About mentioning those dirty secrets, those elephants in the room!

Call For A New Virtue: “Thou Shalt Offend!” (6)

November 29th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Human Rights

Button Pushed:  Report in Toronto’s Globe and Mail by Carly Weeks in the November 19, 2008 edition of the paper. “Your friend’s new fuchsia fedora might be hideous. But don’t call it gay, or you might get a language lesson from the conversation cops. Students at Queen’s University who sprinkle their dialogue with an assortment of “homo” or “retarded” could find out the hard way that not everyone finds their remarks acceptable. The Kingston university has hired student facilitators to step in when they overhear homophobic slurs, remarks bashing women or racially tinged insults, along with an array of other language that could be deemed offensive. That means tête-à-têtes in the residence hallways may no longer be just between friends.”


“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist” —Salmon Rushdie

It seems that at Queen’s University if a student uses the phrase “That’s so gay” or calls someone or something “retarded” or avoids a classmate’s birthday party for “faith-based reasons”, and is caught doing so by a hired “facilitator” snooping those hallowed halls eavesdropping for potentially politically-incorrect speech, that offending student is promptly confronted and an attempt is made at “re-education”.

Have academics completely lost their marbles? Apparently in their delusional dementia they’ve ‘reasoned’ that just because tenure allows them free speech, there is no reason such liberty should be extended to students—naïfs who may not have been, unlike themselves, sufficiently tamed into self-censorship. They seem to feel that there is great danger in saying something that conceivably could offend anyone, even someone eavesdropping on a private conversation. So it just makes sense to keep them youngsters under surveillance until they too become effective self-censors. Ah, it is such a very old and effective autocratic principle: I can say whatever I want, but you dare not. Why, you ask? Because your Big Brother (in this case armed with a PhD) knows best what it is safe to say.

When universities—allegedly the bastions of free speech—are taking the lead in the movement against freedom of expression, we are all in deep trouble. It is, of course, naïve to expect really significant, meaningful ideas to spring from the arid soil of contemporary universities—with the usual exception of the ‘hard sciences’. Universities are by their nature conservative, even reactionary. Even in the sometimes idealized past the university has not really been a nurturing environment for important ideas—in fact universities have often been the enemy of originality in intellectual endeavour. Few of the great philosophers, and certainly only a handful of creative artists and writers, had university affiliation or even accreditation. Nevertheless, even though historically Cambridge and Oxford may not have welcomed any potential faculty (or students) into their institutional arms if these supplicants weren’t orthodox in their religious affiliation, one can’t help but get the impression that contemporary universities have placed even more restrictions on freedom of thought and expression than was true in the past. (It is a modern paradox that those calling themselves “liberals” claiming to offer a “liberal education” are the contemporary reactionaries.)

But the appalling state of our institutions of putatively ‘higher’ learning is a topic worthy of separate consideration. What is most disturbing about the frequent news reports on the methods used to allegedly combat racism and sexism (or whatever other ‘ism’ is currently being blamed for the mess we belligerent primates make of things) is the damage these tactics are doing to that cornerstone of human rights, freedom of expression—and incidentally, but not insignificantly, to the richness of language.

The Crusaders For Virtue are trying to raise a sometimes appropriate social convention to a fundamental moral commandment: “Thou shalt not offend!” (If they want to keep the number to that nice finger-counting ten, they could drop “Thou shalt not commit adultery!” There is less social stigma attached to cheating on your wife than using an ‘offensive’ term to describe her.) Certainly courtesy and tact are social virtues; and they have their place in greasing the wheels of polite society, but they aren’t moral virtues—and sometimes can be downright immoral. What should one think of the man who shook Hitler’s hand and tactfully remarked that while he may not entirely agree with “The Final Solution”, he respects the Führer’s intentions to improve German society?

Opinions, it is said, are like assholes: everyone has one. And, frankly, most stink. So it is best in social situations to keep your pants on and not moon others. Upon being introduced to a homosexual couple at a party, it would certainly be rude to comment on how you find “faggots” disgusting. But it isn’t a crime—or it shouldn’t be. If bad taste and ignorance were crimes, our legislatures would be decimated, and at least half the population of the whole world should be jailed.

But now a very strange thing has happened. Ever since being “offensive” has come to be treated as crime, it actually has become virtuous to be offensive. For anyone really concerned with preserving human rights, it has become a moral imperative to challenge those that want to erode those rights, and that entails being deliberately and frequently “offensive”. (This shouldn’t be difficult, for now it seems everyone is walking around just waiting to be offended, and almost anything is guaranteed to offend someone.)

