Monday, October 18, 2010

Being Offended

In Grand Junction, Colorado a billboard showing images of President Obama in an unfavorable light was taken down after the owner apparently received threats of violence. Now to be clear about it, I think that billboard was over the top. It did nothing to advance reasonable dialogue and in fact probably aided those who support the president. Though I oppose Obama I think it was counterproductive. However that is not the real issue here. The issue is freedom of speech vs. what some people seem to perceive as a right not to be offended. In fact one opponent of the billboard said, "If it offends people, you do have a certain obligation to take it down...”

Even a little thought should show the fallacy of such a criterion. It implies that people have the right not to be offended. That makes the issue one of how people react rather than of the actions taken by the alleged offender. It gives the “offended” person complete control over what is not allowed. I could say that they way you comb your hair offends me so you better change that. Or I could claim to be offended by the color of your car. I may be offended by advertising for politicians I don't like. Note that those complaints are based on my reaction, not on anything the “guilty” party has done.

Imagine a world in which guilt is based not on the actions of the accused but on how people react to those actions. How might you manage your life so as to avoid trouble in such a world? You cannot, no matter what you do someone may claim it offends him. Even worse, you cannot know how they will react before you take the action. There will always be someone who can claim to be offended. That has the effect of an ex post facto law. You might do something you consider quite reasonable such as planting a vegetable garden. You might even ask your neighbors what they think of the idea and they might agree before you plant it. Then when it starts to grow a neighbor decides he really doesn't like the sight of corn and you should have planted flowers. He is offended and you are guilty of causing offense, even though you could not know beforehand he that would be offended.

In fact, taken to the extreme this could create the equivalent of a bill of attainder. Someone may decide that he doesn't like you and is offended by the sight of you. He is offended by your person, not your actions. You are guilty based on who you are, not on what you do.

This gets even worse. If you are accused of offending someone how can you defend yourself? There is no external evidence available. If the accuser claims you stole his grocery money the courts will ask for evidence. However what if you are accused of offending him what evidence might be considered? I could claim that you offend me and who is to say if I am telling the truth or lying? I might just be trying to get back at you or to gain some advantage for myself.

People have a right to their feelings and if they feel offended that is also their right. However they should not use that feeling to accuse others or as cause for legal action. They may complain about what someone did or said but their feelings are their own, unverifiable and not useable as a basis for action by anyone else.

There is yet more to this however. Some people seem to be professionally offended. They make a career out of it, either by constant complaining to get what they want or sometimes even by making money from being offended. Jesse Jackson is one that I suspect falls in this category. If there is even a chance a black person has been discriminated against he likes to show up to offer his advice and stir up demonstrators. He seems to do that based on the assumption that racism is involved, ignoring other possible causes for the perceived offense.

For example Jackson (and many others) was professionally offended in 2006 when three Duke Lacrosse players were accused of raping a black woman. He jumped in with complaints about spoiled white boys abusing minorities. I don't know how much his Rainbow/PUSH coalition collected by fund raising as a result but in that case his being offended was the result of a rush to judgment. It turned out that the accused were not guilty. Two of them had solid alibis and the “victim's” story had more holes than a chunk of Swiss cheese. Worse, as an indication of how professionally offended some people were, the taxi driver who provided the alibi was excoriated for telling the truth – and he was a black man. Jackson and others were offended before learning the facts. The result was a suspension of the entire team, heightened racial tension, and several young men having their reputations sullied, all without factual justification. Had the “offended” simply waited for the facts that could have been prevented.

Of course not everybody who is professionally offended gets money for it, at least not directly. Some only get sympathy, others get preferential treatment in hiring, school admission etc. That leads to discrimination, extra costs and other problems for society.

We should look at facts, evidence, and sound logic. And we should never base action only on someone being offended. In fact we should ignore the professionally offended until such time as they present evidence of bad action by their accused offenders.


OregonGuy said...

It takes a certain amount of experience to see the benefit in waiting a moment before jumping to a conclusion. The old rule was count to ten. And today...sometimes I need to simply re-think, "am I jumping to a conclusion?"

Wasn't there a case, earlier this year, about a black woman who worked for the government and was found, on video tape, talking about how she wasn't going to help a white farmer, because he was white? Sometimes we need to frame a bigger picture to understand the situations we're viewing, no?

Anonymous said...

How does this mesh with your belief that certain actions shouldn't be allowed in public essentially because they are offensive to people with your same moral code? i.e. explicit images, etc.?

Hal Lillywhite said...

Prosecution of such would be on the basis of actions of the accused. Specific actions are the legitimate subject of law enforcement.