Freedom To Offend


Image from HuffPost Young Voices

Recently, two university students, Abishek Phadnis and Chris Moos, found themselves being forced to leave a school event at London School of Economics (LSE) for wearing T-shirts depicting Jesus and Mohammed in a satirical cartoon.  Both students belong to the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist student society at LSE.

Initially, they were asked to "cover up" their garments while they are attending the university's Fresher's fair, an event welcoming new students.  Both agreed to do so.  The next day, they came back wearing the T-shirts with the "offensive parts" covered with tape.  They were, then, approached by leaders of the Student Union (LSESU), intimidating them with threats of "physical removal" from the event, if they do not take off the "offending" shirts.  It was said that wearing of those shirts "were undermining what should have been a welcoming and inclusive event."

The statement of the two university students regarding this incident is posted at the Secularism.org website.

It appalls me that this should happen in a university.  A university, supposedly, is a bastion of knowledge and learning, where people are expected to be not strangers to freethinking and diversity of opinions and ideas.  Isn't it true that real learning and discovery is stimulated when we entertain ideas that are seemingly out of the ordinary?  In a university, a free exchange of ideas is encouraged; that an idea is valid or not is usually settled when it can stand under scrutiny of its merits.

And yet, here we have a situation that an idea is suppressed simply because there are people who find it offensive.

But what is offensive?  What constitutes an offending action or thing or idea?

What is offensive is hard to define, in my opinion.  Ask ten people what may be offensive to them and you'll probably get a hundred different things or ideas that are classified as "offensive".  What do I find offensive?  Idiocy, chronic damsel-in-distress syndrome, eating animal intestines, Barney the dinosaur...I can name more!  And I'm sure, a lot of people will not be offended about these things as much as I do.  So, why should someone's idea of what is offensive be considered more valuable or important than another person's?

As I understand, there's also the issue of "propriety" raised in this university debacle.  It was said that it's already improper to be wearing those kind of shirts in an event that is held to welcome new students.  Those shirts, allegedly, bore statements that can make certain population of the new students, specifically the muslims, feel unwelcome as they are sensitive regarding criticisms of their faith and their prophet.

And that's actually where most problems begin: when people hold ideas as sacred that it cannot be scrutinized in whatever way.  When people think so highly of ideas that they neglect people and their rights, it becomes a dangerous precedent.  That is when people start killing other people because of an idea put on a pedestal, like religion.

We all have the right to speak our minds and to believe in whatever we want to believe in.  Whether people want to believe in flying saucers, UFOs, celebrities, conspiracy theories, Jesus or Mohammed, it is their right and nobody can take that away.  People can use whatever resources are available to them, whether books, the pulpit, school, or the internet to declare these beliefs.  However, what people should always remember is that everybody has this freedom too.  Their beliefs may be scrutinized by others and nothing is sacred.  The truth of this "belief" or idea should be able to stand this scrutiny in order to be valid.  If it doesn't, then just accept the limits of the "beliefs" or "idea".

We are also taught to say "nice things" all the time, to promote healthy personal relationships with other people.  But if we have to do so all the time, how can changes be instituted?  How can we point out what needs to be changed or revised, if we're always in fear of "offending" the sensibilities of other people?

I remember a commenter saying that this situation at LSE should be read in context.  Since the event is a social event to welcome new students, it is not the right venue for ideas that may hurt the sensibilities of others, making them feel unwelcome.  My answer to that is this:
"If in that event, I find someone wearing a shirt that says, 'homosexuality is a sin', then I'd be offended.  Very much offended, in fact.  But will I ask the authorities to throw that person out?  No.  What I will do is to look for that person again and have a photo taken with him or her, with me wearing a shirt that says, 'Gays are born that way. Get over it.' See the difference?"
This is what we're missing a lot nowadays: a healthy sense of humor.

If you think that LSE should apologize for the mistreatment of Abishek Phadnis and Chris Moos, please sign the petition found at Change.org.

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