Yes, this does mean that ill-informed and even nasty folk will actually be doing a public service by speaking their nearly empty minds. It will mean some stinking opinions will be aired in public, opinions which will surely send sensitive folk heading for the exit to avoid the stench. But that is okay, because stupidity can only die a natural death when it is released into the world to be tested and inevitably found stinking and wanting.

It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to be a “holocaust denier” in Germany and several other countries. Why then isn’t it a crime to express any patently absurd belief? Why isn’t it a crime to say anything where there is overwhelming evidence of its falsehood? Should we lock up “evolution deniers” or those who believe in angels or the power of prayer? Many religious beliefs do more harm than holocaust deniers—who are just a small group of guilt-ridden cranks. There is no censorship, or even public censure, if one wants to promulgate the idea that it is better to pray for a cure to one’s cancer than have chemotherapy, or to promote that wonderful religious imperative that it is one’s responsibility to kill those who don’t share your superstitious beliefs. Why then do the very same people who think holocaust deniers should be imprisoned believe that “respect” should be shown to those dangerous and deluded true believers in one “holy scripture” or another?

The historical evidence, the hard empirical evidence, is that, at least in the long term, truth outs. And falsehoods, when let out, eventually die from exposure. Delusions and nonsense only survive when sheltered from public scrutiny.

So it is time to be offensive. It is time to call a spade a spade—and not worry that somebody might be offended because they remember that as a pejorative term for a person with dark skin—and so decide to sue you or have you removed from a cushy university appointment or, if you are a student, be sent for “sensitivity training” or “re-education”. The time has come where it is morally imperative to say things and use taboo words to enrage the various and sundry anti-defamation leagues. It is time to ask why rap singers can toss the word “nigger” around, but Whitey dare not utter the “N word”—even if he is a teacher explaining its origins as a pejorative term. It is time to ask why homosexuals can offer programs in “Queer Studies”, but any heterosexual who uses the “Q word” word is labelled homophobic.

Those who find another’s language or views absurd or “offensive”, should remember that piece of school yard wisdom: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” It’s about time we grew up. Presumably, our skins should have thickened before we reach adulthood. Words may indeed sting, but it is actions that are really dangerous. And one very dangerous action is forbidding freedom of speech. The pen is not mightier than the sword in one real world sense: the sword can lop off the hand holding the pen.

Now, of course, those with any social skills, any intelligence, or even any conception of courtesy, will not ask the next Italian guy they just met if he has mafia connections and can do something about a certain annoying neighbour. But should someone do that, the reasonable reaction of any intelligent self-respecting “Guinea” is to laugh—not to feel wounded and wonder if there is any way to sue for defamation of character.

At the time of writing, The people of the United States have just elected their first black president, one of the most intelligent and articulate presidents to have come along in a very long time. He can joke, and does joke, about being a “mongrel” because of his mixed ethnic origins. I’m quite sure he’d just laugh if someone came up to him at a rally and told him he was “one damn smart nigger!” I’m sure Mister Obama knows that he is not only one smart nigger, but also one smart human being—and that such a clumsy, well-meaning compliment simply offers a glimpse into the mind-set of the one issuing it. If the person making such a remark was black, he’d appreciate the intended irony, for marginalized groups often co-opt the terms of their detractors for ironic use. And if that person was white, I expect he’d still appreciate the compliment and just see it as evidence of someone re-evaluating old prejudices. I can’t imagine he’d be “offended”. He’s a grown-up.

Say the word “death” over and over again and it will—as will any word—eventually be drained of any meaning. “O Death where is thy sting?” wrote St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 54-57. So repeat after me twenty times: Amazonian, Beaner, Chink, Dago, Egghead, Faggot, Hymie, Injun, Jigaboo, Kraut, Limey, Mick, Nip, Oreo, Polack, Queer, Ruskie, Spic, Tower Head, Uncle Tom, Vegetable, Wop, Xenophobe, Yid, Zami. Have you really done it twenty times? “O Word now where is thy sting?”

When civilization is threatened by something as insidiously totalitarian as language police, concerns about hurting someone’s feelings become trivial. One’s new responsibility becomes repeatedly saying whatever is considered ‘offensive’ until it overwhelms the language police and leaves them in confused disarray—and it loses its power to offend even the most pathetically over-sensitive.

So until we stop trying to control what other people can say, “Thou Shalt Offend!” should be the new commandment.


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