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Kosmopolis Institute Publications Day 18: It is very, very easy not to be offended by a book. You just have to shut it

Day 18: It is very, very easy not to be offended by a book. You just have to shut it

(Photo from Mandela House)

“’I want to live in a democracy but I never want to be offended again.’ Well you’re an idiot”, rants comedian Steve Hughes. He carries on: “How do you make a law about offending people? How do you make it an offense to offend people? Being offended is subjective. It has everything to do with you as an individual or a collective, or a group or a society or a community. Your moral conditioning, your religious beliefs. What offends me may not offend you. And you want to make laws about this? I’m offended when I see boy bands for god sake!”

The first time I heard this, some months ago, I laughed so hard I choked on my cigarette smoke. The words came back to me last night (fortunately without a smoke between my lips) when I sat contemplating the day’s lectures by Ram on The Pluralism Effect. I thought about the demonstrations following the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting “offensive” cartoons about the prophet Mohammed. [I only put the term “offensive” in inverted commas not because I don’t think they’re “offensive”, but because the term “offensive” is the subject of my musing.] The usual public rhetoric challenging so-called freedom of speech issues often includes the phrases “I found it offensive” or “I was offended”.

In a world dragging itself away from the realism of totalitarianism and the idealism of multiculturalism towards a more cynical secularized pluralism, is it possible to try, in the words of Hughes, to “make a law about offending people”? It might be a civic responsibility of good citizenship to be sensitive towards others, but is it realistic to attempt to legalise or constitutionalize such behavior? The problem is: where do we draw the line. In a pluralist society that gears itself towards accepting diversity, embracing minorities, and protecting cultures, is it possible to not offend someone somewhere at sometime?

The novel Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, tells of a dystopian anti-intellectual society similar to the Orwellian Nineteen Eighty-Four state, where books are banned and systematically burned when found. The reader finds out very soon that the root of the burning of the books was due to the society’s attempt to eliminate “cultural offenses” through enforced political correctness. The assumption is that every book ever written has an aspect of subjectivity, and almost inevitably that very subjectivity could cause offense. Thus Shakespeare’s work could be seen as offensive towards woman, Mark Twain could offend people on the grounds of racism, and any religious texts could leave other religions offended in some way or another. Thus in this fictional society striving towards sensitivity towards diversity, books were banned, which lead to a society of unintelligent hedonists incapable of any form of critical thought.

If the pluralist society starts to accept laws of exclusivity rather than inclusivity, I really do wonder whether they might slowly be veering towards the path of the book-burners. If the outcries continue against satirical cartoons, against the practices of religious minorities, against the use of music as a form of expression, then we had better start memorizing the books in our bookshelves. On the other hand, as somebody mentioned in class today, “simply because something is a right, it doesn’t mean that you have to exercise it”.

And to finish off with Steve Hughes once more: “I’m offended when I see boy bands for god sake! It’s a valid offense, I’m offended. They’re corporate shells, posing as musicians to further a modeling career and frankly I’m disgusted. But what am I going to do, call the cops? ‘Hello, it’s me again. They’re on the telly this time. Five of them, that’s it. Yeah, white suits, dancing like girls, that’s them. Five minutes and I’ll be out at the front door, traumatized. Bye.’”

Helen-Mary Cawood