). To be offensive, it seems, is now the greatest offense imaginable.
This of course overlooks the fact that throughout history almost anything progressives would consider as major achievement was once seen as offensive. The idea of ending slavery was once quite offensive to certain people. The idea of giving women the vote was quite controversial when first proposed. The old liberal activists of old were quite offensive to the established order in most things that they proposed. Even more importantly, many things were said back at them that they likely found offensive in return. Interesting, they didn’t seem to mind. Instead of cowering behind speech codes and safe spaces they took it on the chin and verbally fought back, in most cases (for better or for worse) winning out in the end. Say what one will of the liberals of old, they didn’t back down from a good debate, instead they sought them out. Were they to see what the new bearers of their philosophical mantel had become they likely wouldn’t just turn in their graves, but likely plead pathetically “bury me deeper!”.
Living in society as an adult means putting up with offensiveness; it means learning to deal with being uncomfortable and even insulted at times. I certainly don’t advocate rudeness for the sake of rudeness. A world where we all show courtesy and good manners to one another is modestly less depressing than one where we all act like complete boars. On a personal level, between individuals, I’d agree it is perfectly legitimate for people to plea for tolerance of their personal likes and dislikes. If a friend, or even a perfect strange I’ve just met on the street, requests that I refrain from speaking a certain way or on a certain topic in front of them I would certainly do my best to comply. Manners maketh man, and we should all do our best to live up to that principle.
What one cannot do, however, is demand that society as a whole remove everything and anything that might be offensive, insulting, or even mildly discomforting. No one is the center of the universe, and the feelings of no one person, subset or group take precedent over all others. Living together in society requires having a thick skin. It is time that progressives realize this and grow up a bit. I suppose I should have headed this post with a trigger warning, but I really couldn’t be bothered.